26 Oct 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Plastic Soup Surfer urges governments and corporations to think outside the (plastic) box

Interview with Merijn Tinga – better known as the Plastic Soup Surfer – who paddles and windsurfs against the tide to draw attention to the problem of plastic pollution and bring about real solutions.

In 2017, Merjin Tinga’s ‘From Source to Sea’ expedition saw him paddle on his paddleboard down the entire Rhine to show how the river gets polluted by litter and microplastics from its pristine source all the way down to the sea. As part of World Environment Day celebrations in Europe, he spoke of how this journey inspired new legislation against plastic litter in the Netherlands.

The Plastic Soup Surfer has now completed his ‘Bottle Odyssey’, a foil-windsurfing expedition on a board 3D-printed from littered plastic bottles. He paddled from the mouth of the river Seine in France to the mouth of the river Rhine, in the Netherlands, in the run-up to World Cleanup Day. We caught up with him to see what he learned, what the next steps can be to beat plastic pollution and how citizens can join the movement.

What gave you the idea to pursue your From Source to Sea and Bottle Odyssey missions?

There are many facets to plastic pollution. We focus on prevention and seek behavioral change, new legislation and for the issue to be on the agenda of the corporate world. The ‘plastic soup’ in our oceans is a result of the way we handle plastics on land. Companies play an important part in end-of-life designs.

Surfing feels to be a logical way to draw attention to plastic pollution in our seas and oceans. Last September, we 3D-printed the world's first windsurfing board made from recycled plastic.

We wanted to show that plastic bottles are found in our environment in abundance, and that deposits on plastic bottles and cans can prevent this.

During Bottle Odyssey, did you witness plastic marine litter out at sea, just as you did when paddle boarding up the Rhine? What is the most shocking thing you have seen in the sea?

The abundance of plastic litter is shocking—everywhere you look, you find it. The way in which the harmful effects of the material increase as it breaks up into smaller pieces is also shocking. Many of these micro and nanoplastics—sometimes added to products such as cosmetics—are too small to be seen.

Seeing plastic litter oozing out to sea for kilometres on end from an eroding landfill on the cliffs at Le Havre was truly devastating.

This is France, Europe. Why isn't this being tackled by the authorities? It isn't fair to point the finger at developing countries when we still have our own mismanaged landfills.

Sometimes the scale of plastic pollution can feel overpowering. However, when you participated in World Environment Day celebrations in Geneva, you showed us how citizens can make a difference with your PickUp10 app. How can initiatives like these help to fight marine litter?

The PickUp10 webapp is designed as an easy and fun instrument to mobilize citizens to ‘pick up 10 bottles’. To pressurize companies and legislators to change, we need to gather data and that is exactly what the PickUp10.org webapp does. Pictures of plastic litter are automatically recognized and tagged by the Google Machine Learning model, creating an enormous database by item, material and brand. The app aspires to make picking up litter socially acceptable. Of course, clean-up actions are important as they prevent plastic litter from reaching our waterways for example—but they still only fight the symptoms.

You say that you are not against plastic as a material, but rather our attitude towards plastic. What do you mean?

Plastic is a fantastic material—cheap, light and moldable. Many modern technologies depend on plastic and it is the main driver behind our convenience society. Yet the material must also be handled responsibly, which creates a paradox: plastic disposal creates a responsibility which contrasts sharply with the convenience of purchase and use.

What is the most surprising thing you have learned about the origins of and solutions to plastic pollution?

The scourge of plastic pollution has multiple, complex and varied sources. Worldwide, we are headed towards more convenience and 'on the go' consumption. Indeed, enormous investments made in petrochemical plants will see plastic production worldwide quadruple within the next decade.

At the same time, since plastic pollution is so visible and tangible, there is a surge in awareness worldwide. This is pushing legislators and soda companies, for example, to consider low-hanging fruit solutions such as deposit schemes.

What legislative options do you feel can be most effective to end single-use plastics? Can the return fee for plastic bottles you helped introduce for the Netherlands lead to a change in people’s habits?

A deposit fee is powerful because it influences behaviour through the consumer's pocket. Education and awareness are important, but in a world where societies are becoming ever more individualistic, financial tools are most effective.

 Do you believe in the alternatives to plastic, or do you rather think we simply need to reduce our consumption?

If we were to focus on the problem of plastic pollution, then biodegradable packaging alternatives like paper or seaweed would be very helpful in certain cases. However, plastic litter is only one environmental challenge. The use of resources—even if they are biodegradable—should be significantly reduced wherever possible.

What do you see as the next steps for the world in the fight against marine litter? And do you have a new quest in mind for yourself?

I think we should take a stand against the international consumer goods companies like Unilever, P&G and Nestlé. They should take full responsibility for the billions of single-use packaging they sell in developing countries that do not have decent waste management systems. Selling their plastic packaging in these countries means dumping it into our oceans. They should use their billion-dollar turnovers to come up with real solutions rather than pledging to make their packaging recyclable. The challenge is not recyclability, it's collection.

A sea turtle doesn't care whether the plastic it is biting is recyclable or not.

For those of us that are not as athletic as you, what is the one action you would tell people to adopt to make a difference?

Never litter. Use reusable cups, bags, plates and cutlery. Share your concerns and learnings on plastic pollution with others. Challenge yourself to PickUp10 through PickUp10.org and make your pledge to beat plastic pollution by joining UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign at www.cleanseas.org. The ocean and its wildlife will thank you!