NAECO

Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

1. Name: 
Bill Levey

2. Please tell us, what is NAECO?  
NAECO (pronounced NAY’ko) is a mission-based company dedicated to preventing single-use plastics from entering our ocean.  We create sustainable alternatives for the most common offenders (e.g. plastic bottles, coffee lids, cups and straws) and by highlighting related issues.  We also donate a portion of our sales to ocean conservation organizations, and we are working on some direct impact initiatives. 

NAECO focuses on beautiful and functional design, sustainable materials and affordable price.  We create reusables, like our new insulated stainless steel bottle and high-quality stainless steel straws and also developed the only 100% biodegradable coffee lids to replace plastic lids.  Even though we sell single-use products, our goal is really to shift people and businesses toward reusables whenever possible.

My vision for NAECO is to really adopt a new way of thinking about our daily lives, connecting our habits to how they affect the ocean, and ideally reversing some of our bad habits. NAECO is actually the word OCEAN, backwards. 

The NAECO Bottle is a double-walled, vacuum-insulated stainless steel drinking bottle made from 60% recycled steel that solves many of the top complaints about other reusable bottles. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

The NAECO Bottle is a double-walled, vacuum-insulated stainless steel drinking bottle made from 60% recycled steel that solves many of the top complaints about other reusable bottles. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

3. When did you start this company?  
Technically, we launched in 2018, but I started working on it much earlier than that.  

4. What is your background?  
NAECO is actually the perfect combination of my interests and passions.

At the core, I’m a creator and a problem solver.  And an ocean enthusiast.  I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Far from the ocean, but I grew up being much more connected to nature, and somehow fell in love with the ocean as a kid.  I got certified to scuba dive when I was 17 and I’ve gone diving every possible chance that I have had.  Although I chose not to be a marine biologist, I’ve been studying the ocean for more than 20 years.

Professionally, I practiced law for a few years, then ran a nutrition education company and before all of that, I worked in artist management. I’ve always been interested in how things work and how they’re made, and why we do the things we do. I spent a lot of time really diving into sustainability issues before starting NAECO, too.  I know it might not all sound connected, but all of these experiences really came together in the perfect way for me to create NAECO.

Photograph by  Marion Michele  on Unsplash.

Photograph by Marion Michele on Unsplash.

5. What led you to this concept, what was the inspiration to form NAECO?  

As a diver, underwater photographer and ocean enthusiast, I have seen firsthand what is happening to our ocean.  

About three years ago, I finally had the opportunity to go to Indonesia, a place that I had been dreaming about.  I went to the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, which is known to many as the “macro capital of the world” and it’s an incredibly biodiverse region.  I was so excited to finally go, and to work on my photography but when I got there, I couldn’t believe how much trash and plastic was in the water. 

It wasn’t the first time I had seen that, but it really got to me. And I decided that I had to do something to help reverse all of this.  So the idea to start NAECO was about wanting to help the ocean. I wanted to help people understand its beauty and its connection to us all, and how our consumption habits need to change before it’s too late.  While thinking about what to call the company, one day I had this lightbulb moment. I realized when you reverse the word ocean, it spells NAECO.   I’ll never forget that moment.

Reusable bottle by NAECO. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

Reusable bottle by NAECO. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

6. What is plastic made out of?  Why is it so bad for the environment?
Plastic is made from petroleum.  Other harmful chemicals like styrene and bisphenol-a (known as BPA) are often blended in to create plastics with different properties.  In some ways, plastic was an incredible invention.  It’s lightweight and easy to transport, impermeable and can last forever.  Lasting forever turned out to be a horrible idea though, and that is precisely the problem we’re now trying to address. 
Virtually all plastic that has ever been created, which is estimated to be around 8.3 billion metric tons, still exists somewhere on the planet.   Because plastic is so durable, it really never goes ‘away’ and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics and nanoplastics.   These tiny fragments are incredibly difficult if not impossible to recover, and we are now finding evidence of them everywhere – in our water, in our food, even in the air we breathe.  They are being ingested by plankton, the first step in the ingested food chain (after photosynthesis).  And of course we are finding more and more evidence of wildlife dying from ingesting plastic, from fish, turtles and whales to birds and other land animals. Most of them cannot distinguish it from their normal diet, and because they cannot digest it, they often die of starvation with stomachs full of plastic.    

