Meet the pollution survivor finding real solutions for coastal communities

After polluted waters at a dragon boat race plunged her into ill health, Mathilda D’Silva founded Ocean Purpose Project to find real solutions that benefit coastal communities.

By SGN | 22 Feb 2023

It took just three days of exposure to the tainted waters of Boracay in 2015 to trigger a collapse of Mathilda’s immune system.

There to represent Singapore in a dragon boat race, she and her fellow paddlers had a wonderful time on the popular island destination, not realising that most of them would end up developing some health issue or other. Back in Singapore, Mathilda was hospitalised and later diagnosed with no less than three autoimmune disorders: vitiligo, Sjogren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. 

The sudden deterioration of her health didn’t just put an end to her dragon boating pursuits. It also threatened to disrupt her work in the media industry – as a TV producer, radio presenter, singer, emcee and voiceover artist.

“Having vitiligo is relatively easier to manage, but having muscular spasms that affect the way I walk, talk or sing is a bit difficult for someone like me,” Mathilda says. “I’ve always been a communicator facing clients and audiences.”

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Mathilda is a singer who rose to fame as a finalist on Singapore Idol. She has sung for royals and presidents, at weddings and old folk’s homes, adept at everything from pop and R&B to rock and heavy metal.

It was a mystery what exactly had made everybody sick, but a likely explanation surfaced a few years later, when news broke that Boracay would be closed for six months to deal with its pollution issues. Because the island’s tourism boom had exerted an unbearable strain on its infrastructure, businesses had shockingly been draining raw sewage directly into the ocean.

As Mathilda came to terms with her condition and processed the horrors of ocean pollution so close to home, she sought to find healing amid the calamity. Resolving to lend her voice and dedicate her energy to ocean conservation, she founded Ocean Purpose Project, a social enterprise aimed at bringing real solutions to coastal communities devastated by pollution.

Mathilda founded Ocean Purpose Project to bring real solutions to the issue of ocean pollution.

Turning plastics into fuel

At Ocean Purpose Project, Mathilda’s team looks at piloting community-based solutions that can eventually be implemented at scale. While the world has no shortage of potentially gamechanging technology, her team’s role is to be a bridge between that innovation and the practical realities of communities on the ground.

“We spend a lot of time speaking to researchers and specialists from around the world – Indonesia, India, Portugal, Germany, Iceland – and what we do is amalgamate industry expertise with indigenous knowledge to create solutions,” Mathilda shares. 

Prior to Ocean Purpose Project, she was involved in a project on Medang Island, which is located 200km east of Bali. Asia faces an ocean plastic crisis, supplying over 80% of the waste plastic that enters the world’s oceans. On Medang Island, massive amounts of this plastic wash ashore daily, sometimes piling up two to three metres high.

It was here that Mathilda witnessed firsthand how a practical solution can dramatically impact a community. When a plastic-to-fuel machine was introduced to heat and convert unsorted waste plastic into kerosene, the islanders were incentivised to clean up the beaches and turn the trash into a source of energy that could earn them money. 

Yet, the solution was far from ideal. In 2020, Ocean Purpose Project joined the Shell StartUp Engine programme to develop a superior iteration of the plastic-to-fuel unit that creates greener energy products and maintains higher health and safety standards.

The new version produces low-sulphur oil, hydrogen gas – a clean fuel of the future – as well as valuable by-products such as carbon nanotubes and carbon black, in a process being studied and refined by the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). 

Inspired by projects such as the hotel in Greater Tokyo that is 30% powered by a plastic-to-hydrogen machine, Mathilda believes Ocean Purpose Project’s chemical recycling unit can make a huge difference. Fitting in a shipping container for easy deployment at a port or landfill, the machine consumes a tonne of plastic per cycle. If run twice a day, one unit is able to eradicate 730 tonnes of waste plastic a year.

The Ocean Purpose Project team at their solar-powered beach hub in Pasir Ris with (from left) Fay Choo, Asia Cocoa Director at Mars, and Vincent Doumeizel, Senior Advisor on Oceans to the UN Global Compact.

