Photo: Courtesy of Plastic Whale

Fishing for Plastic | A New Way to Feel Good in Amsterdam, and Save the Planet

Touring the canals with the innovative company that's trying to put itself out of business

by Kieran Morris
Nov 22 2018, 5:30pm

Photo: Courtesy of Plastic Whale

It’s bright and early on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning, and I’m seeing Amsterdam from a perspective I’ve never witnessed. Eric, my skipper, is taking me out onto the canals, on a boat that proudly boasts that its made entirely of plastic from the waters around me. That comes as no surprise - you could build an armada from the waste in the Amsterdam waters, thick as they are with joint-ends and bottles and fetid old chips from evenings past.

And an armada is exactly what Plastic Whale are trying to build; bit by bit, Marius Smit, and his team of proactive environmentalists, want to snatch up every last piece of plastic in the ocean, and make it into something useful.

"Their plans for Amsterdam are unorthodox: they want to go out of business as quickly as possible"

Plastic Whale are an organisation with sky-high ambitions, who have got to where they are now with a strange mix of creative evolution, accident, and luck. Founded in 2011, they began with a sole intention: to construct one boat out of canal plastic, as a means of demonstrating how polluted Amsterdam’s waters were.

The scale of Amsterdam's plastic issue laid bare. Photo: Courtesy of Plastic Whale

There was a problem, however. “I’d never so much as driven a boat,” Smit told me, “never mind built one”, so Smit put out a call to arms, inviting everyone he could to join him in his mission.

A coalition quickly formed to help him, consisting “of designers, accountants, lawyers [as well as] boat-builders” and soon his ship was built, supported by this group of mobilised activists looking for an outlet. So they took their boat out fishing for more plastic, with a few friends in tow.

Marius Smit, stood by rows of his plastic boats. Photo: Courtesy of Plastic Whale

Seeing how this was an enjoyable way of tackling the problem, they set up a Facebook event inviting anyone interested to come with their boat and help out: 450 people, on 30 boats, showed up to dredge the canals. The following year, it was 1,200 people, on 72 boats. Smit had mobilised the city to clean up their waters; the movement he had sought to build with his boat project was now beginning to yield serious success.

It’s a curious experience being out on one of Plastic Whale’s fishing expeditions. You’re handed a pair of gloves and a fishing net, and told to keep your eyes peeled for floating debris. It’s tiring, it’s wet, and if it was on land, it would essentially be community service: what, after all, is the appeal of picking up everybody else’s waste? And yet, people keep coming back - I’d come back.

The boat itself, detailed with bottlecaps on its floor. Photo: Kieran Morris

The family I spent my expedition with, who came from Stuttgart and were in the Netherlands visiting their relatives, were on their third fishing trip in as many years. As you sail past, people take notice, and praise what you’re doing. It feels good; you’re made to feel like you’re doing your bit, and that, in taking part, you’re playing as big a role as the designers and skippers and boat-builders.

“It’s such a simple mechanism,” according to Smit, “you feel immediate gratification because you’re making the beautiful canals more beautiful by taking things out of them; and then you then see the beautiful boats we build, and the beautiful furniture, and leave the trip more aware than ever that the plastic problem can be solved positively.”

Eric, the skipper (left), and the German family who also took part. Photo: Kieran Morris

The furniture Smit mentions came about, much like everything else, with a dollop of good luck. With their team continuing to grow, one Plastic Whale employee bemoaned the lack of space around their office lunch table. Another employee suggested they replace it for a bigger one, before their eureka moment arrived: why not build a new table from canal plastic? And so, within the space of a year, they had brought in designers, developed a prototype, and started producing not just a table, but a chair, a lamp, and an acoustic panel. They are now in the production phase, having partnered with the furniture producers Vepa to turn their designs into tangible, purchasable reality.

Their plans for Amsterdam are unorthodox: They want to go out of business as quickly as possible, with the canals free of plastic, and move on to their next destination. They have already expanded outwards 60km down the road to Rotterdam, where they have discovered that their model is both transferable and adaptable to the conditions of another city. But Plastic Whale are not constraining themselves to any country, or any city - they want to keep moving, keep expanding, and then moving on when the job is done, all the while continuing to spread awareness.

A full boat surveying the waters around it. Photo: Courtesy of Plastic Whale

Bangalore, and the landfill issue in particular, is their next focus. “Landfill is one of the main contributors to plastic pollution,” Smit tells me, “so in Bangalore, we wouldn't be plastic fishing. But we will be learning about how their waste streams come into existence, how we can stem them, and how we can turn their waste into a product with economic value. We want to do that with the local community, so that the business can be both self-sustaining and beneficial to the community it serves.”

With ambitions as lofty as Smit’s, and with a near-endless supply of willing workers and raw material, it’s difficult not to be convinced by Plastic Whale’s vision of saving the world one bottle at a time. So if you’re caught in Amsterdam, worn down from revelling in the world’s largest adult playground, jump on board and join their quiet revolution. Just make sure to wear something warm.

Kieran Morris is Junior Editor at Amuse. Keep up with him on Twitter.

Kieran stayed in Amsterdam as a guest of Soho House.