When people think of Amsterdam they instantly think of the countless canals that divide the city up and all the beautiful bridges that connect them together. Amsterdam is commonly called the nickname “Venice of the north” because of the 165 canals within the city and the canals were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List! As beautiful and wonderful as the canal is, there are certain drawbacks that come with 25% of the surface[1]  of Amsterdam being water. It is easy for everyday waste to make its way into the canals whether it being intentional or due to the common winds that blow through the city. However it happens, the waste ends up being difficult to get out of the canals and properly thrown away.  This is a major issue as less than 1% [2] of plastic is able to float on the surface of water meaning that the vast majority of waste ends up at the bottom of canals. Every day Waternet removes roughly 3,500 kg[3]  of waste from Amsterdam’s canal and waterways with that totalling over 1,277,500 kg of waste in a year! Roughly 40,000 to 60,000 kg[4]  of this waste is plastic. Amsterdam canals are especially dirtier with waste after Koningsdag and Bevrijdingsdag with city wide celebrations and overflowing refuse sites.

The canals in Amsterdam end up flowing into IJ, the body of water that separates Amsterdam from Noord, and eventually flows into the North Sea Canal taking along all the waste that was inside. The North Sea Canal connects Amsterdam to the ocean so once waste ends up in the canal it will eventually make its way into the ocean. This allows the waste within Amsterdam to eventually make its way into the ocean and the currents can bring this trash into the already large North Atlantic garbage patch in the North Atlantic or as far as the Arctic Ocean in the North Pole.[1] 

The issue of plastic in the ocean has been commonly called “plastic soup” as the macro and micro plastics in the ocean resemble a toxic soup unfit for any consumption. The issue has become so bad that the Netherlands could be covered 155 times[1]  by all the plastics in the ocean!

Why should it be fixed?

There are several reasons why having large amounts of plastic in the water is an issue for humans and the other diversity of species that call Amsterdam home. It can negatively affect animals, human, and the environment’s health by leaching harmful chemicals into the water. Plastics can be broken down into smaller pieces by sunlight, weathering, and movement of the waves in the canal. It can then form micro particles smaller than 5 mm in diameter which creates more surface area for harmful chemicals to leach out and contaminate the surrounding areas. Also by breaking into smaller micro pieces they can more easily be consumed by waterfowl and fish in the water. Chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates have a wide variety of effects on animals after being exposed to them. The chemical BPA from plastics mimics the hormone estrogen and operates by disrupting hormone signaling. This can affect males of many fish species by altering their physiology and their fertility[1]  which leads to increased abnormalities and altered behaviors[2] .

Phthalates on the other hand act as anti-androgens which block the effects that testosterone hormones have on the body which can lead to male reproductive tracts being particularly sensitive to this chemical. Exposure to certain phthalates can lead to severe development [1] in male reproductive systems in animals. These chemicals have also been found to impact humans by altering endocrine functions and reproductive development but there is limited data and more studies are needed to understand the full impact of exposure.

Source: https://www.schonerivieren.org/vrijwilligers/opruimers/invoeren-resultaten/

What solutions are there?

Cleaning up the canals is not only beneficial for animals and environmental health but also crucial for human health. By tackling this issue Amsterdam will be contributing to achieving several UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as SDG 6 clean water and sanitation and SDG 14 life below water. City of Amsterdam also has a moral obligation to ensure that the waste of the city doesn’t flow out of its canal and pollute nature and kill wildlife. For those reasons Amsterdam has initiated the “Amsterdam Clean Water” pledge which strives to have plastic free canals in Amsterdam and to prevent plastic from getting into the ocean. With this pledge the city has launched several initiatives to try and combat this growing issue.

Amsterdam has partnered with multiple private organizations such as Bubble Barrier Amsterdam. This organization created a bubble system to push sunken plastic from the bottom of the canal to the surface by floating them with bubbles. Then the system is situated for the bubbles to push the plastic to the side of the canal where there are catchment systems that can trap the plastic. The bubbles do not affect aquatic life and fish are easily able to swim through the bubbles. The bubbles oxygenate the water thus improving the ecosystem and preventing harmful algae blooms from killing wildlife. There has been one Bubble Barrier Amsterdam system that was placed in the Westerdok canal where water flows into the IJ waterway from Amsterdam’s canals.

Waternet, the public water service of Amsterdam, takes care of the entire water cycle, and every day removes plastic and other waste that clogs up the canals.  This company also ensures that the canals are not overflowing with bicycles, vehicles, and other large waste. Waternet is also putting money, research, and effort into coming up with solutions to the plastic waste problem. Recently they have been researching a small remote controlled drone that is equipped with underwater sonar that could locate waste under the water that could block the canals[1] . This would allow them to easily find where the waste is located and collect the waste from the canals.

There are also bottom up initiatives such as Plastic Whale and Schone Rivieren.

Plastic Whale is the world’s first plastic fishing company that organizes paying customers and organizations as a business outing to collect plastic waste in Amsterdam and Rotterdam canals. During the boat trip they educate the customers about the highlights of Amsterdam canals and tour them around the city all while making it a cleaner city. With the plastic waste they recover, some of it is repurposed into furniture or more boats to take more people out on the canals. In 2019 Plastic Whale and their customers collected 40,500 PET plastic bottles in Amsterdam and Rotterdam!

Schone Rivieren is an initiative by the combination of three different organizations, IVN Nature Education, Plastic Soup Foundation and North Sea Foundation, to ensure that the Dutch River Delta is plastic free by 2030. They operate by cleaning up waste from waterways, investigating and researching, discovering the beauty of nature, and solving the issue on multiple levels.

First, Schone Rivieren initiates waterway cleanups with municipalities and thousands of volunteers to clean up waste. While the waste is collected, the program maps the plastic pollution to tackle the problem at the source. Schone Rivieren utilizes the collective power of over a thousand volunteer researchers to achieve large-scale river waste research to understand where the waste first enters waterways as a way to prevent large-scale pollution. The next important step is to mobilize citizens to discover the beauty of nature along rivers and to inspire interest in conserving these landscapes that are being polluted and destroyed by waste in the rivers. Schone Rivieren organizes river clean ups in more remote places to introduce people to these environments and to demonstrate the scale of the river pollution problem, and that it affects rural places far away from the large cities. Lastly, the organization aims to dramatically decrease the amount of waste that ends up in rivers by working together with national and regional governments, business communities, and finally consumers to brainstorm solutions to this issue. Schone Rivieren recruits volunteers constantly, to increase their engagement and to tackle their ambitious goals.

If you’re interested in being part of the change in reducing the amount of plastic and waste in our canals, then come join SFSA on [1] [2] our Canal Cleaning Event the 12th of May to pick plastic from the canals. Check out our instagram for more information!


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