Social Enterprises

Don’t Wait For The Fish To Bite

Social enterprise Plastic Whale is taking tourists out on boats to fish out killer plastic from Amsterdam’s canals.

Don’t Wait For The Fish To Bite

Marius Smit’s stated business aim is to go out of business as quickly as possible. His professional goal is to have no work to do. His long-term business plan is to make all his staff redundant as soon as possible because their services are no longer required.

In 2010, the Dutch eco-pioneer co-founded Plastic Whale, the world’s first plastic fishing company and a non-profit social enterprise with the mission of cleaning up the waterways of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The idea is to make the waters plastic-free and create economic value from the plastic that’s been fished out.

In other words, Smit, who has a degree in International Marketing from the Amsterdam University of Applied Science, is one of the pioneers in the circular production movement. The staggering amount of plastic scooped out of the canal system is recycled into furniture. All of Smit’s boats are also made from the discarded plastic. It takes 8,000 bottles to make one boat, some of which feature mosaics—crafted out of bottle caps—on its deck. The more boats built, the more people go fishing, and the more plastic is collected. 

Matt Smit, co-founder of Plastic Whale.

Says Smit: “Last year, according to our recent Social Impact survey, we retrieved 46,225 plastic bottles from the canal systems from which we made three new boats, 15 furniture sets and some boardroom tables! We educated over 2,000 children and 11,200 visitors from all around the world to think and act sustainably.” 

According to Smit, worldwide plastic pollution has increased 10-fold since the 1980s. “The war against litter goes on. Our work is to clean up litter. It’s a serious business but we make it fun. Each boat competes to see who can net the most plastic on a two-hour cruise. The winning boat gets a prize.”

The process of turning canal plastic into valuable products is straightforward. The bottles are washed, shredded into flakes and then turned into granules and fibre. Nothing goes to waste. Even a piece of furniture isn’t in itself an end product. At the end of its life cycle, the furniture can be collected and dismantled and the individual parts reused or recycled, turning them into raw material for new products.

Plastic Whale offers a different sort of fishing trip, one where the catch is distinctly less edible.

Plastic Whale now has 40 volunteer skippers and a fleet of 10 boats, all sponsored by companies paying €30,000 ($46,000) a year. Among them are PwC, global payment company Adyen and housewares maker Brabantia. One boat is named Vepa, after the company that has worked with Plastic Whale since its inception to recycle canal plastic into office furniture. 

Plastic Whale’s vision has also inspired similar schemes abroad. In London, the Hubbub Foundation 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.

“We can’t fish enough. Over-fishing is what we’re about. In our case, it’s a positive phenomenon. We exist to solve a problem,” says Plastic Whale eco-sailor Jack Zuidema, as we embark from Amsterdam’s Homomonument at Westermarkt. 

Zuidema used to work in the city’s museums before he became a plastic trawler skipper on the city’s popular twice-weekly €27 ($42) fishing trips.

His crew is made up of two German students, an elderly lady from Belfast, Gulia Ballerini, a graduate from the University of Milan, and her partner, Venezuelan botanist Mauricio Marinelli.

“We can’t fish enough. Over-fishing is what we’re about.”

“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 my duty to dispose of it. It’s trendy to be plastic-aware but the fight against single-use plastic is so important,” Marinelli says to me.

“It’s a great way to see the canals. 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,” chimes in Ballerini.

Amsterdam has 165 canals which make up the Canal Ring or Grachtengordel. Every year, thousands of bicycles, a few cars and even human bodies are retrieved from the waterways. Our clean-up route today though is along the Herengracht (Patricians’ or Gentlemen’s Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). Crossing Amstel river, we take in the view of the city’s iconic Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) while in the distance, we see the Rijksmuseum towers, and pass the mayor’s residence.

Along the way, tourists in their river cruises toast us with champagne flutes, wine glasses and beer cans. Our experience of scooping out litter also routinely receives claps of acknowledgement.

While it was plastic we were after, we also salvaged a car seat which would otherwise have wreaked havoc with boat propellers. Just the day before our eco-friendly excursion, a dead pregnant sperm whale washed up on the coast of Sardinia with 22kg of plastic in its belly.

Plastic Whale turns their dredged-up plastic into chic furnishings.

“It’s nice to be appreciated. Amsterdam’s canals are now cleaner. The fish are back and the cormorants too,” says Zuidema. Over at Vepa’s factory in Hoogeveen, the Amsterdam canal plastic is turned into Plastic Whale’s Circular Furniture collection. As it is created based on the principles of circular production and design, other “waste streams” are optimised, including the use of recycled steel and residual fabrics for the chair designs.

Unsurprisingly, the collection’s design inspiration is the oceans’ most impressive citizen—the whale. Its Whale Tail Chairs and Barnacle Lamps are made from pressed PET (or polyethylene terephthalate, known to be the most recyclable plastic around), as are the Whale Acoustic Panels, replete with a pleated design resembling a whale’s throat. The Whale Boardroom Table is inspired by a surfacing whale, complete with a blowhole.

“They are very functional. They aren’t too comfortable, so they make meetings shorter! But you can’t help getting the message and being conscious of plastic pollution, the ways to fight it and how the plastic problem can be used constructively,” says Smit.

Plastic Whale’s whale boardroom table comes complete with a blowhole.

Another of Smit’s companies, WasteBoards, bakes unique skateboards from plastic bottle caps. Its aim is to operate five WasteBoards bakeries around the world. 

“This way we can stimulate the local economy and attack the plastic pollution locally,” Smit shares.

At present, 10 percent of all revenue from the Circular Furniture range is donated to similar civic projects and sustainable waste management enterprises through the Plastic Whale Foundation. Its first local partner in the developing world is Sweepsmart, a firm in Bangalore, India, that collects and recycles plastics to reduce landfill sites and to create jobs.

Smit and his young team are also looking into exporting their social enterprise to other cities. Mumbai is the latest city interested in a Plastic Whale-style project. Singapore is as well, though discussions and feasibility studies are at an early stage.

Our canal captain Zuidema sums it up best: “It’s all about doing, not talking. This year, another 8 billion kilogrammes of plastic waste will be added to the world plastic soup. We want to inspire others to take action.” 

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