TableTalks: Nine questions for Thomas de Groote, founder of River Cleanup

October 8, 2020

Every week, we ingest the equivalent of a plastic credit card.

Thomas de Groote is the initiator of River Cleanup, an organisation dedicated to cleaning up plastic in and along rivers. For this, they rely on the goodwill of volunteers and the use of smart technologies. In this way, the organisation hopes to generate awareness and spark a change in behaviour among policymakers, companies and individuals alike.

River Cleanup is run by a permanent team of three people and backed by some 100,000 volunteers. They can also rely on an advisory board that helps set out the mission and strategy. This board of experts consists of eight experienced professionals (who are also volunteers), who share their knowledge and are active in various sectors, including industry, banking, energy, sustainable entrepreneurship and marketing. Their broad experience helps raise the organisation to a higher level and make an impact on an even larger scale.

If there’s one organisation with sustainability in its very DNA, it’s River Cleanup. We asked Thomas nine questions about his vision for sustainability.

Why is sustainability important to you?

Plastics in our seas and oceans break down into tiny microplastics and enter our food chain. Every week, we eat the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic. We ingest this plastic in water, salt, beer, crustaceans and so on.

We are the first generation with plastic in our bodies and often we are not even aware of it. We are also the first generation to really feel the impact of pollution and climate change. At the same time, we are the last generation that can do something about it.

So sustainability is not a choice. We have to act. We only have one planet and it’s not ours. We borrowed it from our children and have to give it back to them soon.

I am not a doom-monger, but it really is one minute to midnight. Fortunately, this is starting to dawn on people here and there. For example, I can already see a shift within the financial market, where attention is increasingly being paid to sustainability, and sustainability is also becoming an important criterion for more and more consumers.

What is your biggest challenge on the road to sustainability?

Many people fail to see or feel the problem. The world uses Africa as its rubbish dump; the highest levels of CO₂ are emitted in China; the most polluted rivers flow through Asia ... in short: it is all a long way away from our daily lives.

In the meantime, however, 8 billion kilogrammes of plastic end up in the oceans every year. That is 1 kilogramme per person, or the equivalent of a container the size of a person filled with plastic. Every single year.

Yet many people don’t feel that responsibility. Besides, they’re far too busy to deal with these problems. It’s difficult to motivate them to take action, because the difference it makes isn’t something you see in your lifetime. It’s only noticeable to the next generation.

To overcome this challenge, River Cleanup focuses on two courses of action: inspiring people to act by raising their awareness of the problems, and the use of technology.

For example, we often work with local organisations. Over the past three years, we have managed to sign up 100,000 volunteers in 45 countries. In addition, we regularly visit schools. We first tell the children about the impact of plastic waste on nature in a light-hearted way. After that, we all go round clearing up rubbish around the school. The children’s reactions are always fantastic.

What is more, we’re working with many companies and researchers to find new ways of using technology to tackle this problem, because it’s impossible to clean up 8 billion kilos of plastic waste by hand.

This combination of awareness, prevention and efficient disposal of waste with technology is a powerful way to find a sustainable solution to this challenge.

What has prompted River Cleanup to invest in sustainability?

Like so many people, I was far too busy to care about the environment. I had a hectic job, children and an active social life. And then in 2017, I was challenged to do something outside my comfort zone, but at the same time it was super simple: I had to pick up litter for 10 minutes and share a post about it on Facebook.

That simple act opened my eyes. I started to see how we treat our planet and think differently about waste. My behaviour changed very gradually. I started to buy more consciously, compensate, inform, reduce ... And I wanted to do something about the problem on a large scale, which will undoubtedly have something to do with my background in lean management and continuous improvement.

That's when I started organising clean-ups along rivers. These first clean-ups were very varied in success. Sometimes 10 people took part, other times 100. I realised that I couldn’t make a difference that way, which is why I started River Cleanup.

Which entrepreneur inspires you?

I draw inspiration from any entrepreneur who is resolute, yet defiant in their resoluteness. An entrepreneur who already dares to make certain sustainable choices and questions if things can't be done differently.

Actually, we all have to ask ourselves this question. Every day. For example, ask yourself how you can prevent waste. This can often be done by changing small things in your daily life.

Which sustainable achievement are you most proud of?

The 10 minutes I spent with my children at the very first clean-up I did in August 2017. My daughter spotted litter in the street and we were the superheroes who came along to clean it up. Not only was it fun, we also got the feeling that we were really saving the world.

The man who challenged me, the Flemish entrepreneur Jean-Paul Meus, has been collecting litter for 10 minutes every day for 1578 days now. He expresses this feeling beautifully: 'If it ain't fun, it ain't sustainable.

From 0 to 1, that is the biggest hurdle. After that, it’s plain sailing. Ten minutes of collecting litter in the street with three kids. Simple, isn't it?

And about 100,000 river warriors and 3 years later, I am now especially proud of our first Trash Tree that we installed on the Ci Tarum in Indonesia, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The Trash Tree is a floating barrier that we installed in a tributary. The Trash Tree stops all the floating plastic, which is collected by a volunteer. Others have followed since, but the first one is always special.

What do you think the benefits of sustainable entrepreneurship are?

Today, it’s a competitive advantage; tomorrow it’s a must! So it’s better to decide on sustainable entrepreneurship now, so that you’re ahead of the game. The sooner you start, the greater the benefits.

People’s mindsets are changing. Consumers are increasingly opting for sustainable products. Soon it will be economically irresponsible not to do business sustainably.

Quite apart from the economic motives, there is also that incredible personal satisfaction you get when you look back on your working day as a sustainable entrepreneur. You feel it when you put the children to bed in the evening, when you look in the mirror ... That feeling is priceless.

So the question should be turned around: why wouldn't a company invest in sustainability?

How important do you consider the cooperation with partners, suppliers, investors and customers on the road to sustainability?

It is essential for us to work together. Only then can we change things for the better.

At River Cleanup, we work with everyone who wants to take a step in the right direction, whether it's big or small step, involving a small local organisation or a large multinational. Only by growing as an organisation can we make an impact on a large scale. We’re always looking for more volunteers, partners and funding.

Do you have any tips for companies and entrepreneurs who want to embark on the path to sustainability?

Start small but start today. And think carefully about whether that packaging, product or service is really necessary before you start making it more sustainable. Dare to be critical.

Involve employees (suppliers and customers) in the process and together, identify goals you want to set in the short and long term. The UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) of the UN are a good guideline for this.

Which book would you recommend to people who want to know more about sustainability and sustainable entrepreneurship?

I’d rather challenge people to do something. Take part in the 10-minute challenge and collect litter for ten minutes. Experience the power of this simple act. Or join the River Cleanup on World Cleanup Day in September!


Translated from ABN Amro Table Talks:…