Plastic Whale: cleaning up Amsterdam's canals through eco-fishing

'Our aim is to go out of business. We exist to solve a problem. To clear the litter from the city’s ­famous canals,' says Plastic Whale's Jack ­Zuidema

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Seagulls screeched. A cormorant looked curiously down at the quayside weigh-in. But our nets had no fish in them – no carp or pike had been caught. Still, captain Jack was happy with our haul.

Passers-by applauded the catch of the day, which consisted of several bottles and cans, a bed sheet, five cigarette lighters, countless crisp packets, two Nutella tins, far too many Starbucks and McDonald's cups and straws, five balloons, nine shopping bags, two two-litre milk bottles, a mobile phone charger, many unmentionables, an umbrella, a children's teddy bear, several large pieces of Styrofoam, a size 11 Nike trainer (left foot) and, most crucially and valuable of all, two kilos of PET – polyethylene terephthalate thermoplastic polymer resin, also known as killer plastic.

"We can't fish enough. Over-­fishing is what we're about. In our case, it's a positive phenomenon. Our aim is to go out of business. We exist to solve a problem. To clear the litter from the city's ­famous canals," says captain Jack ­Zuidema, one of Plastic Whale's eco-sailors, as we embark from Amsterdam's Westermarkt. Zuidema used to work in the city's museums before he became a plastic trawler skipper on the city's twice-weekly, two-hour €27 (Dh111) Plastic Whale fishing trips.

Today, his crew is made up of two German students, an elderly lady from Belfast, a graduate from the University of Milan and her partner, Mauricio Marinelli, a Venezuelan botanist, who says: “My hobby is being eco-conscious. I collect litter wherever I go. I can’t stop. I see litter and I have to pick it up. It’s bad. It’s ugly. I feel it’s my duty to dispose of it.

"It's trendy to be plastic-aware but the fight against single-use plastic is so important. When we arranged this holiday I had no idea I would be going fishing for plastic. It was a surprise and a real treat. And great fun. People clap for you from the bankside and from the bridges. You know you are doing right."

“It’s a great way to see the canals,” his girlfriend, Gulia Ballerini, adds. “The boat is electric too, not diesel. You pass the Anne Frank House, the Museum of Bags and Purses, the Hermitage and other landmarks. It’s a good introduction to the city, with a good cause. You hope you’re doing something good in a tourism sense – it’s responsible cruising. Amsterdam is your host and you are saying thank you. Cleaning up takes over from the sightseeing.”

Conscientiously and expertly sweeping her net around the hulls of houseboats, around lock and sluice gates and underneath Amsterdamers picnicking and napping on the 17th century canal walls, the lady from Belfast comments: "It helps if you have played lacrosse or hurling. This is far more worthwhile than just gawping at landmarks."

Our clean-up route was along the Herrengracht (Patrician's or Gentlemen's Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal ) and Prinsengracht. We crossed the Amstel river and saw the city's famous Magere Brug, or Skinny Bridge. Amsterdam has 165 canals, which make up the Canal Ring or Grachtengordel. Every year, thousands of bicycles are retrieved from the waterways, as well as a few cars and the odd human body.

We even salvaged a car seat, which would have played serious havoc with boat propellers. But it was plastic we were really after. If we needed further incentive, the day before our eco-friendly excursion, a dead pregnant sperm whale was washed up on the coast of Sardinia with 22 kilograms of plastic in its stomach.

Founded in 2010 by Marius Smit, Plastic Whale, which also offers decluttering cruises around Rotterdam harbour, pioneered plastic fishing. It is now a thing – nine thousand people went plastic fishing in the Netherlands last year.

"We are a non-profit social enterprise with a mission. To make the waters plastic-free and create value from plastic waste," Zuidema says. "Our boats are all made from plastic retrieved from the Amsterdam canal system.

“It takes 8,000 bottles to make one boat,” he continues. “Some boats have bottle caps as mosaics on the deck. Wherever you look, you are made aware of litter, plastic and recycling. The more boats we build, the more plastic we can collect. The more people who get involved, the bigger impact we can make together.”

Plastic Whale has 40 skippers and a fleet of 10 boats, all sponsored by companies paying €30,000 a year. These include PwC, Adyen and Brabantia, which makes waste bins, laundry racks and food storage containers. Our boat was the Vepa, named after a company that recycles canal plastic into office furniture.

The Amsterdam enterprise is at the forefront of a growing trend. Mumbai is the latest city interested in introducing its own Plastic Whale project. London's Hubbub charity has started similar trips on the Thames, Greek fishermen are now being paid to haul plastic from the sea and the EU is looking into similar initiatives.

It's all about doing, not talking. This year, another 8 billion kilos of plastic waste will be added to the world's plastic soup. Amsterdam's canals are now cleaner and the fish are back.

Scooping out litter, we pass tourist cruises and pedalos. In the distance, we see the Rijksmuseum towers. We pass the mayor's residence. And our social impact experience receives claps of acknowledgement all along the way. "It's nice to be appreciated," says captain Jack.

"It's all about doing, not talking. This year, another 8 billion kilos of plastic waste will be added to the world's plastic soup. Amsterdam's canals are now cleaner and the fish are back. Thus the cormorants."

Some of the plastic retrieved from Amsterdam's waterways is remodelled into furniture. "Plastic Whale Circular Furniture is created following the full ­principles of circular production and design. So besides the recycled Amsterdam canal plastic, we also make optimal use of other waste streams at Vepa's factory in ­Hoogeveen. Nothing goes to waste. At the end of its life cycle, we even pay to take the product back because we'll be using it as raw material in new products," the company says.

The modular furniture is assembled so it can easily be taken apart for reuse or to make fresh raw materials. And the design inspiration is the oceans' most impressive citizen, the whale."We make whale-fin chairs and barnacle lamps made from pressed PET as well as acoustic panelling with pleat design motifs like a whale's throat. Our boardroom tables are inspired by a surfacing whale. Complete with a blowhole," captain Jack concludes.

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