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Squeezable Toys, Teachable Moments

Growing up, Malte Niebelschuetz spent the first few days of every summer in a van with his family, journeying from Kassel, Germany, to the sea. Little did he know how those childhood summers filled with ocean spray and circling gulls would lead to a calling — a social enterprise that recycles plastic bottles into lovable stuffed toys designed to give kids a passion for protecting marine life.

His full circle moment began when he moved to San Diego in 2011. “When I came here, I was blown away by the beauty of the coastline, but I was confused by all of the plastic garbage washing up on a supposedly clean California beach.”

Malte began researching ocean pollution and connecting with local nonprofits. He discovered Patagonia, a company making high-end recreation apparel and gear from recycled plastic. If they could make useful goods from materials that would otherwise end up in landfills and oceans, so could he. But how, and what? As he reached for a pen, he saw a stuffed seagull he had been toting around the world since youth, and Shore Buddies was born.

Malte Niebelschuetz, Founder of Shore Buddies

“The more you learn about how habits and actions unfold on a bigger scale, the more you realize the impact of personal decisions and how you can change.”

“In Germany, I grew up with a different understanding of how recycling works. It was very detailed and meticulous, and part of everyday life.” says Malte. “When I got here, I was fascinated by how comfortable everyone was with plastic. You go to a restaurant, and you get a cup and straw without asking.”

Like most social entrepreneurs, Malte began with a broad, intersectional view on big social problems. His goal was not just to reduce the amount of plastic going into the ocean, but also to get individuals to examine their relationship and behavior with plastic.

“It’s not just about creating a product that turns trash into something cute. That’s good, but it is more about openness and changing behavior,” he says.

Shore Buddies struck him as a perfect vehicle because a toy is something personal that he believed could inspire a deeper connection to ideas and causes, especially in youth.

Donating and Educating

There are currently four Shore Buddies for sale – Shelly the sea turtle, Sammy the seal, Finn the dolphin, and Stephen the seagull. A portion of every sale goes to charities that work in marine conservation, but the company’s social impact mission extends far beyond the immediate donation. The real goal involves changing long-term behaviors.

Plastic is something we are all familiar with, but, according to Malte, few of us realize its immortality in our oceans. We throw it in the bin, and the relationship ends there.

That’s why each plushy toy comes with a tag that outlines the company’s recycling process and ethos in kid-friendly images. Exactly six cleaned and shredded plastic bottles are converted into pellets and yarn before they transform into a Shore Buddy. Malte says that kind of transparency is critical to the cause.

“Innovation starts with education. The more you learn about how habits and actions unfold on a bigger scale, the more you realize the impact of personal decisions and how you can change.”

Shore Buddies Beach Cleanup

By showing how an empty plastic bottle can be reborn as a new friend, Malte is taking a problem as vast the ocean and making it tangible and actionable. He believes this visualization process is integral to tackling abstract problems that can overwhelm people and cause them to back away.

“People care about the planet, but if you tell them only 9 percent of plastic gets recycled and that we need to reduce CO2 emissions, they disengage. That’s too big. But if you tell them that, to a turtle underwater, a plastic bag looks like an edible jellyfish, they get it, and they’ll treat that bag differently.”

Empowering Future Generations

Sea turtle with plastic bag

Malte is especially impressed by how fiercely children have latched onto Shore Buddies’ commitment to ocean wellness. The company brings the toys alive through interactive school visits and an online adventure show.

With the help of organizational partners like Ocean Connect, Shore Buddies is able to engage kids everywhere in conversations about recycling and marine life through activities like “Whale Trivia” and videotaped boat tours.

Malte knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he recruited like-minded young adults to star in episodes that highlight beach culture around the world. This has given his business flexibility. As coastlines shut down in the United States due to the global pandemic, Casey Turner, an official Shore Buddies Ocean Ambassador, hopped online from Bali to share expansive views with kids watching online.

This developing facet of the business is what he is most proud of. “We have 12-year-old kids around the world reading to their friends and families about ocean plastic as part of our global ambassador program.”

And what do parents think about this? “I’ve heard from both sides. Parents and grandparents thankful that their kids are inspired to take action, but also some who are angry,” he shares. “I got an email from a parent whose child refused to get out of the car because she forgot to bring reusable grocery bags.”

Malte accepts this duality as part of the business of change, especially around a charged issue. What he feels is undeniable is the passion, creativity, and energy that kids have brought to Shore Buddies and the healthy ocean movement – the next generation poised to make a splash.

“I am thrilled that Shore Buddies has become a platform for young people who have typically been unheard in a largely adult dialogue.”

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