[Indie Interview] Ally Mitchell, founder of Ocean Plastic Pots
We talk to Ally Mitchell who has pioneered a business that’s good for the environment, supports mental health, and is a great teaching tool for children.
Since launching this lockdown baby, Ocean Plastic Pots have won RHS Chelsea Flower Show’s first-ever Sustainable Garden Product of the Year award. We talk to Ally about translating his passion and story into something that consumers can really connect to.
Where did the inspiration for OPP come from?
I decided to set up Ocean Plastic Pots after I was asked to join a salvage operation in the Isle of Sky in Scotland for a ship that had run aground on the first day of lockdown last year. I’d been a commercial diver for the last 13 years and with this job, the ship we were salvaging was carrying around 2,000 tons of shredded plastic. The Isle of Sky is one of my favourite parts of the world and it was the first time I’d seen the risk of plastic waste entering the seas that I really loved. It was a real eye-opener for me and an inspiration for starting the business.
Like many families, we would grow things in the windowsill in the kitchen, like tomato plants and chilli plants. I had read an article about how you couldn’t recycle black plastic plant pots because of the colour, the black polypropylene can’t be recognised by the sorting systems used in most recycling plants. This got me thinking about the plastics I’d seen over the years and on my salvage operations. We were putting tons and tons of green and blue polypropylene rope into waste. That was my lightbulb moment that we should turn them into plant pots.
After that trip, I came home and invested in some rudimentary equipment and set about teaching myself plastic manufacturing. I added in open fishing net material and then made them into small plant pots. We took them to be sold at a market stall in Leith market in Edinburgh to see if the market was interested in what we were doing, and it just took off.
How did you launch the business?
When we started the business, we were in lockdown, so retail wasn’t really an option. We launched on Instagram with Shopify and then built out our ecommerce site.
Social media has been really strong for telling our story. We were showing the public exactly where the pot plants were coming from. We would photograph everything that we moulded so if a pot had a red streak in it, you’d be able to see the bottle it came from that was pulled off the beach, and that is where it started – showing our customers the story of their plant pots. Showing that connection in the story really sparked an interest with our customers.
And where are you selling now?
Since then, we’ve progressed to retail. When we came out of lockdown, we had a lot of interest and we’re now selling in independent stores and garden centres. We created trade packs which includes four pots of each colour plus point-of-sale material with some rope and netting material so you can create a small installation in store. It’s all supplied in plastic-free packaging.
We’re also partnering with retailers to create bespoke products. We did this with Bloom & Wild who were fantastic to work with. We created a fully recyclable pot and saucer from old navy-blue ropes in Scotland. We even got to hide a little message about the importance of sustainability on the ‘Bloom’ plant pot saucer, which customers could only find if they lifted the pot off the saucer.
Shifting from diving to manufacturing must have been a challenge?
Yes. Initially, we invested in a mould and at the time, it was a gamble – we didn’t know if it would work – but it did work, and it’s been great. The manufacturing process has been a real learning curve. The moulds generate a lot of heat and I used to mould them in my shed and then run them under the kitchen tap to take the heat out of the moulds. When we moved to the factory, they had inbuilt water coolers to take the heat out. When I told the lads in the factory that I used to just run it under the tap they had a good old laugh!
We are extremely fortunate now to have a successful angel involved in the business. They have experience in the manufacturing and retail space, and we have access to a team of people now that we can approach with all our questions – from shipping to design and more.
What is on the horizon for you as a company?
Consumers have an unrealistic expectation of the price of plastic. The world makes a lot of disposable items out of plastic and so the perception is that it’s cheap. Our price point is quite high, and we do get challenged on this, but our view is that just because it’s expensive, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We’re pioneering new processes to try and change this.
Right now, our model doesn’t work well for a large scale-up operation to supply to a mass market because of the excessive cost of the materials. This is something we’re working on. What we’re doing has never been done before so we’re taking baby steps and so that’s interesting. We’re still learning with the material and we’re looking at other sources of marine waste too.
Other than price point, in the volume market, retailers are looking for perfection in products. Our products actively embrace imperfection so that every product is slightly different but that brings about its own headaches too.
Anything else up your sleeve?
We’re keen to teach and inspire children. We created a bunch of videos on YouTube and then I was asked to be the Ambassador for Young Enterprise Scotland. During COP26 we did a few talks each Friday at different schools, which was great. Recycling is now a legal requirement in the Scottish curriculum so now that we know that our videos have an educational input, going forward, our videos will have more of an educational slant to them. It’s a dream to video what we’re doing, create the content and then create projects around it for kids to get involved in, so making functional courses around it. We’ll be working on that more.
What’s with the yellow wellies?
My lucky wellies! Photography remains an important part of our brand. The wellies have become our stamp or seal of authenticity that you’ll see in most of our photos. It started out as a bit of a joke really – I’ve wore them on my deepest dive ever in Shetland at 160 metres. I was away from my family for a month and when I got back, I wore them on the beach for a romantic photograph with my wife and all my friends on social took the mickey out of me for it, it was funny. We then did some more photographs and I said make sure you get my yellow wellies in and since then, it’s become a part of our brand. I use them to show the photos are my own and not taken by someone else. They’re also super comfy.
Check out the range of products from Ocean Pot Plastics here.
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