Facing a sea of plastic in the Great Lakes, two Muskegon friends launch GR8LKS clothing company to combat pollution

GR8LKS owners Pete Gawkowski, left, and Andrew Mann.

When Pete Gawkowski and Andrew Mann decided to launch their Muskegon-based business, GR8LKS, they knew they wanted it to be about more than selling clothes. They wanted to change our world.

Lifelong friends who grew up in Muskegon, Gawkowski and Mann officially started their online clothing business on Aug. 21 and have set out to use their platform to tackle one of the biggest problems facing Lake Michigan, and all of the Great Lakes: marine debris. The plastic you see littering beaches? That’s marine debris, along with the metals, rubber, paper, and more that end up polluting our waterways, causing plastic to end up in drinking water, habitat damage, wildlife devastation, and damage to ships, among a whole host of other problems.

To tackle this, the GR8LKS owners have a multi-tiered plan. First, they’re dedicating their own time to removing trash from the Great Lakes and their coastlines–for each dollar that’s spent on the company’s clothing, the owners are committing to a minute of cleanup. Additionally, the two are planning to hold cleanups in communities throughout the Great Lakes region, and they expect to donate a portion of their company sales to charities combating pollution in the Great Lakes.

The T-shirt customers can currently purchase from GR8LKS.

“I grew up within walking distance of Lake Michigan for my entire life,” said Gawkowski, who lives in Muskegon with his wife and three children and, in addition to owning GR8LKS, is the head groundskeeper for the historic Marsh Field, a 102-year-old baseball field on Peck Street and home of the Muskegon Clippers. “That’s always been something I’ve been able to enjoy. Over time, as I got older, I started seeing the trash ending up on the beaches, and I started doing a lot of research into how much of a problem marine debris really is.”

Along with the trash you see washed up on our shores, what does the debris translate to for Lake Michigan–and all of the five Great Lakes? A big part of the concern is plastic in our drinking water.

About 22 million pounds of plastic pollution end up in the Great Lakes every year, with a little more than 11 million of those pounds flowing into Lake Michigan alone, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes. This translates to a daunting problem for the largest surface freshwater system on earth–the Great Lakes–and the 40 million people who rely on the five lakes for their drinking water. The Alliance for the Great Lakes notes researchers have found “stunningly high amounts of tiny plastic pieces in all five Great Lakes,” and have discovered microscopic pieces of plastic in drinking water and even beer.

For Gawkowski and Mann, fighting this pervasive pollution comes down to putting your money, and your actions, where your mouths are–as well as an emphasis on education. As previously mentioned, for each dollar that is spent on their clothing, they’re committing to one minute of trash removal from the Great Lakes and their coastlines. So far, they’ve completed 730 minutes of cleanup time on seven beaches, including along the shores of Pere Marquette in Muskegon.

For each dollar spent at GR8LKS, the company dedicates one minute of trash removal from the Great Lakes and their coastlines.

When it comes to community education and informing as many people as possible about the trash clogging our waters, the owners plan on holding community cleanups throughout the Great Lakes region, including here in Muskegon. During these events, they’d like to feature speakers addressing marine debris, the science behind it, what it means for our world, and what individuals can do to fight the problem themselves. GR8LKS will also donate to causes combating pollution in the Great Lakes, including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a nonprofit.

GR8LKS will be expanding their apparel options, including with hooded sweatshirts.

And then, of course, there’s the company’s clothing. GR8LKS launched by selling an American-made T-shirt emblazoned with a GR8LKS logo designed by the owners. The shirts are made from a combination of organic cotton and recycled polyester that’s created in part from recycled plastic bottles. The company soon plans to expand its offerings and, in addition to its T-shirts, will offer such gear as long-sleeve shirts and  hooded sweatshirts.

“We’re a brand that means something,” said Mann, who lives in Muskegon with his wife and four children, and also serves as Muskegon County Habitat for Humanity’s executive director. “We call it the GR8LKS movement and apparel for change. You’re buying a product that shows you’re committed to cleaning the Great Lakes.”

For both  Gawkowski and Mann, much of the driving force behind their new company comes down to wanting a better, more environmentally conscious world for their children.

“Last summer, if we walked past a piece of garbage on the beach, my son wouldn’t have thought anything of it,” Gawkowski said. “We can’t do that now without him saying, ‘Dad, can I pick this up?’”

It’s that anecdote that the two owners are hoping they can inspire to play out from Pere Marquette to the shores of Chicago, Milwaukee, and beyond.

“If we can be part of educating people, it will be really huge,” Gawkowski said. “When I wear that shirt out and somebody wants to know about the cause, it may trigger something in them and they may try to make a difference. If we can get 100,000 people wearing that shirt, it’s a big reminder that we can all do something.”

To learn about upcoming GR8LKS cleanups, find out more about the company’s mission, or to connect with the owners, visit the GR8LKS website; connect on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter; or email Pete Gawkowski at pete@gr8lks.com.

Anna Gustafson is the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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