Innovators / The Sunday Times

Lankan cricket jerseys bat for World Cup and environment

10 PET bottles. That’s how many are required to create one of the new official jerseys that the Sri Lankan cricket team will wear during the much anticipated ICC World Cup that begins at the end of this month. Designed and created by MAS Holdings, the innovative fabric is called Ocean Plastic – a nod to the source of the raw materials used to make it.

Sanjeewa Bitar is the designated Project Champion for this initiative at MAS Active Trading. “Usually, we import fabric from the best supplier in the region for the players’ clothing,” he told the Sunday Times, adding, “this time we have actively engaged from the point of collection of fugitive ocean PET waste to develop a product through a 100% Sri Lankan process.”

It all began when the MAS team first partnered with the Sri Lankan Navy in 2015. As part of the company’s sustainability mandate, they were interested in addressing marine pollution, which they believed posed a significant environmental threat to the island and contributed to an ongoing global catastrophe. The Navy was already on the job – clearing an estimated 800kg of coastal waste each week through their Marine Conservation and Monitoring Unit (MCMU).

One Memorandum of Understanding later, Sri Lanka’s 1,340km coastline became the site of one of the largest beach clean-ups the country had seen, with MAS and the Navy coming together to bring 1500 volunteers down to the shore. Together, they collected nine tons of trash from 13 beaches in just one weekend. In 2016, as an extension of the effort, MAS also donated three plastic crusher machines to the Sri Lanka Navy, for installation at selected waste collection sites.

Reflecting on the effort, Navy Commander Piyal de Silva said: “Ocean Plastics is a project that will positively impact our coastline, marine life, and our coastal communities. The Navy has a unique perspective on the impacts of plastic, and we see the potential that this project and other public private partnerships have to preserve our nation for future generations.”

New collaborations with old friends would be required see the project evolve further. MAS was already in conversation with Eco Spindles, a long-term recycling partner. They knew the company could add value by salvaging and recycling PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) plastics.They ended up investing four years of research into waste management alone, says Sanjeewa. Eco Spindles worked out the technology to create the yarn, using new technology, with the finishing being taken care of by TRISCHEL, MAS’ sister company. Essentially, this meant that for the first time everything from the plastic itself, to yarn manufacture and knitting would all be sourced and completed in Sri Lanka. The team then embarked on fabric testing trials, and though it took a few rounds, they eventually had something they were satisfied with.

Sanjeewa explains that the new Ocean Plastic Fabric had to match or even exceed existing foreign alternatives. MAS knew the competition well, having already run experiments with recycled yarn. “We have incorporated recycled yarn in our production lines in the past as required by our customers such as in high performance athletic wear and swim wear,” he said, pointing out that the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy garment was also made out of recycled poly-yarn, which had been imported specifically for the purpose.

The relationship with the national team too had to be a strong one. In fact, MAS – Sri Lanka Cricket had worked together for nearly a decade, focusing on creating cutting-edge apparel for the national team. Now, MAS began testing the new fabric in the laboratory to see how it would hold up under the often gruelling conditions cricketers were expected to withstand, which included a focus on moisture management among other things.

Sanjeewa says their main priority was to create a garment which could provide absolute comfort and support to the cricketers. One of their first chances to field test it was during the New Zealand tour in early January this year. “Once TRISCHEL perfected the performance aspects of the material and received positive feedback from players after wearer-trials, our focus turned towards making the garment aesthetically appealing,” says Sanjeewa, detailing the next steps.

They knew they wanted the design to be an extension of all the care and effort that had gone into the jerseys themselves. As part of their research into waste management, the team had begun to see how plastics in the ocean could devastate marine species such as turtles. Out of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, five could be found along the Sri Lankan coast. They feed on jellyfish and seaweed, and unsurprisingly end up consuming plastic waste instead. These amazing animals could live for 1000 years, returning to the same beach on which they were born to give birth to the next generation. Sanjeewa was in awe, to him turtles represented the connection between the coast and the ocean.

“We decided to use the shape and line of the turtle shell and body,” he says, adding that they also employed abstract depictions of turtles across the front panel of the shirt. Yellow overtones were added as a nod to the Sri Lankan lion, as per the request of the SLC.

The team at MAS are excited about the future of the Ocean Plastic Fabric. “Through our groundbreaking waste-to-wearable sustainability initiative, we have been able to manufacture a revolutionary performance fabric that promises to be a two-fold solution; first as part of MAS’ progressive innovation mandate, and next as part of a high-impact ecofriendly sustainability initiative. We expect to drive this innovation forward, and are excited at the prospect of reaping greater results as our product and process evolves,” said Rashmika Peiris, Business Director at MAS Active.

For his part, Sanjeewa is proud to have been part of the team that created these jerseys: “I was so amazed to see waste PET bottles turned into a world-class cricket kit and I am excited to see these garments on the field during the ICC World Cup 2019.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 12, 2019. By Smriti Daniel.