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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