Plastic soup and plastic pollution in the Netherlands

The problem and the solutions

What can we do to combat the plastic soup? Are there solutions available to fight plastic pollution in the Netherlands? Yes, there are. That's what my team and I are fighting for. We succeed in halting and reducing litter from plastic polluting products.

Plastic Soup

What is plastic soup? How is plastic soup created? What are its consequences for nature, animals, and people?

Plastic Soup refers primarily to the plastic litter that accumulates in oceans, but also encompasses plastic pollution found in lakes, rivers and on land.

 What can we do to combat the plastic soup? Are there solutions available to fight plastic pollution in the Netherlands? Yes, there are. That's what my team and I are fighting for. We succeed in halting and reducing litter from plastic polluting products.

We will answer these questions and tell you how you can help prevent the growing plastic soup problem! 

What is Plastic Soup?

Plastic soup primarily refers to locations of condensed plastic pollution in our oceans. As a result of the ocean’s natural current system, much of the plastic waste that makes its way to the ocean will end up in concentrated locations. The stark reality is that there is an insane amount of plastic waste floating its way across the world.

More recently, the term plastic soup has come to encompass all places where plastic waste accumulates. Most plastic litter, 80%, never reaches the ocean, but instead rests on land or floats into a ditch, lake, or river. As a result, the plastic soup touches every part of the Netherlands.

Plastic packaging and plastic soup

You may be surprised to learn that plastic has only been around for roughly 70 years. In this relatively short period of time, plastic has established itself as the most frequently used source of packaging material. Why you ask? Well, plastic is very cheap, multi-functional and durable. For example, it prevents food from spoiling quickly - ideal for supermarkets and on-the-go foods.

But the fact that it is so cheap also has a downside: one can easily throw it on the ground – it’s worth practically nothing - and once in nature, plastic does not naturally degrade. In turn, we see plastic waste everywhere.

Plastic waste everywhere

Just look around you: on the street and in nature you see plastic litter as far as the eye can see. Plastic pollution comes in many forms including wrappers from on-the-go products such as candy, drinking cups and fast food. Plastic bottles are also common source of pollution. The Netherlands recently attached a deposit to plastic bottles, which has already greatly reduced their littering potential.

The plastic soup: not only in the ocean

The amount of plastic pollution entering into our natural environment each minute equals the load of entire garbage truck. Multiply this amount by the number of minutes in a day and you can see how quickly it adds up. After exposure to external elements, plastic pollution slowly breaks down into smaller pieces and makes its way into the food chain. The consequences of this are catastrophic, leading to the accumulation of plastics in marine animals’ stomachs causing starvation. Additionally, larger marine animals such as whales and sea turtles become easily entangled in fishing nets or other plastic debris and suffocate.

Another startling fact is that most of the ocean’s plastic waste, roughly 95%, sinks to the bottom due to algae growth. From above water, we can still see remnants of larger pieces, which remain afloat. While the amount we can see from above is overwhelming, only about 1% of the plastic pollution is readily visible.

Boyan Slat and cleaning up alone will not solve the Plastic Soup problem

Is cleaning up a solution? The best-known Dutchman who has embarked on cleaning up the plastic soup is Boyan Slat. Through his company, The Ocean Cleanup, Slat seeks to remove plastic waste which is concentrated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. His first attempt to retrieve this waste leveraged ships with long catch arms, however this experiment didn’t work. Slat and his team are now using ships that caste a large net in between them and are seeing better results.

While we commend and support Slat’s efforts, the problem remains that more plastic waste enters the ocean daily than can be retrieved. Furthermore, the pieces that sink to the bottom (95% of the plastic waste) remains unreachable.

Great Bubble Barrier

New techniques are being developed to fish plastic out of rivers before it can reach the ocean. The Great Bubble Barrier, spearheaded by Slat, is an excellent example of innovative waste reduction solutions. The Great Bubble Barrier is a screen of air bubbles, which fish can swim through, that collects plastics (even microplastics) from rivers. This system has been installed in Amsterdam at the IJ and in Kampen at the IJssel.

Prevention is key to turning the tide on plastic soup

While these innovative local projects are important, the enormous amount of plastic waste entering the oceans daily can only be stemmed by stopping it at its source. This means preventing plastic waste from entering the land, rivers, and oceans through the achievement of waste reduction policies.

Microplastics and nanoplastics

Plastic does not decay because the organisms that normally degenerate natural compounds, such as bacteria and fungi, cannot break it down. In turn, plastic slowly decays into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming very small particles called microplastics and nanoplastics. While you cannot see these particles, they float freely in the air and water causing widespread plastic exposure to living organisms. These tiny pieces of plastic can be absorbed into our bloodstream and travel throughout our bodies.

Nanoplastics have already been found in the placenta of pregnant women! A lot of research is being done into the effects nanoplastics have on human and animal health – early results indicate that it can be harmful to vital systems including the immune system. We are just scratching the surface in understanding the extent of harm these nanoplastics cause.

Gigantic pollution

Because such a large amount of plastic is used and ends up in nature, the harmful consequences of the plastic soup and its impact on the environment is an ever-growing problem.

As the amount of plastic waste continues to grow, so too does its devastating impact on our world, animal death, human health consequences, and the decimation of natural habitats.

Key Facts:

  • plastic production is expected to double in the next twenty years, leaving a trail of waste from the top of the highest mountain in the Himalayas to the deepest sea trough and everywhere in between.
  • Today you can find plastics in almost all organisms, from microscopic algae to the largest whale
  • Plants, such as lettuce, also absorb nanoplastics via their roots and enter into our food chain

• Plastics contain toxic additives that can be harmful to health

How do we prevent plastic pollution?

