Nature and Biodiversity

These boats are using tourists to clean up Amsterdam's canals

A view of one of the most photographed buildings at the intersection of Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht canal in Amsterdam April 24, 2013. The Royal celebrations in the Netherlands this week put the country and the capital Amsterdam on front pages and television screens around the world with an orange splash. There's plenty to see and do in 48 hours in this compact city, where the world-famous Rijksmuseum only recently reopened after an extensive renovation. Picture taken April 24, 2013.  To match story TRAVEL-AMSTERDAM/  REUTERS/Michael Kooren (NETHERLANDS - Tags: TRAVEL SOCIETY)

This boat company gives guests a tour of the city whilst they clear the water of plastic. Image: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Desirée Kaplan
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According to recent studies, there are roughly 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. That amounts to about 80,000 tons of rubbish in the water. One organization in the Netherlands has found a unique approach to combat pollution in waterways.

Like many other boat companies, Plastic Whale gives guided tours of Amsterdam’s scenic canals and Rotterdam’s harbor, but it has one added twist: boat guests fish plastic out of the water during the ride. If this sounds like an unorthodox way to tour a European city, you may be surprised to hear thousands of people jump on board every year to happily roll up their sleeves to remove plastic from the water.

A Plastic Whale guided tour is cleaning up the river. Image: Plastic Whale

So what exactly can people expect from this unusual boat ride? Tourists receive a guided tour in English or Dutch of the historic canals during the 2-hour excursion. Guests can also get their hands on big nets to compete and see who can pull out the most original object from the water.

As you can imagine, the canals flowing through a large city like Amsterdam are bound to yield all kinds of interesting trinkets from their watery depths. From passports to mannequins, Plastic Whale tour guides have seen pretty much every kind of item emerge from the waterways. People not into cleaning the canals are also welcome to just relax and listen to the tour.

The idea for this unique boat ride started in 2011 when Marius Smit was traveling around the world and realized how much pollution was in the water. He established Plastic Whale in the Dutch capital with the goal of removing plastic from the world’s waterways while creating value for discarded plastic.

So far the organization has made significant strides towards getting rid of plastic in the canals. As of December 2017, the company had collected 105,105 discarded bottles and tied up 2,062 bags of waste. It’s hard to imagine that all that garbage might still be lurking the canals if just one person had never decided to make a change and take action.

Smit told Lonely Planet, “When you walk the canals you wouldn’t say it, but even in the beautiful, Unesco-certified canals of Amsterdam the problem of plastic waste is severe. Each year we fish over 25,000 plastic bottles and tons of other kinds of plastic waste.”

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But what becomes of all that collected plastic? The boats which the guests ride in are all created from plastic that is removed from the Amsterdam canals. So far, the company created a fleet of ten up-cycled plastic boats through this program. By extending the life of plastic, the program creates a circular solution to the issue of plastic waste by creating more boats to broaden the clean-up efforts.

The Plastic Whale Foundation organizes educational programs and offers free events to teach people about how to achieve plastic-free waters. This is probably the only program which teaches people that “overfishing” can be a good thing.

Plastic Whale’s goal is to "go out of business." That is, at least in the Netherlands. Because of the never-ending production of plastic waste, the company is looking to focus on creating a wider impact through partnerships around the world, especially in countries which are in critical need of removing waste from their waterways.

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