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Citizen and Science: Sailing Canals Catching Plastic

Science is a serious matter but it also involves fun. The best part is that we, as citizens, can work side by side with researchers. And do our bit to make a difference on behalf of our world. For example, catching plastic while sailing in the canals.

Plastics in the Canals: where it begins

De Grachtwacht’ – ‘Canal watch’ in English – is a citizen science project from Leiden University, led by the researchers Liselotte Rambonnet and Auke-Florian Hiemstra. The aim is to keep the canals clean and raise awareness about the importance to care for this urban ecosystem.

In the beginning, the idea was to fight against thousands of single-use plastic cups that floated in the canals of Leiden. “More than 7000 in 100 meters of the canal the day after King’s day! We tackled this by pressuring the municipality to switch to reusable deposit cups and we succeeded,” indicated Liselotte. Now, this germinal plan became a bigger initiative to monitor plastic pollution in the canals, find the source and claim a solution.

Since 2019, researchers and volunteers sail the canals in the Plastic Spotter canoe fleet. They collect plastics that end up in the water. Each object is a precious piece to get information about its interaction with the surroundings and the many species that live in the canals, and possible solutions to keep the canals healthier. 

All year round, every weekend, kayaks and stand-up paddle (SUP) boards sailed from the bridge keeper’s house on the Marebrug bridge in Leiden. They browse each canal’s corners to pick up the litter. After that, volunteers together with researchers process the material to find out which was the catch of the day. The plastic of any shape and weight: restaurants menus, bottles, cans, and cigarette filters, is a short list of the waste floating throughout the canals.

Science is a citizen matter (as well as sailing canals and catching plastic)

The project was created to drive attention to the plastic problem itself. Many researchers have already warned about it because only between 5 to 9% is actually recycled. The rest is burned, releasing harmful substances, or ends up in the environment where it hardly degrades. Plastics’ last destination is the oceans, including the North Sea, affecting ecosystems and global biodiversity. 

One goal of this project is citizen engagement. More than 500 volunteers have already helped and participated in the clean-up sailing, among other tasks. “Without citizens’ help, the project wouldn’t exist. They are the driving force of the project and are all ambassadors, spreading the message, helping out every week, and contributing in many other ways”, Liselotte pointed out.

“Since the first time you join the fleet, you really train your eye to spot the floating litter. At first, the canals might seem clean, but before you know it, the bin is full. Especially seeing all the litter from the group together, you are blown away by the crazy amount. Seeing the amount of litter every week, volunteers are unstoppable. They really want to tackle the problem at the source and want to make a difference”, the researcher said.

Plastic spotter canoe fleet (Credit: De Grachtwacht project)

Mapping plastic litter

‘De Grachtwacht’ also gathers information about the plastic circulation in the canals using the app CrowdWater. Any person can download the app to their cell phone, take a picture of the garbage in the canals and upload it. So, the scientific team can see what kind of waste is and know its exact location. 

The project allowed them to identify where the plastics come from and demand solutions. For instance, events such as the 3 October festival, the market, and the cafe terrace next to the water, are the main responsible players for garbage floating around. 

Join to get the canals plastic-free: go sailing

Garbage also gives some unexpected finds and treasures that the team exposes weekly in the headquarters at the bridge house on the Marebrug in Leiden. Every Sunday new objects are displayed. It is possible to see stuffed animals, stress balls, playing cards, strange and old bottles, toys, letters, and the list is like a never-ending one. 

The Plastic Spotter canoe fleet sailed the weekends and every family is invited to join. So, a nice kayak trip enjoying the better sunny days coming can be a great plan. You can help the planet by catching plastic while sailing in the canals and make everybody more aware of our responsibility to the environment. That way we can become part of the solution needed to preserve natural ecosystems. You can reserve your spot here.

‘De Grachtwacht’ is possible thanks to donations. So, if you can go out there, you can help to keep this project going by making a little donation here.  For more info visit the project website.

From the blog team: find more ideas to free ourselves from plastic here.

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