What do broken wetsuits, punctured bicycle inner tubes and fishing waste have in common? Besides the fact that they’re extremely difficult to recycle traditionally, all of these materials now form the basis of three unique, sustainable micro-businesses in Wales.

Undeterred by such challenges, a number of Welsh designers are helping to save this waste from incineration and landfill in order to give it a new lease of life.

Wetsuits to backpacks

The National Wales: Ffion McCormick-Edwards, from Swansea, has created Barefoot.Tech.Ffion McCormick-Edwards, from Swansea, has created Barefoot.Tech.

Twenty-two year-old waterskiing enthusiast Ffion McCormick-Edwards from Swansea is the person behind Barefoot.Tech. When the pandemic hit, Ffion was in her final year at Arts University Bournemouth studying Fashion Design. While the world went into lockdown, she was busy working on her final major project which revolved around defunct wetsuits.

“I was waterskiing near Brecon during the summer of 2019. After I had come off the water, I took off my wetsuit, let it dry and then chucked it in the shed. I noticed that there was a lot of old gear piled up in there. It dawned on me that I should try to make something from it.

"So my final year concept in university became based around what I could do with the wetsuits and buoyancy aids to repurpose them and stop them from going to waste. When I graduated, I decided to carry on with the idea and Barefoot.Tech was born. I now make accessories such as bum bags, crossbody bags, backpacks and duffle bags out of my studio in Swansea.”

Wetsuits are mainly made out of neoprene, which is a synthetic rubber material. It is tough and extremely durable, especially considering that much of the neoprene Ffion uses comes from wetsuits which are up to forty years of age.

“Members of the surfing community always tell me that they don’t know what to do with their broken wetsuits. Should they put them in with their clothing recycling or stick them in the bin or just hold on to them? Many companies have reached out to me via social media to donate their waste stock. Surfing company Circle One now sends me its old, broken gear, as do many of the surf schools around the Gower. It’s a simple step towards sustainability for all of these businesses.”

Fishing waste to works of art

The National Wales: A work of art by Llinos Griffin of Pwythau Plastig A work of art by Llinos Griffin of Pwythau Plastig

More than 640,000 tonnes of commercial fishing waste is discarded into the sea every year, according to a 2019 Greenpeace report. Much of the netting, rope and line washes up on shores around the globe.

And it was during the summer of that year that fibre artist Llinos Griffin was walking along the beach in Criccieth when she noticed fishing rope scattered across the sand. Having picked it up and taken it home, she wondered what she could do with it. A lifelong sewing enthusiast, Llinos decided to unravel the rope and pick up her needle.

“I made a tapestry for my sister-in-law from the fibres of the fishing rope I had collected first of all. Then other people started to notice my work and began making enquiries.

"It grew into a small exhibition at Oriel Caffi Croesor near Penrhyndeudraeth and since then I haven’t stopped. I’m known as Pwythau Plastig, which means ‘Plastic Stitches’. People now get in touch and commission various creations from me.

“I hope that my work inspires people and also makes them think. I live on the coast and when you walk along the beach, you see dead animals that have been killed by becoming entangled in fishing material or by consuming it.

"You quickly realise that this stuff is very strong and doesn’t ever go away. The colours of the fishing rope also makes it exciting and versatile to work with. At least by taking it off the beach and turning it into something that can go on somebody’s wall to be appreciated, you’ve removed the harm that it’s doing to the environment. Plus it’s art that will last a very long time indeed.”

Landfill to bags and accessories

The National Wales: Sylvia Davies from Eto Eto, who is recycling waste from landfill into new products. Picture: Richard Nosworthy)Sylvia Davies from Eto Eto, who is recycling waste from landfill into new products. Picture: Richard Nosworthy)

For years, Carmarthen-born Sylvia Davies worked in public affairs and communication, trying to encourage and cajole people into being more environmentally friendly. Having left her career to care for her sick mother who then sadly passed away, she had to start afresh.

Influenced by her mother’s talent for sewing, Sylvia launched her accessories business Eto Eto, which means ‘again again’, in November 2019. Operating out of a studio in Cardiff, its ethos is to repurpose materials that would otherwise end up in landfill or be incinerated.

“When you buy an umbrella, what do you do with it when it breaks? When you buy a tent, what do you do with it when it breaks? When you buy a bicycle inner tube and it bursts, and you’ve patched it up as much as you possibly can, then what?

"There’s almost nothing you can do because these are not things that you can put in your kerbside recycling. They are bound for the incinerator in Cardiff, and elsewhere into landfill. Either way, you’re creating a problem underground or up in the air. On top of that, every single material I use started life as a fossil fuel.

A polyester umbrella, for example, is essentially petroleum. The same goes for a bicycle inner tube, which is made from butyl rubber, a synthetic rubber. You send those items to incineration and you’re basically burning oil.

“I use broken tents and umbrellas to line the bags that I make, while the exteriors are made from bicycle inner tubes. Plastic is an extremely hard-wearing material, which is a genius thing; the bad thing is that we waste so much of it. If Eto Eto can give these items another life in the form of a bag or other accessory, then great.

“I receive many inner tubes from bike clubs and repair shops around the capital. There are one or two drop off points in Cardiff where people can leave their broken umbrellas for me to pick up. Before the pandemic, Keep Wales Tidy would collect them on my behalf; I’m hoping that can begin again when restrictions are lifted.”