We must reduce the amount of plastic entering our environment to protect all living species. As the Plastic Soup Surfer, I fight for this, together with my team and many others in the Netherlands.

What can you do about plastic pollution?

What can you do?

Rule One: Avoid buying plastic-wrapped items when possible. No plastic = no chance of plastic litter.

Rule Two: Don't throw trash on the ground. Dispose of your waste mindfully and by proper means – trash bins and recycling systems.

You can also join our fight against plastic pollution by taking pictures of plastic litter via the Plastic Avengers App. This simple action helps to expose the vast amount of plastic pollution each of us encounters in our daily lives. We’ve achieved a lot through the community’s engagement on the Plastic Avengers App. I will tell you more about that further if you read on.


Awareness campaigns do not help against plastic pollution

Unfortunately, not everyone throws their garbage into the trash. Campaigns to reduce litter have been going on for generations, but pollution has steadily increased.

While one used to find paper strewn about, today we see that paper waste has largely been replaced by plastic and cans. Although litter is timeless, the amount of litter in the environment has increased significantly with the introduction of plastic packaging and cans which are utilized as 'disposable products’.

Why? If you don't have to pay for a package, it has no value and can easily be discarded without personal consequence.

Deposit is a solution

Plastic pollution must be tackled at its source. How? One effective way is the deposit system. Since 2015, I have been fighting for the implementation of a deposit system on cans and plastics; I am pleased to say my efforts have paid off (see Deposit page). With the introduction of the deposit system, we’ve seen a marked decrease in plastic bottle and can litter across the Netherlands. The system is simple: an extra cost is added to account for packaging material, which retrievable by consumers when they return their empty packaging to the store.

Ban polluting products – the SUP guideline

Another effective strategy for limiting waste is banning the use of highly polluting products. One example of this is the July 2021 ban on plastic straws and stirrers. The European Union is further addressing the problem of high polluting products with the Single-use Plastics directive (SUP directive). The number of prohibited products under the SUP directive continues to grow and today includes plastic swabs, balloon sticks, plastic plates & cutlery as well as disposable polystyrene food packaging (ex: McDonalds).

Unfortunately, recycling alone is not a solution for the plastic soup

Recycling is key to reducing waste and I support increasing the effectiveness of recycling programs. However, in the Netherlands today, much of the plastic collected is not reused but rather incinerated. This is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that many types of plastic packaging are not able to be recycled.

Tackling plastic pollution at the source

Dirk Groot, Dutch environmentalist, and I fight against plastic pollution by identifying and targeting high polluting products at their source. Dirk collects key data including the amount of litter that can be found in the environment from specific types of products. Next, we work to stop these products from entering the environment. Our efforts have resulted in important changes. For example, the deposit system on plastic bottles reduces the number of plastics entering the plastic soup. Another key win our team accomplished is driving the transition of AntaFlu’s throat lozenge packaging from plastic wrappers to wax paper.

Other commonly found products that we have succeeded in persuading stores to stop selling include:

  • Crackling balls, which are children's fireworks that leave plastic shells on the street
  • Fireworks with plastic components
  • Water balloons and plastic confetti

We succeeded in this effort after collecting photos of litter and confronting stores with them. Once the stores saw the immense amount of pollution and public outrage, they were motivated to act.

Bio-degradable plastic packaging

In many cases it is impossible to stop the sale of products. One such example is Mars. Candy wrappers from Mars, Bounty, Snickers, and M&Ms score very high each year on Dirk Groot's Top 10 Pollutants. Nevertheless, Mars continues to use plastic wrappers for their candy packaging. When faced with such a challenge, one solution for Mars would be to utilize biodegradable plastic in their packaging. Biodegradable plastic is made from plants rather than petroleum and will naturally degrade in 25-30 years. While this change does not reduce the amount of litter, in the long term it offers a more viable solution to the health of our environment.

Making manufacturers pay for collection and cleaning up of litter

Holding manufacturers accountable for the cost of cleaning up their product’s pollution is also an effective strategy. The European Union’s Single-use plastics directive (SUP directive) requires manufacturers to contribute to the cost of collecting and cleaning up their product’s waste. Beginning in 2023, this measure will be enacted for key high-polluting products including drinking cups, cigarette filters, single meals containers, bags, wrappers, and plastic bags. Beginning in 2024 this policy will further extend to balloons, wet wipes, sanitary towels, tampons, and fishing gear.

Open questions remain about the impact of this plan, however. For example, how will this cost be determined, and will it be adequate? The accuracy behind the cost calculation’s methodology is unclear. Furthermore, will manufacturer’s financial burden be enough to motivate them to change their packaging or will the impact be so minimal that they continue with business as usual? In our experience, polluting companies are generally not dealt with harshly.

Separating plastic waste at schools

Ultimately, we must move towards fully reusing plastic waste as a raw material for new plastic. To accomplish this, we need to ensure proper waste separation. I have been fighting to implement waste separation in schools, so that children can learn at an early age to dispose of waste properly. We recognize that this is often too expensive for schools to implement independently, so we are campaigning for school waste to be classified as household waste, which will make waste separation free for schools.

Will you help fight against plastic pollution?

You too can help us fight against plastic pollution. Our strategy is to collect pictures of plastic litter and take them to manufacturers, stores, and politicians to ask for a solution. By downloading and contributing to the Plastic Avengers App you can directly impact the effectiveness of our campaigns.

In 2022 we are targeting drinking cups. We have launched the Cup Count Campaign to map the extent of pollution caused by plastic cups. We need tens of thousands of photos- Will you help us capture the litter around you? If yes, then download our app today

I am not accusing the material, but the way we put it to use. Plastic is a catalyst to our throw-away society.

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