River Cleanup aims to be a knowledge hub

October 28, 2022

Trends Magazine - October, 2022

River Cleanup is about to launch a new machine to remove floating waste from water. The Belgian non-profit strives for plastic-free rivers and has collected over one million kilograms of plastic waste in the past three years. In the meantime, the target is no longer a question of kilograms, but of global impact. ROELAND BYL


River Cleanup is about to launch the River Skimmer 2.0. The device filters 500,000 litres of water a year and aims to collect and remove 1,000 kilograms of plastic from the water. A first system was deployed in Merksemjust over a year ago. In the four years of its existence, River Cleanup has become a household name, and not just in Belgium. The non-profit organisation on a mission to plastic-free rivers has evolved into a global player with projects in eighty countries. “The strategy of River Cleanup 2.0 is pretty much complete,” says founder Thomas de Groote. “Now we have to keep growing. Where we initially focussed on the number of kilograms of plastic, our main goal now is to become a point of reference. One of our goals is to make rivers in ten countries waste free; another is to help people in other countries do the same thing for themselves. We develop the method and present ourselves as a hub they can turn to for support.”



“We want to become a global network organisation.” “One of our goals is to make rivers in ten countries waste free; another is to help people in other countries do the same thing for themselves.”


Vlerick alumnus

Thomas de Groote sounds decidedly professional. Although that should not come as a surprise: he is a graduate of Vlerick Business School. After a career in the care sector – at Brussels University Hospital and later at Armonea – he followed his wife to Dusseldorf in 2018 when she moved there for her job. There he initiated a project to remove plastic waste from the Rhine. His sister had sown the seeds for it a year earlier. She had challenged him to pick up litter from the streets for 10 minutes every day. “I wasn’t a tree hugger, I’m still not, but doing that did show me what a big problem litter is,” de Groote explains. “I wanted to do more. So I looked for local initiatives in Dusseldorf to set up a big campaign for the World Cleanup Day. That was the start of RhineCleanUp. Ultimately, we mobilised ten thousand people at sixty locations along the river. It was immediately obvious: there was great potential here.”

The German organisation decided to focus on Germany. De Groote, who had moved back to Belgium in the meantime, saw the bigger picture and so in 2019 he founded River Cleanup in Belgium. From the very outset, the initiative found support from the business community. “When we founded the organisation, we started a process for our branding with Duval, which worked really well from the outset,” he says. “Maybe it’s because I was once the president of a student club. Looking for sponsors was second nature to me. In any case, our sponsors immediately sensed that we were taking a professional approach.” The core team of eleven people, including seven full-time staff, is spread over Belgium, Albania, Cameroon and Indonesia. The turnover is growing, from 90,000 euro in 2019 to 270,000 in 2020 and 850,000 euro in 2021. This year, River Cleanup is expected to reach 1.2 million euro. And next year, De Groote is hoping for 3 million.

Trends selects ground-breaking topics. River Cleanup deserves the label due to its dedication to making rivers plastic free all over the world.


International ambitions

85 percent of revenue comes from companies that want to set up a campaign or support the initiative for another reason. Sponsors who have been on board from the outset include Multi Masters Group, Delhaize and Unilever. “I’d prefer to have a few companies donating 100,000 euro in total than a hundred thousand people donating 1 euro each,” says De Groote. “Furthermore, the business community’s interest is increasing, since many companies want to do something relating to sustainability. And rivers contaminated with plastic can be found all over the place.”

With activities in eighty countries, River Cleanup is already very international. For example, it recently organised clean-ups in New York, Mumbai, Madrid, Milan, London and Belgium in partnership with Deutsche Bank. River Cleanup always opts to collaborate with local players and involve consumers locally. But local activities are also always linked to the request to support the organisation in its global ambitions. For each euro that a sponsor company donates to a local activity, it has to invest a euro in River Cleanup’s global operations. The organisation then promises that for each euro received, it will remove one kilogram of waste from the world’s most polluted rivers and make people more aware of other ways to tackle plastic through school projects or local activities. “We think that’s a great win-win formula,” says De Groote. The possible downside to the business model is that one day all the rivers will be cleaned up.


“We hope that one day we’ll no longer be needed,” Thomas de Groote explains. “But if you look at how the consumption of plastic is evolving, that won’t be any time soon. Five percent of the plastic produced ends up in nature. Today, that’s 11 billion kilograms. If we don’t make changes, that will increase to 29 billion by 2040.”

On the way to 100 million kilos

The organisation met its target of removing 1 million kilograms of plastic from rivers last year. The next target is 100 million, although that is no longer the main target. De Groote’s main aim now is to develop an organisation that is scalable. If River Cleanup can help people everywhere to clean up rivers, without having to do so itself, then that target of 100 million kilograms can be achieved almost by itself. “We need to become a hub that offers know-how,” says De Groote. “That’s why we not only organise clean-ups, but also educate people and make them more aware of how to handle plastic. We don’t want to become an organisation that sets up satellites everywhere with project managers for clean-up activities. We want to be a global network organisation. To this end, we aim to carry out a project ourselves using our method in two countries on each continent. At the moment we are finetuning this in Indonesia, where we want to make a tributary of one of the most polluted rivers in the world plastic free within two years. That requires more than just clean-up activities. So the project can function as proof of concept.”



So much positive energy has been unleashed since we started River Cleanup.” 1.2 million euro is River Cleanup’s expected turnover of this year. “I'd prefer to have a few companies donating 100,000 euros in total than a hundred thousand people donating 1 euro each”


The right thing

There have also been setbacks in the past few years. For example, River Cleanup worked out a detailed plan for a producer of fast-moving consumer goods, but they called off the project due to an international reorganisation. “Stopping was never an option,” says De Groote. “No matter how many people say that something is impossible, we know we are doing the right thing. It’s a pain when a project like that one is binned, but every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, you can recycle all the thinking that went into it and present it to other partners. So much positive energy has been unleashed since I started River Cleanup. I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life.” Striving for something with a passion does have one downside: you tend to overdo things. And De Groote realises this. Or at least his wife does; she still complains about the initial period when he worked day and night for no salary. “In the meantime I’ve got a coach, to avoid a burnout,” De Groote explains. “I try to live with greater awareness, I’ve taken up running again and I no longer switch my computer on at the weekend. And I have my first lesson in transcendental meditation coming up soon.”