We push off from the quay by Amsterdam’s Westerkerk, leaving the tourist bustle and long, fidgety queue for the Anne Frank house behind us. Our little electric boat heads quietly south down the Keizersgracht canal for a tour of the city. Our guide, Erik, points out the sights: a famous hotel, a secret church, the seven bridges view but we are distracted, focused on the plastic debris that bobs by our boat. As with more than 15,000 people before us, we have jumped on board one of Amsterdam’s most unusual boat trips: a plastic fishing tour of the canals – and we are eager to see what we can find.
Unlike the slippery perch who flit deep beneath us, the docile plastic is an easy catch. From our open-topped boat, nets in hand, we haul in the flotsam. If we had orange jumpsuits on, jokes Erik, we’d look like we were doing community service. In fact, I’m travelling with seven tourists who have paid to collect rubbish as part of their holiday.
Founded by Marius Smit in 2011, Plastic Whale runs plastic fishing tours in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. While travelling across Asia in his 30s, Smit, now 45, was shocked by the plastic pollution he saw and wanted to make a difference. When he returned to Amsterdam and noticed all the plastic in the canals, he realised the problem was closer to home than he had thought.
The Amsterdam water company, Waternet, has estimated that around 3,500kg of rubbish is removed from Amsterdam’s waterways each day. “About 80% of what is floating out at sea comes from cities around the world,” says Smit. “My conviction was that there were millions of people like me who wanted to contribute [to change that] in a positive way.”
Anne Jakobsen from Copenhagen, fishing alongside me, is a good example. She and her husband, Ole, have brought the family along “to lift the carbon footprint we leave behind. And show the kids you can do something other than the Rijksmuseum,” she says.