As my personal sustainability leadership challenge, Zero Plastic Rivers (www.zeroplasticrivers.com) is a project that aims to build relevant knowledge and know-how and to initiate effective initiatives to substantially reduce and if possible stop the influx of plastic pollution via rivers and waterways into the Earth’s seas and oceans which has become home of the infamous plastic soup, the name for vast areas of the oceans which are highly contaminated by plastic waste of all sizes (from nanaplastics to macroplastics) and compound types. Current research estimates that at least 150 Mio tons of plastic waste are currently polluting our oceans, and annually approx. 8 Mio tons is added to this, mainly via rivers and waterways.
To do this, Zero Plastic Rivers has structured the overall problem of riverine plastic pollution into a number of complementary sub-problems that, when combined, address the overall problem. In this context, Zero Plastic Rivers has chosen the river Scheldt as the pilot-river to develop solutions.
The first of these sub-problems is removing plastic waste which is already in the river Scheldt. The second is preventing that new plastic waste enters the Scheldt. And in order to support and manage any actions for removal and prevention, it is necessary to have a validated measurement system for riverine plastic pollution, which constitutes the third sub-problem.
Each of these aspects is very complex in itself and requires a targeted and specific approach. But they all have one characteristic in common: they can only be solved by partnerships.
As a result, Zero Plastic Rivers is essentially a project that has broken down the overall problem of riverine plastic pollution into complementary sub-problems and builds partnerships to solve these.
For this purpose, Zero Plastic Rivers has first created an overall partnership with the University of Antwerp to ensure scientific accuracy and relevance of our approach and to increase the credibility of the project. This partnership has led to the start of of doctoral research project to assess and characterize the plastic flux via the Scheldt river towards the North Sea. This research project has a duration of approx. 4 years and is funded by industry and government.
In parallel, Zero Plastic Rivers has built a temporary partnership for the design and construction of industrial systems for removal of riverine macro-plastic pollution. This partnership consisted of a governmental organization, a number of companies active in marine engineering and the University of Antwerp. As a result, two major industrial companies are now working on the design and construction of a removal system.
Additionally, Zero Plastic Rivers is working to build a partnership to design an automated measurement system for riverine plasrtic pollution. This however is far more complex, as it requires still a lot of research related to the appropriate technology. We are currently talking to two leading technology companies that are specialized in sensor-technology, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things, as well as to leading researchers from different universities. Although we have had the opportunity to present this project to the top-management of these companies and organizations, this has not yet resulted in a partnership.
For prevention, Zero Plastic Rivers co-operates with governmental organizations, schools, universities and civilian organizations to create a network of local teams that focus on the prevention of riverine plastic pollution by means of clean-up initiatives and sensibilization of people.
Although the goal of Zero Plastc Rivers is very clear and well-defined and agreed by all involved parties, it still remains very difficult to build the necessary partnerships to actually start working on the problem in a coherent and consistent way.
To do this, it is necessary to identify and remove an impressive amount of barriers of all sorts. Organizational boundaries and constraints, the mere impression of conflicting interests, aspects of intellectual property, even the smallest doubt related to return on investment and personal interests are just some of these barriers.
To overcome these, Zero Plastic Rivers has built it’s story on the foundations of the latest scientific research and results. This reduces the possibility for getting bogged down in time- and energy-consuming debates about personal opinions and ideas. Furthermore, Zero Plastic Rivers is a civilian initiave that has no financial interest at all and as such, it is not dependent on any sponsoring party. The only goal is to help reduce riverine and marine plastic pollution. This way, Zero Plastic Rivers is totally neutral concerning interests. Additionally, Zero Plastic Rivers aligns itself with other existing initiatives and framework, such as the UN’s SDG’s. And other important aspects are openness, consistency and perseverance.
Although it has been difficult and although it has required a lot of effort and time, Zero Plastic Rivers has proven to be able to build successful partnerships and this is apparently picked up by more and more people and organizations that are interested and that are willing to help. In the coming weeks and months, initiatives for prevention are planned in Antwerp, Turnhout and Leuven which are three major cities in Belgium. All these initiatives rely on the involvement of different societal actors such as schools, universities, business and industry, and governmental organizations and citizens. So, after all the hard work of the past year, Zero Plastic Rivers is finally gaining momentum.