Zero Plastic Rivers – my personal sustainability leadership challenge

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.

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How to communicate for sustainability? That is the question!

Over the last months, I have been breaking my head over how to communicate effectively about sustainability, and more precisely about the problem of marine and rivering plastic pollution and how to attack it with a real chance to find a solution. As this problem is a so-called wicked problem, it is not only extremely complex to solve, it is even complex to convince people they can help to solve it. To do that, I have been looking for ways on how to communicate on the topic. To start, I have created a website “www.zeroplasticrivers.com”. As such, it gives an overview about what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it and what we do and achieve. Since I had received quite some positive comments about it, I thought this website was quite OK (certainly given the available resources). However, some people told me they thought it was a website of a bank – so to speak. In the meantime and based on CISL’s curriculum document concerning communications, advocacy and education, I understand why. Our website is OK on the aspects of “ethos” (proof of the credibility of a speaker) and “logos” (proof of reasoning to construct an argument), but does not focus enough on the aspect of “pathos” (use of emotional appeals). So, some change is needed: keep ethos and logos, but add pathos. Make our communication more appealing and inviting to join the action. In search of an appropriate style of communication related to marine and riverine plastic pollution, I came across the communication campaigns of the World Economic Forum (WEF) concerning sustainability. For instance, they highly extensive, informative and professional reports on harnessing the 4th Industrial Revolution for a number of sustainability-related topics such as the oceans, life on land and the circular economy. These reports are really very nice and professionally elaborated, but in my humble opinion they also focus most on the aspects of ethos and logos. Although they are well structured and based on appropriate references and sound argumentations, they are quite long (over 20 pages) and sometimes tedious to read. This way, they are not the stuff that your everyday commuter will read on the bus or train and get motivated to act. Maybe even more the contrary. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum also runs a communication campaign on Linkedin, using short videos (one to two minutes) highlighting some aspect or problem of sustainability and possible solutions. As they are short and very compelling, they focus more on the “pathos” of communication. But so apparently, even the WEF with all its resources and experience also struggles a little bit to combine ethos, logos and pathos in their communication for sustainability. So, I guess I will have to search a little bit further for appropriate examples. All ideas are welcome!

Technology and partnerships for Zero Plastic Rivers

Over the last months, we have been working hard to find ways to reduce riverine plastic pollution. Conceptually, it is not that difficult. First, prevent new plastic waste to enter a river and second, remove the plastic which is already in the river. However, the practical implementation of this conceptually simple and straightforward approach is extremely complex and difficult. For this purpose, we have cut the overall approach into different parts. Part 1 concerns measuring the actual plastic pollution of a river. Part 2 is about removing existing plastic waste from a river. And part 3 consists of preventing new plastic waste to enter a river.
Each of these three “partial problems” constitute a challenging problem on their own. Due to the multidisciplinary character, cooperation of different actors from industry, government, academia and civilian organisations is necessary.

First, we have been focusing on the aspect of removal of riverine plastic pollution. The first step was to bring this issue to the attention of relevant partners. To do this, we needed a concrete pilotproject which we have found in the plastic pollution of the river Scheldt in Belgium. We have then contacted “De Vlaamse Waterweg” (www.vlaamsewaterweg.be) which is the governmental organisation that manages the river Scheldt. We then have contacted a number of companies in the domain of marine engineering (e.g.: http://www.demegroup.com) to discuss the topic. Building on these discussions, “De Vlaamse Waterweg” has issued a request for proposal for the design, construction and implementaton of actual systems for the effective and efficient removal of riverine plastic pollution. As a result, a number of important companies have taken up the challenge and are ready to start the construction of such removal systems (see the following link (in Dutch): https://www.tijd.be/ondernemen/milieu-energie/deme-klaar-om-plastic-op-schelde-te-vangen/10086225.html). And other companies are also working to design and build systems for the removal of riverine plastic pollution at industrial scale.

Although Zero Plastic Rivers initiated this initiative by clearly articulating the problem and by contacting and bringing together the appropriate parties, the next steps of this story are entirely in the hands of the involved companies and organisations.
So, Zero Plastic Rivers is now focusing on the following aspect of the overall problem, i.e. measuring plastic pollution of a river by means of an automated and sensor-based measurement system. This task is even more complex as it requires not only marine engineering, but also high-tech such as e.g. sensor technology that can detect all kinds of plastic waste in a river (characterized by factors such as turbidity, tidal effects, naval traffic, …), artificial intelligence and Internet-of-Things.

To cope with this complexity, we are talking with a number of relevant technology companies (such as Fujitsu: http://www.fujitsu.com) and companies active in marine engineering. Over the next weeks, a number of important meetings are planned to bring us closer to a partnership that is capable to design and build such a complex measurement system.

If we could actually bring this into reality, this would be a first, as this has never been done before.

Cross fingers and one step at a time!

You can find more information on our website: http://www.zeroplasticrivers.com.

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!

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.