Unlike our carbon footprint, which is much more intangible, plastic pollution is visible. It’s impossible to comprehend, but imagine walking into a stadium that is completely filled with coffee lids and cups and other plastic items.  It’s much more than that, but imagine that’s one day’s worth of plastic waste.  The next day?  Another stadium filled, and another the day after and so on. We’ve run out of places to hide it.

Besides the environmental impact, petroleum-based plastics are can be toxic to our health. For example, polystyrene, a form of plastic used for coffee lids and “Styrofoam”, contains styrene.  Styrene is an incredibly harmful chemical, which leaches out at higher rates when heated, or when used with acidic foods and beverages. Many coffee lids are made from #6 polystyrene, so drinking a hot acidic beverage through a piece of plastic can leach a lot of chemicals. Not good.

The truth is, we are just beginning to understand the long-term implications of our plastic problem.  We are finding micro plastics in every fish sample taken from markets around the world, every major salt brand, every bottled water company. And microplastics have been proven to be magnets for other harmful chemicals. So as we look at the population growth, the production increase and the fact that nearly all of plastic produced still remains somewhere on Earth, we are going to have a major problem if we don’t reverse our path soon.  I’m an optimist, but it is impossible to ignore the effect of this material on our future well-being and our ability to survive.

People talk a lot about saving certain species, or even the planet, but ultimately this is also about our ability to survive here. For example, the ocean provides 50% of the worlds oxygen. What do we do if that changes?  And things are changing at such a rapid pace, that we may not really understand the consequences until it’s too late. 

So yes of course we want to have clean beaches and swim in clean water, but the real question is - once we alter this delicate balance, after the whales, the turtles, birds, how will all of this affect us too?  We don’t know exactly but we’re hoping not to find out.

Photograph by  Abigail Lynn  on Unsplash

Photograph by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash

7. What are the materials you use for your products, and how are they better?
We use a variety of materials, depending on the product and the category.  When building NAECO, I spent hundreds of hours talking to material scientists and meeting with factories, playing around with different materials and ideas to figure out the most viable alternatives.  Many materials that sound great in theory have serious limitations, so we really are looking for things that produce the closest we can get to a closed loop system, and we are also looking for solutions we can implement now at scale, while continuing to look at improvements. 

It started around making a better coffee lid. Our new coffee lids are made from sustainably forested paper pulp. They’re the first and only 100% biodegradable lids, which is very different from compostable options.  They don’t get soggy like paper straws can, and when finished they can be recycled with paper or backyard composted without needing an industrial facility.  I know paper fiber isn’t perfect, but it is far better than plastic, and we’re already working on a better solution. For our cups, we are now producing sugarcane compostable cups that are made with 75% sugar cane fiber to help reduce the need for paper.  We make cutlery from birch wood, as we know that most of the compostable cutlery isn’t easily processed at compost facilities.  And that’s assuming they get to the compost facility to begin with.

We didn’t want to just make better disposable products though, so we prefer people to use reusables whenever possible.  Our insulated reusable bottle is made from 304-grade stainless steel.  We use around 60% recycled steel now, and we chose metal because metals are the only materials that are really infinitely recyclable when finished.

In some cases we have created great solutions. I think in some cases were not quite there yet, we’re not going to pretend that we are.  Our approach is to be transparent about it, not just to stop short and say “this is made from plants” when in reality it may act just like plastic. 

8. Why is plastic used with durable products?
Plastic is built to last.  The polymers are so strong that nothing in the natural environment, short of incineration can break them down.  This was seen as a genius invention initially, and there’s a lower transportation carbon footprint as it’s much lighter than glass or other materials.  There may be some applications where it is still the best material, for long-term use or maybe certain medical applications.  But there’s simply too much of it.

