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Dutch plastic fishing company turning waste into furniture, aims 'to go out of business'

Participants in a Plastic Whale fishing tour in Amsterdam on Nov. 6, 2018 separate and discard collected waste into trash bags placed in the center of the boat. (Mainichi/Kosuke Hatta)

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands -- A Dutch company conducting "plastic fishing" tours in the canals of Amsterdam's city center is thriving despite its stated quest to "go out of business."

The company, Plastic Whale, finds new uses for the plastic waste it collects, which is recycled into boats and specially designed furniture. The company looks forward to the day when plastic waste will disappear from all waterways around the world, enabling its role to come to an end.

During one of the company's recent expeditions, a boat carrying eight people equipped with fishing nets departed from a port near Amsterdam Central Station on Nov. 6. Kees De Voogd, 63, served as a guide from the stern. "You don't see many plastics here. But after two hours, these bags will be full of plastic waste," he said. De Voogd is one of 40 freelance guides hired by Plastic Whale.

As the boat cruised into the complexly structured central part of the waterway, more litter began to appear on the water's surface. Passengers caught one piece of trash after another, including plastic bottles, snack packages and empty cans. One disposable cup from a fast food chain still had its plastic lid and straw attached.

The boat often came across items that seemed to have been dropped in the canal by accident. Passengers found an unopened can of beer, precut vegetables, a toy telephone, and a rubber duck. There was even a small bag of marijuana -- which can be legally bought at specialized shops in Amsterdam.

Participants of Plastic Whale's plastic fishing tour conducted on Nov. 6, 2018 in Amsterdam hold fish nets and collected plastic bottles while taking a commemorative photo with a smartphone. (Mainichi/Kosuke Hatta)

Four roughly 50-liter trash bags were filled in only about two hours. De Voogd described the amount fished out of the canal that day as an "above average" catch. Hrvoje Jozic, a local 27-year-old 3-D artist who had joined the tour commented joyfully, "We thought that we would find less stuff, but at the end we found a lot of plastics and we're really happy for it."

Plastic Whale was established in 2011 by 45-year-old Marius Smit, who hails from Amsterdam. Smit was motivated by a scene he saw in Asia during a trip in his mid-30s. The founder described the island of Borneo in Indonesia as the most beautiful place on earth, but its beach became covered in trash washed up by the waves one morning as a typhoon approached. "That's when I decided that I wanted to do something," he said.

Smit launched his business using a single boat constructed mainly of recycled materials. Its main sources of revenue are income from plastic fishing tours targeting individuals and corporate bodies, and funding from member firms. The number of participants and member firms has increased yearly. What started from one boat made of 8,000 plastic bottles has grown to an operation with 11 boats. An accumulated total of 130,000 plastic bottles have been retrieved from the canal. The company estimates that the total number of tour participants will reach 15,000 before the end of the year.

This photo taken on Nov. 6, 2018 in Amsterdam shows Plastic Whale's founder Marius Smit. (Mainichi/Kosuke Hatta)

Since the beginning of this year, Plastic Whale has been working together with a Dutch furniture manufacturer. They have started to sell high-class office equipment made from reprocessed plastic waste fished from the canal. Among the items is a 4-meter conference table and chairs with a gorgeous finish. The prices are negotiable, and the firm has received numerous orders, mainly from its sponsors. These profits account for about 20 percent of the company's income.

The waterway environment "might be becoming cleaner because we fish out so much waste," Smit said. He explained that the problem is so big and complex it can't be solved in a few years. "But by doing what we do, we create awareness about the problem," he said.

Smit is seriously considering expanding his business into Asia, including India and Indonesia, in the future. This is because developing nations in Asia are believed to be the main source of plastic-based water pollution. "We want to make as much impact as possible when we expand," declared the 45-year-old. He pointed out that "there's an opportunity to create economic value" in the most polluted places under Plastic Whale's business model.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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