Even in nippy winter weather, it’s not so unusual to see boaters out enjoying Amsterdam’s canals on a sunny day. Tourists regularly pile into covered boats to appreciate the city’s grid of 18th-century architecture at sea-level from the water, but few tourists recognise the impact they have on the canals. Trash bags forgotten by garbage collectors, plastic bottles, discarded furniture, uncooperative bicycles and the mobile phones of drunk-texters all find their way to the water with astonishing consistency.
That’s what inspired the founding of Plastic Whale, a “plastic fishing” tourism company with a mission to clear the canals of inorganic debris while educating plastic-fishers about its consequences to sea life. While two city dredging boats clear away sunken boats and more than 12,000 bikes from the canal every year, Plastic Whale focuses on the smaller offenders, like plastic water bottles, bags and caps. They hope to inspire clients – both local and international – to clean up the “plastic soup” of waterways around the world.
Piloted by local Amsterdamers with plenty of knowledge and trivia about the city to share, small fishing boats take groups of school children, business colleagues and tourists armed with nets on an expedition to clear non-biodegradable garbage from the city’s central waterways, recycling the plastic into fishing boats and high-end office furniture. In the seven years since the company’s founding, Plastic Whale has built 11 boats in Amsterdam and Rotterdam from the nearly 50,000 plastic bottles the company collects from the water each year.
The Netherlands’ commitment to sustainable tourism and conscious consumption extends to dry land, too. It’s related to a larger national climate agreement that the country has been developing to meet European climate commitments, culminating in a target to become fully circular by 2050.
This means big changes in the tourism sector, explained Marcel Beukeboom, Climate Envoy for the Netherlands. “In your choices of restaurants, hotels and tourism infrastructure, you have many sustainable choices in the Netherlands. We are increasingly seeing businesses competing on green tourism. And customers are responding, as they feel guilty about wasting things.”
The proverbial thrift of the Dutch helps. Since the turn of the millenium, Dutch farmers have been reducing their dependency on water and chemical pesticides while expanding crop output to become the world’s second-largest exporter of food, National Geographic reported in 2017. However, agricultural production comes with its own challenges, like the carbon output of dairy- and meat-producing farms.
Beukeboom points out that farmers are rising to the challenge. “We do see some businesses react and come up with different solutions, like one that lowers the emissions of cows. We’re seeing a move towards more circular agriculture.”
Another solution, producing less animal protein altogether, is the commitment of Dutch Weedburger, a company using the nutritious properties of seaweed and microalgae to create meat alternatives, served all over the Netherlands. In Amsterdam and other cities, apps like No Food Wasted, Too Good to Go and ResQ tackle food waste. These companies allow restaurants and supermarkets to offer accidentally-made extra meals and nearly-expired food products at deep discounts to consumers instead of simply trashing those items. The community kitchen restaurants Taste Before You Waste and Robin Food Kollektief each offer meals improvised from food waste scavenged daily at major supermarkets; Instock does this on a commercial level, with restaurants in several cities.
Sustainability also implies decolonising trade, as Tony’s Chocolonely emphasises. The company was founded after a Dutch journalist discovered the modern-day child and slave labour used at many cocoa farms in West Africa. With a goal to make the entire world’s chocolate industry “100 per cent slave-free”, the company has developed direct relationships with cocoa farmer cooperatives to ensure fair wages and labour practices with farmers and suppliers. These creative and whole-hearted solutions, which cross the sectors of food, entertainment, agriculture and tourism, may seem small, but they are significant – especially in an era where “sustainability” and “green” are often used as corporate buzzwords.
As Europe’s most densely-populated country, with one-third of its land mass below sea level, the Netherlands has a particular incentive to prioritise quick action, but there are also headwinds. The Netherlands is home to Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies, which might explain why less than 10 per cent of the country’s power is obtained from renewable sources, one of the lowest percentages in Europe.
That is despite having a highly developed bicycle and public transportation network, making cars unnecessary for many residents. Nonetheless, it’s hard to balance economy and industry with conservation, Beukeboom admits. “In a densely populated country like the Netherlands, in which we take all perspectives into consideration, it sometimes takes time.” But the country is making progress.
The price of wind power from offshore wind farms has been subsidised since 2013, but in 2017, its market price has fallen below fossil fuel prices, making these types of renewables viable on the open market. That, Beukeboom says, will help the Netherlands catch up with other European nations in access to renewable power.
Private businesses are doing their part to support renewables, too. Amsterdam entrepreneurs at Conscious Hotels power their four “eco-sexy” hotels in the city completely with wind and solar energy, and proudly advertise their fully organic restaurants. Recycled, second-hand or sustainably-forested materials are used for all hotel furniture, bedding and design. The company’s goal is to cut the environmental impact of travel without sacrificing a hip atmosphere or creature comforts. Their efforts have been rewarded: after ten years in Amsterdam, they have plans to expand to The Hague and Utrecht.
Excitement also comes from the unexpected. Ap Verheggen, a Dutch artist based in The Hague, has been developing a sculpture project, Sun Glacier, to produce water from hot air, using solar panels and condensation. His innovation has been tested by the Dutch defence forces, a partnership that Beukeboom sees as an inspiration for other climate activists. “The most excitement on my side comes from the fact that these different people were willing to partner unexpectedly – the military and an artist. That’s a lesson for all of us. We should not look at this issue with conventional eyes.”