Biofilters to the rescue

Another major source of ocean contamination is chemical pollution. In Singapore, monsoon rains washing agricultural runoff full of fertilisers and pesticides into the sea, coupled with bouts of intense heat, create the perfect conditions for harmful algal bloom. 

Excessive growth of algae on the surface depletes the water of oxygen, killing the creatures living beneath. This can prove disastrous for the 60 kelong (offshore platform) fisheries in Pasir Ris, the town where Mathilda lives. “When an algal bloom occurs, it can wipe out an entire farm of fish,” she explains. “That’s half a million dollars gone, and it sometimes takes close to two years to rear the fish to full size.” 

To tackle this problem, Mathilda’s team is turning to a nature-based solution: growing seaweed and mussels as natural biofilters that absorb algae, toxins and excess nutrients. Starting with one of the fishermen in Pasir Ris, Ocean Purpose Project has put in place over 200 ropes of seaweed and mussels to line the perimeter of his farm like an underwater bead curtain.

Furthermore, Mathilda hopes these seaweed and mussel lines will serve as secondary crops that are harvested and used to produce eco-friendly chemicals and materials such as bioleathers and single-use bioplastics.

Seaweed and mussels absorb pollutants and can be harvested to create biomaterials.

Stepping onto the world stage

As word of Ocean Purpose Project’s efforts spreads, Mathilda has received invitations to participate in international platforms, with exciting opportunities to connect with experts and thought leaders from across the globe. 

Last June, Mathilda spoke about plastic-to-hydrogen conversion at a side event of the G20 Bali summit and at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. In November, she made a presentation at the Singapore pavilion of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

“We were really humbled that the Prime Minister’s Office chose us to speak about our work,” she says. It thrilled her when international delegates asked about how plastic-to-hydrogen might be implemented in their countries. “There was a mayor of a town in Cairo who looks after 50,000 waste pickers. He said, ‘Come to my town, your machine is what we need to uplift my townspeople. It will change people’s perception of us and our role in the energy mix.”  

More recently, SailGP chose Ocean Purpose Project as the impact project for the championship’s Singapore stop, providing funding support and facilitating a conversation with competing sailors. “SailGP invited their athletes to speak to us and ask questions, and we took them out on the water to look at what we do,” Mathilda says. “There’s really so much that sports and sustainability can achieve.”

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In 2022, Mathilda spoke at two UN conferences: the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, and COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

Ocean Purpose Project was chosen as the Singapore impact project by SailGP.

A sea change in attitudes

Over the past three years, Mathilda has seen a huge shift in the ways her team’s work is received and ocean conservation is discussed.

She recalls lots of rejection at the start. “People would shut the door in your face and go, ‘Oh, you’re just from Singapore Idol, you’re just a TV producer. What do you know about marine biology, or plastic polymers, or chemical recycling?’

“When I spoke about growing seaweed in Pasir Ris, nobody understood what I was talking about. Fast forward to this year: you have seaweed being spoken about as a parliamentary issue in Singapore.” Likewise, she says attitudes towards hydrogen changed drastically after Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced Singapore’s pursuit of low-carbon hydrogen. 

While her aptitude as a communicator has served the cause well, helping her galvanise communities, speak at UN conferences, and connect with fishermen and sustainability experts alike, Mathilda is ultimately interested in driving not just conversations, but real change. 

“The most important thing is people on the ground believing in what we do, when kelong fishermen give me a call and say, ‘Ay, this seaweed mussel line you do for Uncle Heng – can do for me also or not?’” she says. “Real change comes when poor coastal communities who bear the brunt of pollution say, ‘Yes, we want to drive change, and we want to drive change with you.”

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About Mathilda

Mathilda is the founder and CEO of Ocean Purpose Project, a Singaporean social enterprise tackling ocean pollution through plastic-to-fuel conversion, bioplastic production and community activation. She is also a singer who was a finalist on Singapore Idol and who has been performing since the age of 12. 

Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.

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