Sydney-based entrepreneur is turning plastics from the ocean into profit

Rikki Gilbey, Founder of WAW Handplanes

WAW Handplanes is the first (and only) company to have created a sustainable supply chain in Australia using plastic pulled from the ocean. Rikki has been pulling stuff out of the ocean for amusement and profit since he was 6 when his family moved from London to Devon.

WAW (meaning ‘Wave After Wave’) is an Australian bodysurfing brand committed to reducing the environmental impact of ocean pollution. Founded by Rikki Gilbey, based in Sydney, Australia, WAW Handplanes are made from sustainable, recycled, and reclaimed materials so you can catch wave after wave leaving nothing but a cleaner ocean in your wake.

How was the WAW Handplane idea born?

“It was a beautiful English summer and we spent it going to the beach every single day. We’d carry all our gear down and spend the whole day there as a family. Growing up I used to enter fishing competitions so that I could earn some pocket money and win,” Rikki said.

Rikki’s started WAW when he met an Aussie woman while working for a marine conservation NGO in Greece after completing his marine geography degree – after a move halfway across the world and two kids later, the holiday romance has turned into a family business.

“I studied marine geography at University in Cardiff, mapping the ocean and doing coastal management. I got a placement in Greece for a marine conservation NGO where I met Lucy. She had to come back and I followed her and exchanged my last £5 for $5 at the airport.”

Arriving in Australia with scarce resources and no network to call his own Rikki turned to fishing – the only thing he could do at the beach. “I stole my girlfriend’s bike she’d owned since she was 14 and cycled everywhere in Sydney with my fishing gear. I could find a new beach, lagoon and just fish all day. I did that for like six months when I first moved here.”

Riding The Sustainability Wave

Rikki’s adventures were not just idle entertainment, but valuable R&D. After initially working as a carpenter with his fiancée’s dad, his next move would prove the catalyst for something huge. “Working construction was hectic. It lasted about 12 months before I needed to branch out and start building out my own network – that’s when I got a job at Patagonia.”

Patagonia’s business model ignited an idea for a product. Using reclaimed timber, Rikki carved out a board small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. Repurposing wetsuits which had been returned as part of Patagonia’s sustainability efforts, Rikki recycled them as straps for his handplanes. The WAW Handplane was born – a product that would enable Aussies to surf like never before. Amazed by the prototypes, Rikki’s store manager gave him his first break.

“After I’d created my first few handplanes, my store manager at Patagonia sent them off to the buyer without telling me. They loved the fact that we were making stuff out of reclaimed timbers using their old wet suits to recycle into hand straps. The buyer called me up and said: ‘Hey, Rikki you know those hand planes you’ve been making? Do you fancy making a few more of those? I’d love to get them into all the Patagonia stores this summer,” Rikki said.

That first order saw Rikki produce 40 hand planes from his backyard. As larger orders came in, Rikki realised he needed to upscale his process. He acquired a workshop and developed a jig system that would allow him to create hundreds in half the time it previously took.

“Handplanes are quite an organic shape, so if you leave it up to the human touch, each one is going to be different – but when you’ve got the likes of Patagonia ordering your product, you want it to be consistent. So, I created all these jigs to create the same product.”

Patagonia’s second order was in the hundreds, enabling Rikki to take his venture full time. The sales allowed Rikki to develop his product – made from one-third ocean plastic waste from the Great Barrier Reef and two-thirds from Australian domestic household plastic waste.

Every single handplane removes an entire shopping bag of plastic waste from the environment and since launching, the business has skyrocketed to over $1,000,000 in sales and, the product has resulted in over 10,500 kilos of post-consumer plastic being recycled.

What is the market reach of WAW handplanes?

“One mantra stuck with me. It said that if you’re not failing, you’re not even trying. I knew that I was going to fail in many ways, but I also knew that I was going to learn. And if it does fail, it doesn’t mean the end, it just means it’s an opportunity for growth,” tells Rikki.

WAW Handplanes has quickly grown into one of the world’s biggest sustainable surf brands, attracting praise and attention from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

This in turn led to WAW receiving an Amazon Launchpad Innovation Grant, which enabled Rikki to test the American market. Following a successful launch on Amazon, success on the American online behemoth’s platform provided Rikki with the proof-of-concept he needed to invest in expanding to the United States with their sights set on a larger market.

“The potential market in the U.S. is much greater than Australia. The level of participation in bodysurfing is much higher. They already have quite a few bodysurfing events and meetups. The most exciting thing for me is that it has all the potential of Australia and then some.”

With the initial work done and the USA website launched, WAW is set to take Rikki’s Aussie innovation to the world stage. And with a scalable supply chain, the intention is to discover, develop and roll out many more sustainable products which help us clean the oceans.