Fighting plastic waste

My main motivation to start the Master in Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University was to acquire appropriate and useful knowledge and know-how to help reducing the ecological impact of our society to ensure a sustainable future for us and all the Earth’s ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Over the last years and now even more than ever, we, humanity, are not acting in a sustainable way. On the contrary, we are pushing the Earth’s eco-systems more and more beyond their natural carrying capacity.
And this is not only a huge problem, it is also a fundamental problem and moreover, it has all the characteristics of a wicked problem. In other words, extremely hard to solve.

Since I absolutely want to do something, I picked one battle: fighting riverine plastic waste. Building on my earlier post about the size and impact of the problem of marine and riverine plastic pollution, I have founded the NGO “Zero Plastic Rivers vzw” (www.zeroplasticrivers.com). Our approach is targeted, structured and science-based. The objective is quite simple to formulate: significantly reduce the riverine plastic pollution in order to reduce the marine plastic pollution, also known as the “Plastic Soup”. However, it is not that easy to realize this objective. For this purpose, we adopt a structured and scientific approach based on principles of optimization. First, we want to measure the riverine plastic pollution. Next, we want to implement systems to extract plastic waste from rivers. And obviously, we also want to prevent plastic waste to enter our waterways in the first place.

To achieve this, cooperation is key. We need to bring a multitude of societal actors together and make them work together.
So far, we have established a cooperation with the University of Antwerp and based on this, a doctoral research project has been initiated to measure the flux of plastic towards the ocean by the river Scheldt. This 4-year research project is funded and supported by various companies and governmental organizations. As such, this research project will make use of sampling and statistical extrapolation.
Since this is a very work-intensive approach, we have also initiated research related to sensor-based measurement systems. The first part of this research aims at identifying the appropriate sensor-technology. We expect the first result by the end of June.

So, the part of measurement is very well covered at the moment.

The next aspect that we are currently working on is removal of plastic waste that is present in rivers. This entails the design, construction and implementation of extraction systems. Of course, this is not a straightforward issue. First of all, it requires specific knowledge and know-how. Secondly, important budgets are necessary. But also permits are an important aspect since we are talking about navigable waterways and rivers.
At the moment, we have managed to bring together the governmental organization which is responsible for the management of the river Scheldt and an world-leading offshoring company with is specialized in complex and large-scale marine engineering. This is a big first step.
To complement these, we are also talking with an global top-4 technology-company to step in, in order to provide not only the necessary sensor-technology, but also appropriate knowledge about Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.

In the coming weeks, we will continue talks and discussions to set up an effective and efficient partnership that has a real chance to successfully address the problem of marine and riverine pollution.

It has shown that this is not an easy and straightforward undertaking, especially for a very small NGO. In this context, the knowledge and know-how as taught in the Master’s module related to “Cooperation, Collaboration and Partnerships” has been of real value.

With every step, every telephone call, every discussion and every meeting, the Zero Plastic Rivers partnership is getting stronger, increasing the chances to overcome the global problem of plastic pollution.
Now, the first steps have been set and the first co-operations have been established and the first actions have been initiated. And with combined forces, we have started our battle against plastic pollution.

But this is just the beginning of the story.
To be continued!

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We drink plastic waste

Over the last years, we, humanity, have created a new phenomenon in nature: the infamous plastic soup. This is the name of the vast and disastrous plastic pollution that is threatening our oceans and seas. Current estimates suggest that our oceans contain a mass of at least 150 million tons of plastic waste, no only floating on the surface, but also hovering over the entire water column down to the seabed which is also littered with plastic.

And this problem is getting worse fast, very fast. Research indicates that this amount increases with a staggering amount of approximately 8 million tons per year. That is close to a truckload per minute, every hour of the day, every day of the year. And this plastic waste consists of plastic of all sorts and dimensions, from macro-plastic which is visible with the eye to micro-plastics which can even enter and threaten micro-organisms. Among them also plankton which is essential for the functioning of the marine ecosystems. Marine fauna depends on it as it is the basis of the food chain. But plankton is also vital for life outside the oceans, as phytoplankton is one of the main producers of oxygen on earth.

And we are willfully threatening it. Does this sound bad?

Well, more is coming. Plastic is pervading all ecosystems of the earth, on land as well as in the seas and oceans, from the roadsides in our countries to remote areas such as Midway and Antarctica which should still be pristine nature. But this is not the case. On the contrary. Evidence is everywhere. Look in your neighborhood, go see the move “Midway” or “A plastic ocean”. But be prepared to get heartbroken.
And now we are writing a new chapter in the history of plastic pollution. Research has shown that we are not only eating plastic which is eaten by mussels but we are also drinking it: drinking water is polluted with micro-plastics.

This.Has.To.Stop!!
This has to stop as soon as possible.
But this will not happen without effort.
Everywhere around the world, initiatives to do something about this global problem are popping up.

In Belgium, we also have declared war on plastic pollution. And we do this by focusing on the reduction of plastic pollution of rivers. The reason for this is the fact that most probably up to 80% of the plastic soup originates from plastic pollution that is flows into sea via rivers.

Zero Plastic Rivers (www.zeroplasticrivers.com) is a Belgian NGO which unites organizations and people in a structured approach focused on three domains: measurement, prevention and remediation of riverine plastic pollution.
Up to now, we have joined forces with academic research institutes (e.g. University of Antwerp, people of the University of Leuven), governmental organizations and industry. This has resulted in a number of specific research projects, amongst which a doctoral research project related to the river Scheldt.
Now, in a next step, we are involving citizens to create local teams that will focus on the prevention of riverine plastic pollution by sensitizing people and by keeping riverbanks and the vicinity of rivers free of plastic. We hope to have our first Zero Plastic Rivers team operational by the end of this year.
But this is only in Belgium. And this is not nearly enough, not even remotely nearly enough.

So, Zero Plastic Rivers reaches out to organizations and people in other countries to join forces to fight a successful war on plastic pollution.

This story is only beginning.
We are all in this together.
Let’s stand together, let’s work together.