Ferdin Sylvester is the chief pirate and managing director at the OneEarth Foundation
Ferdin Sylvester is the chief pirate and managing director at the OneEarth FoundationCopyright: OneEarth Foundation

OT Interview: How This Environmental Engineer Is Saving The Planet & Benefiting Communities

Ferdin Sylvester founded the OneEarth Foundation in a bid to preserve the living world and safeguard vulnerable communities from the effects of climate breakdown

When the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 triggered a lockdown in India, Ferdin Sylvester was working with the United Nations Development Programme as a project officer with an environmental engineering background. Seeing the breakdown of the transport, food and healthcare sectors globally and their effects on people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, he realised that these communities are on the frontlines of suffering damages from climate breakdown and pollution.

Using over of a decade of experience in the environmental field where he worked extensively with public, private, international and governmental actors, he decided to start his own venture to safeguard the planet and address the gaps which stood in the way of creating a holistic and sustainable economy. Thus began the OneEarth Foundation in 2023. It focuses on mitigating the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems, regenerates wetlands through mangrove restoration initiatives, and repurposes low-value plastic waste into functional products, thereby preventing its entry into land and water ecosystems.

Outlook Traveller interviewed Sylvester about his work and projects. The interview has been condensed for clarity.

A Morjim Beach clean-up drive with children
A Morjim Beach clean-up drive with childrenoneearth.foundation/Instagram
Q

In your work on repurposing plastic waste, how much waste have you diverted from seas and landfills?

A

We have diverted nine tonnes of waste from cleanup drives and school collections.

Q

You upcycle plastic waste into picket fences, paver blocks, shelters and compost bins. Where have your products been installed and is there a market for them?

A

We have installed our products in a school run for the children of underprivileged informal workers in Old Goa. These include tables and benches made from low-value plastics. There is potentially a huge market for all of this especially if we integrated this into a circular model. The plastic waste of a city or a state can be processed and transformed into products that can be used back into the same location. Products such as roof tiles, furniture, paver blocks, bricks and many more.

To commemorate Earth Day 2024, the OneEarth Foundation donated study tables and benches made from segregated low-value plastic waste collected during their month-long "Drive Against Plastic Pollution" campaign
To commemorate Earth Day 2024, the OneEarth Foundation donated study tables and benches made from segregated low-value plastic waste collected during their month-long "Drive Against Plastic Pollution" campaignCopyright: OneEarth Foundation
Q

Do you think governments should be looking at reducing plastic waste in the first place rather than generating products which then have to be recycled or repurposed?

A

Governments, plastic packaging-producing companies and citizens should first focus on plastic waste reduction. Through recycling, we can manage the damaging effects of waste pollution in our environment but our focus should be on reducing the waste generated.

Q

Who do you work with to map areas for mangrove installation? What is the process from start to finish of planting mangroves?

A

Mapping is the first step in mangrove restoration. We work with the Goa state biodiversity board, the forest department, and urban local bodies or panchayats for the mapping and permissions.

We first identify a suitable site for mangrove planting, considering factors like the tidal effect, water quality and water salinity. Then, we do species selection based on which species is found and adapted to the target location and based on [the] availability of propagules. This is followed by direct planting, an easy method where we dig holes in the mud and plant propagules directly into the soil. Care is taken to ensure that there is sufficient space between them so they can grow independently. Lastly, we conduct regular monitoring to assess their survival rate and identify any challenges. We track the growth and development of mangroves over time while keeping an eye out for any pest or disease outbreaks, changes in water quality, salinity, and tidal patterns. The local community is also engaged in the planting process to promote ownership and sustainability.

Sylvester (left) talks to a group of people
Sylvester (left) talks to a group of peopleCopyright: OneEarth Foundation
Q

How many mangroves have you planted so far? Have they matured?

A

More than 1000 saplings have been planted across an area of a square kilometre. The saplings planted have taken root and are growing well in the area of restoration. 

Q

What are the biggest threats to Mumbai’s ecosystem?

A

Unregulated waste (solid and liquid) flowing into the water and land. The pollutants seep into the earth and the waters that we then consume. It’s not just microplastics but dissolved contaminants like lead and arsenic that are slowly entering our bodies through what we consume. This waste also kills the flora and fauna of coastal regions like Mumbai and Goa, destroying the local ecosystems.

Collecting waste on the International Day for Biological Diversity
Collecting waste on the International Day for Biological Diversity Copyright: OneEarth Foundation
Q

In your work and travels, how often do you meet people who are environmentally conscious? Does this extend to government officials and corporate businesses?

A

Surprisingly, almost everyone I meet is environmentally conscious and wants to protect our natural ecosystems. They may not be able to do it due to various reasons such as [not being able to meet] basic needs, their own work, or having no knowledge of how they can help and be part of the solution. This extends to government employees and corporations too. Corporates will come on board if they see a long-term value in being green, which would be possible through policy and regulation interventions from governments.

Q

What changes would you like to see on a governmental, business, community and individual level when it comes to tackling climate breakdown?

A

On a governmental level, they should implement strong and legally binding policies on carbon pricing, renewable energy targets and stricter emissions regulations. They should prioritise investment in renewable energy, sustainable transportation systems and green buildings. They should also prioritise climate research.

Businesses should adopt environmentally-friendly business models, reduce emissions and invest in renewable energy sources. They should provide clear and transparent reporting on environmental impacts and take responsibility for reducing emissions across the supply chain. They should also advocate for strong climate policies at all levels of government.

Communities should promote initiatives like tree planting, energy efficiency projects and sustainable waste management. They should raise awareness about climate change and its impacts, empower individuals to take action and advocate for change at the local level.

Individuals should adopt a sustainable lifestyle by reducing energy consumption, minimising waste and choosing eco-friendly transportation. They should prioritise purchases from companies with strong environmental commitments and ethical practices, and engage in political activism like writing to representatives and supporting organisations working to address climate change.

Children from vulnerable communities in Goa who benefit from the work of the OneEarth Foundation
Children from vulnerable communities in Goa who benefit from the work of the OneEarth FoundationCopyright: OneEarth Foundation
Q

What conversations should we be having about climate breakdown and why are we not having them?

A

We're overlooking the urgency of adapting to climate impacts that are already happening. Adaptation is essential for protecting lives, infrastructure and livelihoods. Failing to adapt will lead to greater vulnerability, displacement and conflict.

We are not having these conversations because climate change has become a divisive issue, making it difficult to find common ground and build consensus. Powerful industries resist change, leading to lobbying efforts that impede progress on climate action.

Q

What are your future plans?

A

Our plan is to design, build and prove holistic sustainable systems as working models that can be scaled up at a global level—models that are inclusive of the marginalised [and which are] built on scientific principles while taking into account the practical implications. From circular economy (to ensure resource efficiency) to nature-based solutions (such as mangroves) and conservation of biodiversity: everything is interconnected and interdependent. We aim to bring this together by building a team of experts from every field who are passionate about our planet Earth. Together we can build a planet that can be our home without destroying it and ourselves.

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