Biodegradable coffee lids by NAECO. Photo/Image courtesy of Seeker Media.

Biodegradable coffee lids by NAECO. Photo/Image courtesy of Seeker Media.

9. Plastic can be recycled, is that a good option?
No.  First of all, it can’t really be ‘recycled’ in the true sense of the word.  Plastic can really only be downcycled, meaning that it loses tensile strength when re-processed. At best it may have one downcycle application, and then it’s pure waste.  So unlike metal, which can be melted down and turned back into the same exact thing, plastic never can.  Plus there are different types of plastic, each of which has different potentials. 

It’s worth mentioning that most plastics have a triangle with a number inside, which is commonly misunderstood to be a recycling symbol, but it’s not. It’s a resin identification code and there are 7 categories.  It identifies the type of plastic so that sorters can figure out what they are dealing with and what they can sell.  Many municipal programs will ask people to only put certain types into the recycling bin.  What can’t be sold is sent to landfill.  

For example, PET (#1 plastic, typically used in bottles) can be used to create – or be blended with virgin material to create – synthetic threads for clothing.  Which is a trend that a lot of companies are jumping on.  However, we know that microplastics shed off of clothing when washed, which then enters our waterways and ocean, so it’s actually a major problem for items that need to be washed regularly.  I’m particularly bothered by companies claiming to use recycled ocean plastic to make bathing suits or other fabrics that are washed regularly.  If true, they’re taking a supposedly recovered piece of plastic from the ocean only to convert it into unrecoverable microplastic fibers that can never be recovered.

And there’s a misconception about recycling.  We often think that we recycle when we put things in the blue bins. But in reality, no one recycles just because it’s a good idea.  Materials are sorted by certain facilities that then look for buyers for those materials, and whatever they can’t sell they send to landfill. The world used to send most of its plastic to China, which stopped accepted plastics In January 2018, leaving everyone without a buyer.  With no aftermarket buyer, most if not all goes to  landfill. It’s estimated that only around 6 - 9% of the plastic produced has been recycled, and that number is decreasing rapidly. 

The other main challenge is that it’s still cheaper to produce virgin materials, in part due to oil subsidies, so for plastic recycling to work, the economics have to make sense.  Either the market has to incentivize buyers to pay more for it, or the virgin material has to become much more expensive and therefore less attractive. That said, I do think if there are viable options for recycling what we do have, it may be a way to help reduce overall impact.  I’m just not sure there are.

And the most dangerous part of this issue / question is that if people think plastic is actually being recycled, what incentive do we have to stop using it?  So the converse is, if you now know that plastics aren’t being recycled, maybe you’ll avoid buying them.  Maybe you’ll encourage businesses to change practices.  And someday, we’ll use plastic where it’s most needed – and avoid it completely where it’s not necessary.

10. Why is getting rid of plastic so important?
Plastic is affecting our ecosystem, our food supply and our water supply in ways we are just beginning to understand. We have run out of places to put it.  We’re eating it and we’re drinking it.  And I don’t want to be an alarmist, but if you examine the population growth, with an increased per capita consumption rate and few solutions to hide or recycle the material, the effects on our environment and health aren’t hard to understand.  In addition, the use of fossil fuels to create these materials is problematic for so many reasons.  In other words, our future depends on it.

Photograph by  Jeremy Bishop  on Unsplash.

Photograph by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.

11. There is a move for many places, like the Galapagos, to be plastic free. Are you working with any countries or organizations to help continue this important step in the right direction?
In the past year or so, around 127 countries have passed laws to help reduce or ban single-use plastics, and it’s a fantastic development.  We are working with folks in a number of places, from Jamaica to Puerto Rico to Santa Monica to help implement changes and ultimately to adopt alternatives. We also support a number of organizations in their work to help enact and encourage legislative change, like Lonely Whale.  They’re doing fantastic work.

