How the Audi Environmental Foundation is finding solutions to plastic in the ocean

Floating plastic islands as a form of environmental protection? In this interview with Ramon Knoester, the founder of the Recycled Island Foundation, you’ll read about the project's approach on how to solve the problem of plastic in the ocean.

05/16/2019 Reading Time: 3 min

Real-life sustainability: the first islands made of recycled plastic can be found in the floating park on the Nieuwe Maas.
Real-life sustainability: the first islands made of recycled plastic can be found in the floating park on the Nieuwe Maas.

In the middle of the Port of Rotterdam, surrounded by gray buildings, small green islands are popping up on the Nieuwe Maas river, which flows there into the North Sea. If you look closely, you’ll see insects buzzing around and birds flying to their nests while snails, crabs, and small fish gather on the bottoms of the landscaped islands. Only when you look very, very closely will you notice that these islands are made of recycled plastic. What’s going on here?  In cooperation with the Audi Environmental Foundation, the Recycled Island Foundation created collecting basins to filter plastic pollution out of the Nieuwe Maas. The project team then sorted the waste and used it to create floating plastic islands.

The Recycled Island Foundation is breaking new ground in plastic recycling

The landscaped islands now serve as recreational areas for port visitors and local residents and — most importantly — as a safe haven for animals. The individual components are built at different heights using a permeable structure. This way, small animals living in the river can easily swim in and out of the islands, allowing them to, for example, spawn in the safety of the root systems. On the higher islands, birds nest in direct proximity to islands that are equipped with benches for passers-by.

The plastic islands increase public awareness of the true extent and the consequences of plastic that is carelessly thrown away. By upcycling the plastic that the foundation collects, Ramon Knoester wants to encourage people to be more conscious of how they handle their plastic waste. The founder of the Recycled Island Foundation explains the reasons behind his project and the goals he has for it.

Frontal view of people on the plastic islands by the Recycled Island project

Ramon Knoester (second from right) is committed to a livable future for people, animals and plants.

What gave you the idea to use plastic waste to create islands?
Ramon Knoester:
I heard about the devastating plastic pollution in the oceans for the first time about twelve years ago. Even back then, I thought that something should be done to combat the problem. Then, four years ago, I had the opportunity to create the Recycled Island Foundation thanks to a contact I had to the city of Rotterdam. My thought was that most plastic makes its way into the ocean via rivers — so we need to start with the rivers. The Nieuwe Maas is a key area as far as pollution in the North Sea goes. If we could improve the ecosystem in the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam, just that would have a significant impact.

What role does Audi play in this project?
The Audi Environmental Foundation approached us and wanted to establish a cooperation with us. They liked the concept of working with environmentally sustainable technologies to reduce the presence of plastic and improve quality of life for people and animals. It was perfect timing for us, because we had developed our project to such an extent that we were ready to roll it out internationally. The Audi Environmental Foundation doesn’t just support us financially; they also help us with their expertise.

In July 2018, you and the Audi Environmental Foundation opened the islands to the public. How many are there so far?

Currently, there are 28 islands in the water — a total of 140 square meters. The islands are portable and can be anchored anywhere, which makes them very versatile. They can be used as a place to relax during a lunch break, or as a stage or audience platform for open air concerts right there in the port.

Recreational areas made from recycled plastic
Recreational areas made from recycled plastic in the middle of the Port of Rotterdam.

Have you been able to reduce pollution in the Nieuwe Maas with your project?
We’re off to a good start. With the help of about 30 volunteers, we really collected a lot of plastic during “clean up” events and get it out of the river with our collecting basins. Over 90 percent of plastic waste is floating in the first meter below the water’s surface; in fact, the majority of it is found in the first half-meter. So the outlook is good; the pollution has already been significantly reduced.

What kinds of plastic have you fished out of the water?
We found practically every kind of plastic — from micro-plastics, to PET bottles, to soccer balls. In the Netherlands, we only have a deposit on bottles that are one liter or larger, which makes the waste problem even worse.

A hustle and bustle: The plastic islands are very popular in Rotterdam.
A hustle and bustle: The plastic islands are very popular in Rotterdam.

What were the reactions to your plastic islands?
We have received a lot of positive feedback from all over the world. People like the idea and are excited to see how we’ve made something so attractive and useful out of trash. The residents of Rotterdam like the fact that their city is a trendsetter in this regard. It has also caused other cities to prick up their ears, and we are now in contact with them about creating other similar projects.

What plans do you have for the future?
We now have further locations for our joint Litter Traps with the Audi Environmental Foundation: in Brussels and Budapest. However, we are also investigating suitable deployment sites for other cities. For example, it’s important that the collecting basins are located where the volume of plastic waste is greatest; they also need to be placed so that they don’t cause problems for ship traffic.

Audi Environmental Foundation

The declared aim is to help protect the environment, and to create and to support science and research. The foundation, which has a share capital of five million euros, focuses in particular on protecting the natural habitat for humans, animals and plants, on supporting and developing environmentally compatible technologies and environmental education measures.


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