River Cleanup celebrates five-year anniversary: "We want to clean up the 1 000 most polluted rivers in the world"

March 25, 2024

River Cleanup removes 3.5 million kg of waste from rivers in just 5 years

25th of March 2024 - In five years, the Belgian non-profit organization River Cleanup has collected over 3.5 million kg of waste in and around rivers across 100 countries. But the battle is far from won yet. The start-up is growing into a scale-up aiming for an even more significant impact and a new strategy. For this growth phase, River Cleanup is bringing Tames Rietdijk (ex-director of The Ocean Cleanup) on board.


The record that River Cleanup can show for itself on its fifth anniversary is impressive. Founder Thomas de Groote cleaned up litter for ten minutes with his children at the encouragement of super-cleaner Jean-Paul Meus in 2017. Then his research¹ taught him that 1.3 million kg of plastic ends up in our oceans every day, while about 10 million kg of plastic ends up in the environment and our rivers daily. In 2019, De Groote decided to take action and engage local organisations and citizens in his new mission to make rivers around the world plastic-free. His first action on the Rhine was an overwhelming success. Clean-up operations have followed in countries as diverse as Albania, Austria, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, India, Ireland and Ukraine, tackling some of the world's most polluted rivers.


In addition to the impressive international progress, the organisers are not sitting still at home either. After the deadly floods in Wallonia, River Cleanup was the first to organise clean-up actions on the Vesdre, eventually organising 211 actions in almost three years. To this day, the River Cleanup community is still active in the region, focusing now on  the Ourthe after the Vesdre.

Maximum impact by focusing on preventive actions

"Together with more than 250 000 volunteers - our River Warriors - as well as sponsors and partners, we have removed more than 3.5 million kg of waste from rivers, riverbeds and surrounding areas. Our goal is always the same: to stop plastic waste before it reaches our oceans," said Thomas de Groote. River Cleanup has now grown into an organization with 11 permanent employees in Belgium and 30 worldwide. It has become a leading player in the fight against plastic pollution of rivers. 


The impact organization's approach is as straightforward as it is effective. Around each river, it sets up an ecosystem with local partners. Everything starts with raising awareness and information for local people through community cleanups and school programmes. It then offers structural solutions to use fewer plastics on the one hand and collect plastics preventively through smart EcoBins on the other. All the plastic still in the river is cleaned up through manual cleanups and by deploying innovative technology. For example, River Cleanup has developed high-tech solutions for permanent waste collection, such as the River Skimmer, the Smart EcoBin and, together with research institute VITO, even AI detection of waste based on drone images. Companies, governments and philanthropists are providing the funding.

Explosive growth of scale-up

The growing plastic soup is the main challenge for this Antwerp-based organization. According to the WWF, 150 million tonnes of plastic are already floating in the sea, and 100 million animals die yearly  because of plastic. Plastic is all around us. It slowly disintegrates into tiny particles or microplastics. These end up in the water, air, soil, but also in our food and even in our blood. "People are often convinced that the plastic problem will be solved through recycling," says de Groote. "But only a limited proportion gets recycled. In Belgium, it is 61% of all plastic in a PMD bag² and across the world only 15%. Unfortunately, a lot of waste is also exported. EU waste exports to non-EU countries were still 32.7 million tonnes in 20204. In those countries, it finds its way to African and Asian 'recyclers'. They often dump or burn it in open air, right next to watercourses and oceans."


The explosive growth of the organization itself also requires solutions. "Currently, we are growing from a start-up to a scale-up. This phase will not run itself. We are seeking funding to make investments and attract crucial profiles. For this, we are aiming for a budget of 3 million euros in 2024," Thomas de Groote explains. "Part of the budget will allow us to validate the Clean River Model. This model is a comprehensive solution for plastic-free rivers based on three pillars: Empower, Prevent and Accelerate. The focus in this model is much more on prevention than clean-up. The model is currently being tested in Belgium, Cameroon and Indonesia."

Director of The Ocean Cleanup strengthens Belgian organization

With the appointment of Tames Rietdijk as Program Director, River Cleanup is strengthening itself significantly. Rietdijk brings his expertise from working at The Ocean Cleanup, the international non-profit project whose mission is to remove plastic from the oceans. He complements this with more than 15 years of experience in data-driven problem analysis and prioritisation. Rietdijk previously contributed to the development of a performance measurement methodology for sustainability, which evolved into the United Nations Sustainable Development Performance Indicators. He also co-founded a trading platform for CO2 emission allowances under the Kyoto Protocol.


"The energy of the talented River Cleanup team inspires me to go all the way for my passion: improving life in and around rivers. I am excited to work with an eager team to move forward and tackle the source of plastic pollution. River pollution is a social problem that requires behavioural change. "Community engagement" is River Cleanup's strength. Making people aware of the problem is the core part of the solution." - Tames Rietdijk, Program Director of River Cleanup

Aspiration: To clean up the 1 000 most polluted rivers

River Cleanup aims to provide a holistic solution for preventing new plastic pollution, permanently removing existing waste and encouraging sustainable change at various levels.
River Cleanup seeks to make the 1 000 most polluted rivers plastic-free by 2050, as they cause  80% of plastic pollution. Following a data-driven strategy, it wants to be able to select the most relevant rivers. At the same time, River Cleanup continues pushing  for real solutions. It advocates deposits on bottles and cans and combats single-use plastic because never-produced plastic can never end up in the environment.

5 years of River Cleanup in figures

  • 3.5 million kg of waste collected (of which 2.5 million kg plastic)
  • Present in 100 countries
  • More than 250,000 volunteers
  • Awards: 
    • 2020: JCI Belgium Ten Outstanding Young Persons Award
    • 2022: BORA Award Best Campaign World Cleanup Day
    • 2022: Belgian Impact Day - Best Pitch
    • 2022: Presidential Award - Green Lithuania
    • 2023: Cisco Innovation Award - Smart EcoBin
    • 2023: GeoSpatial Award Jury + Public
    • 2023: Trends Impact Award - Ecology
    • 2023: Ready to Invest Award ABN Amro
    • 2023: Public Choice Ashoka Impact Program

About Tames Rietdijk

Tames Rietdijk (57) has been Program Director at River Cleanup since January 2nd 2024. He is married and a father of two and lives on a houseboat in Zaandam (Netherlands) "My name means 'river source' in Ancient Greek. I have finally come home." Rietdijk was previously River Director at The Ocean Cleanup. He has broadened his focus from measuring organizations' performance to measuring their impact on the environment and society. Rietdijk enjoys sailing, martial arts, the Wim Hof Method, reading and personal growth.


"I look to the future with great enthusiasm and am delighted to welcome Tames to our team at River Cleanup. He will be with us as we start the next phase. In this phase, through the Clean River Model, we are making the shift from cleaning up plastics ourselves to a scalable model with a focus on prevention, where everyone in the world can participate in making their river plastic-free." - Thomas de Groote, founder and CEO of River Cleanup




¹ Nature Geoscience - Global mass of buoyant marine plastics dominated by large long-lived debris

² Fost Plus - Activity Report 2022

³ United Nations - Beat Plastic Pollution Practical Guide 

European Parliament - Plastic waste and recycling in the EU: facts and figures