Island nations and coastal communities feel most connected to this issue because they actually see its effects daily. And in many cases, their main source of income is tourism, so having dirty beaches can result in a crippled economy.  Even though they are on the “frontlines”, the problem stems from inland practices as much if not more than what’s happening on the coastlines.

Part of where NAECO is so effective is that as the only company that offers solutions for both single-use and reusables we help provide real full-spectrum solutions, including education and awareness that leads to tangible results.  When people learn about the story of NAECO, it helps them remember to make better decisions, such as bringing a reusable bottle or bag.   

12. Currently, where is your product distributed?
Currently, at getnaeco.com or for co-branding and custom products, by emailing us at order@getnaeco.com.  We just received our first batch of the coffee lids, and we are getting a lot of interest, so 2019 is going to be a big year.  We are lining up retailers for the NAECO Bottle and stainless steel straws and foodservice distributors to carry our single-use items. If you’re reading this and you want  a business or your office to stop using plastic, it’s important to let them know. It’s most effective to do it in writing, so they have a record of how many complaints they receive.  Most businesses already know they need to do something, and with enough of their customers vocalizing this demand, we’ll start to see rapid changes. 

Bill Levey doing a beach cleanup in Tulum. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

Bill Levey doing a beach cleanup in Tulum. Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

13. Tell us about your products?
We create sustainable products for “all-the-time, sometimes and one-time” use, meaning that we make both reusables and single-use items to address the different needs and to offer real solutions, not just highlight a problem. For now we’re very focused on reusable bottles, coffee cups, stainless steel straws and sustainable single-use options but we really do plan for NAECO to be about more than just our current products.

After looking at many of the other reusable bottles, we realized there was actually a lot of room for improvement.  So we designed a beautiful insulated bottle that’s simple and sleek. It keeps drinks cold or hot all day long, and it easily fits ice cubes and is easy to clean.  We realized that most bottles have a screw thread that was uncomfortable to drink from, so we put our cap screw thread on the inside.  The experience is more like drinking from a cup with a smooth rim.  And our cap covers the entire drinking area so it stays clean. Later this year we will be introducing an insulated reusable coffee cup.  It is going to be a very simple and clean design, but with some innovative features.  I’m really excited for this product.

We also make high-quality stainless steel straws. They’re made from high-grade metal, so they don’t have a metallic taste, and we don’t pack them in plastic.  Rose gold has been a big hit, and we offer them in sets or with a linen carrying pouch.
We have a line of single-use products, leading with the first and only 100% biodegradable coffee lids, compostable cups and other café products. We’re starting to make cups from sugarcane, and we try to stay away from compostable products that need an industrial facility unless they’re the only option available.

This idea of single use, of necessary convenience, has created much of the problem we are trying to now reverse. So while our single use products are the most sustainable options currently available, we would still rather people just not use them unless they absolutely have to. We’ll be adding more as we grow, but we’re focusing on places where we can be innovative, with design or materials or ideally, both.   


Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

14. What is your favorite product?
Right now, I’d have to say the NAECO Bottle and our biodegradable coffee lids.  I love the bottle because it’s the kind of thing you can use all the time (and people do!) and drinking from it really is a great experience.  It gives me so much joy to use, and so much joy to hear from people who love theirs.  We know it’s not the only bottle out there, but I think it’s the best one made, and when you have a thing you love that you use daily, it becomes part of you. Particularly if you love the ocean, this is more about joining a movement than just buying a product.

For times when you need a single-use item, I love our lids because they really are the most sustainable option available, and they are so much better to drink from than plastic. We know that a lot of coffee shops want to get rid of their plastic lids but haven’t had a good option, until now.

Honestly it’s hard to choose.  Maybe someday we’ll have things I don’t love but in this stage, if we don’t love it, we don’t sell it. And even though we sell products, we are mission-based, so we want to encourage people not to just buy new things if they don’t actually need them. 

