Beachcombing to save the environment

There’s no time for coffee today. The old beach pavilion of West aan Zee creaks in the strong northern wind. The beach is deserted except for the lonely figure at the horizon. Armed with a blue trash bag he’s ready to search for the treasures the wind blows ashore. The beach is the cleanest it’s been since the disaster with cargo ship the MSC Zoe.

“Just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean that it’s not there,” tells Guus Schweigmann us with the recognizable Rotterdam accent. He learned that lesson fourty years ago through a simple example. Take two glasses of water. You can drink from both. Throw all sorts of white junk in one of the glasses. Gin, pepper, salt, vinegar. Stir it, shake it and let it dissolve. What you’re left with is two identical glasses of water. “It’s clear. You don’t see it, but one makes you ill and the other doesn’t.”
Microscopic parts
Years ago Schweigmann went on his first environment journey from Harlingen in the Netherlands to the Caribbean. Next to one of the yachts of the organization floated a little raft with a small trap attached to it. Every couple hours it was emptied and carefully studied. It surprised Schweigmann that he’d find oil every single time. Fourty years later, Schweigmann organizes beachcombing actions with his non-profit organization De Milieujutter to lend nature a helping hand. The organization is one of the few of its kind.

 “Sometimes give themselves a pat on the back. ‘What are we doing a good job, right?’ But do you know who the biggest polluters are on the planet? A lot of people will say China, but it is The Netherlands.” He pauses for a second to let those words sink in. “We are here with seventeen million people. I think that every day we have roughly four million washing machines running. We all wear clothing made of fleece and cheap T-shirts, in which all sorts of plastic is processed. From each washing machine come around 700.000 of those little pieces of plastic each day. Our filtering system is aged and doesn’t hold all of that back. With other words: four million washing machines empty millions of little pieces of plastic in the North sea. Those are the parts that every little fish in our sea eat.”

Plastic in nature
Those little pieces of plastic are the biggest enemy. Fortunately there’s currently a research project running on nearby island Schiermonnikoog. It’s a painstaking task, because all the little grains of plastic barely differ from all the sand.

“What you see now, are little micro pieces that get eaten by the animals,” says Terschellinger Arjen Bloem. “Little animals eat these plastic parts and they get eaten by all sorts of endangered local birds. It’s a direct link to a lot of birds and other animals dying.” Proving that is still difficult.

During Schweigmann’s daily patrol across the island he suddenly hears his pager go off. A hiker spotted a seal on the beach near the harbour. An ill seal goes to Pieter Buren, a dead one goes to Utrecht. There, at the university, they try to find a connection between the seal’s passing and the pieces of plastic.

The red coat of Schweigmann is easier to spot than the seal. Once we find it, the first thing we notice is the lifeless look in the little animal’s eyes. Its fur is dull and there’s a lot of little wounds on his skin. The animal tries to snap at its rescuers. After all, it’s The Netherlands’ biggest predator. More than that isn’t happening in its current state. First diagnosis: lungworm.

The solution
How do you solve this? It seems like an impossible task, but Schweigmann has an idea. “The coin needs to drop,” he grumbles. “We risk with every package that it ends up in the sea. We keep buying stuff from the local dollar store, all sorts of crap from China, which is all made from precious fossil fuels. That is what plastic is, in the end. You’re only poisoning yourself.”

The shipping containers of the MSC Zoe at the wharf are the perfect example. The largest container ship lost multiple containers with plastic goods last week. “We were lucky that there only were 300, because such a large ship could have lost thousands.” He points at a number on the side of one of the containers, “in one container already fits thirty tonnes”

On average, fifty percent sinks to the bottom. It was more here. It is estimated that there are roughly 200 containers still floating near the coast of Terschelling. The light material stays afloat. Fourty percent of that remains in the water, but ten percent of that reaches the shore. “We have gathered 400 tonnes of garbage at Terschelling. A quick calculation tells you that there’s still 400 tonnes out there in the water.”

Warm heart
There’s still light at the end of the tunnel. During the clean-up after the container disaster something miraclous happened. “We have roughly 150 jeeps on the island. All those cars drove to the beach. It was a complete mad house. People even sat on top of a container and yelled: ‘This is mine!'”, says Schweigmann. Everyone went looking for nice stuff to tae home. “One day later we posted an announcement: ‘C’mon guys, it’s nice to grab like a maniac, but help as well.” All tourists and islanders joined in, thinking: ‘it’s our problem, and we will solve it together.'”

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