15. What is 1% of Planet Membership about?
1% is a great organization that I became familiar with years ago.  From some large brands (like Patagonia) to hundreds of smaller brands, it’s a great network of companies that want to do better.  And most are going beyond this commitment, but it’s a quantifiable way of saying “we’re going to make sure that part of what we do benefits the things we care about.”  We have designated Surfrider Foundation as our primary partner, but are looking at other beneficiaries for 2019 and beyond. For us it was an easy way to start early and a great way to connect with other companies that also care about more than just making a profit. We’re exploring other ways to support the issues we care about, from plastic pollution to ocean conservation.  

16. Do you practice a plastic-free lifestyle?
I’d like to say yes, and I do my best, but if we mean it literally, I’m far from plastic-free.  So is everyone, unfortunately.  I actually think that term is a bit dangerous, in that it’s a nice idea but for people who are looking to make some changes, the idea of becoming “plastic free” is unattainable, so it can leave people feeling like their changes aren’t important enough and then they give up. Maybe ‘low waste’ or ‘as little plastic as possible’ is fair but as you look up the chain, there’s likely plastic in some if not all stages of things that are required to live. Does eating at a restaurant still involve plastic?  Yes, the kitchen had to get the food somehow.  

Photograph by Bill Levey.

Photograph by Bill Levey.

17. If so what are some tips that you have?  Is plastic hidden in some items, we aren’t aware of, if so please list.
The best tip I have is to focus on progress, not perfection. Once we start paying attention to the things we actually buy or use on a daily basis, it becomes easier to see. Which is why the straw movement has been so effective.  If you need a straw, by all means you should use one, but in most cases people realized they actually didn’t. In many cases, there are a lot of things we use that we probably don’t need.  Ultimately, this is about rejection of overconsumption and unnecessary waste and better habits.  

I do think it’s important not to be too hard on ourselves but there are so many ways that we can do better.  Keep a reusable bottle for water, maybe bring your own coffee cup if you can, especially if you drive there or leave your office for a break every day.  Think about if you actually need a lid or a straw.  If you’re only buying a couple of things, can you carry them without a bag?  Can you choose produce that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic?  Small changes multiplied times tens of millions of people really do add up to significant change.

Plastic is hidden in so many items it’s hard to list them all.  But one that is most commonly misunderstood is with coffee cups.  Paper cups are lined with plastic to keep the cup from leaking.  And when those materials are fused together, they can’t easily be separated for recycling, leaving the entire thing destined for landfill. It’s the same for any other any food or drink container too, like soup cups, even ice cream cups.  All lined with plastic and unrecyclable.

Bill Levey photographing in the Red Sea.

Bill Levey photographing in the Red Sea.

18. Where are we headed if we continue to use plastic?

The dumpster.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.  But it’s true. Maybe we’ll evolve to be able to handle it.  But at the rate we’re going, I honestly don’t think so. I try to remain an optimist, so I don’t want to paint this picture of dystopia but I don’t know.  Just doing back of the napkin math, if we don’t make significant changes to the way we live, it’s not a pretty picture. Right now, we throw away around 100 million plastic lids and plastic lined coffee cups every single day in the U.S.  That’s crazy.  

I’ve traveled to a lot of parts of the world where people are literally living in trash. In some ways they’re happier there than in some more “developed” areas, so maybe it’s possible to have a new normal, but if they knew there was an alternative, no one would ever choose to live in a world filled with plastic.

Bill Levey, Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

Bill Levey, Photo/Image courtesy of NAECO.

19. Do you give in-person presentations to groups?  If so, please list upcoming dates.
Yes, although I don’t have any public dates coming up soon.  If anyone is interested in having me speak, send us an email to info@getnaeco.com.

20. What is your motto in life?
Leave everyone and everything in better shape than how you found it.

21. Website: https://getnaeco.com

22. Social Media Info: @naeco on IG

Interview by Alison Hernon, Editor-In-Chief, PhotoBook Magazine.