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I sat down to chat to The Plastic Soup Surfer, Artist, Activist and Ecological Warrior to talk about some of the victories in his fight against climate change. He is the star of National Geographic’s new movie ‘From Source to Sea’ about plastic pollution and art. I wanted to better understand what motivates him to keep fighting in these trying times and how individual action may be the best solution.
The Power of Plastic & The Plastic Soup Surfer
1 million sea birds die as a result of marine plastic pollution each year. An additional 100,000 sea mammals die as a result of and yet still over the last 40 years plastic production has increases 20 times over. Plastic sprawling the top layer of our beaches has become a common an accepted sight. Especially considering this generation often heralds its fate as the most environmentally aware. Whilst us humans may be able to tip-toe our way over the graveyards of shampoo bottles and discarded flip flops that impede our path to the closest beach bar. Other species lack the depth of consciousness and appropriate limbs to do so and are therefore are far less fortunate. Offshore dumpsites steep our seas in loose plastic, laminating species below it to be forgotten. Whilst the majority of us have forgotten to do anything about it.
However, there is one figure in the Netherlands who is doing everything he can to shoulder some of the burden of this crisis. Merijn Tinga, better known by his nickname ‘The Plastic Soup Surfer’, spent 2016 trolling the beaches of the Netherlands on his board completely made from the rubbish he collects. 3D printing techniques helped to create this board out of bottles so he could rest firmly on the principles of reuse and recycle that his artistic career and activist activities are founded on. He is a trained biologist however he has turned his head to the visual arts creating works from items discarded by the rest of society across the city of Leiden.
One man’s rubbish has become this man’s message as Merijn began creating and erecting statues overnight that brought the issues of the ocean to the people of the cities. His love of the oceans spawned while following his farther round developing countries. I sat down to speak with Merijn before the release of his new national Geographic ‘From Source to Sea’ to find out more about his origin story .
I asked Merijn what it was that began his fascination with the environmental crisis. He said when he decided to make a surf board made of rubbish in his studio he set out for a long walk on his local beach with his 5 year old daughter. Expecting that his whole day would be consumed by this hunt for materials, he was finished looking for plastic within a 800m stretch. In my home city of London, such a wholesome act of goodness would result in a Blue Peter special and Merijn’s face on the bins of every primary school in the country. Yet it seems ‘The Plastic Soup Surfer’ only seeks to put his name on actual political legislation. In my opinion he is a man who has reacted and adapted to gloomy news stories of Carbon taxes and Green New Deal’s in the most optimistic way imaginable.
Surfing into the Spotlight: Individual action vs Corporations.
Merijn’s believes that the best way to solve a problem that starts on land is by resolving it on land. He has traversed the judicial system and utilised bailiffs and legal sanctions to try and target specific large organisations. The familiar plosives of social change, politicians and petitions, where the main weapons for inciting change in his arsenal. However, as his campaign grows and the need for individual action grows more pressing he has united a strong community of ‘Plastic Warriors’ to help him in his role as the defender of the sea. In recent history they collected 60,000 signatures to urge to Dutch government to add a deposit fee to plastic water bottles.
This was by no means an easy feet as Merijn prepares to foil surf his way to the British coast as a kick starting spectacle for his campaign. Within the first few months 20,000 signatures were collected whilst 40,000 were added in one fell swoop as the campaign grew. When the ‘Plastic Soup Surfer Accord’ was brought in front of the European Commission, the Dutch State Secretary said: ‘The Plastic Soup Surfer was the first to notice the desperate need for this bill’. When I asked Merijn how it felt to hear his actions spoken about within the mainstream political discourse he responded: ‘It was the point when it surpassed awareness and became political because financial consequences had been added’. He adds ‘that’s when NGO and industry services come to you because all of a sudden there is power in progress as soon as financial benefits or punishment is introduced, then companies begin to listen’.
How to Scare Big Polluters & Save Surfing.
Merijn believes that the current approach isn’t working. There is a systemic fault that has allowed companies to make consumers feel that they are responsible for pollution. Due to this, companies have been removed from the conversation on how to fix the problem in fear of doing a deal with the devil himself. The convocation has often been framed as if big companies never want to produce plastic products rather that the demand and recklessness of the public drove plastic into our waters . I imagine that during the 80’s and 90’s the cries of business executives proclaiming the need for renewable packaging must have drowned out by the sounds of cracking ice.
However, the Plastic Soup Surfer became the first person to send Bailiffs to the CEO’S of companies who’s plastic he recovered from the Rhine. Deployed in specific instances, bailiffs handing over warnings of judicial investigation to CEO’S has scared a lot of them into beginning a dialogue with the Soup Surfer about how to alter their behaviour. The battle against climate change is not a sprint nor is it a marathon, rather it is a hurdles race where the first obstruction is just getting companies to admit to their part in the problem of pollution. Once companies are told what it is that they are doing then at least then ‘they can never claim they didn’t know’. The implementation of Bailiffs is a successful example of how powerful targeting specific and localised companies or individuals can be.
In relation to the environmental protests held in Amsterdam during 2019, Merijn told me that he conflicted about its message. He states: “While I love that people stood up for the environment in such extraordinary numbers, you need to focus your message. If you are campaigning you need to know what is the goal and who are you getting to change it”. He adds “call out for a specific issue with a specific person in the crosshairs so you confront them as a mass of people who want their planet back to how it should be. I also found it to be rather tame, in a way it needs to be aggressive, activism is funnelled logical aggression, at least it should be”.
The Power of the Plastic Soup Surfer.
Merijn has become somewhat of a superhero to the creatures of the sea and land who have seen the effects of his actions. It is indistinguishable for us to tell which one of us he is helping more. For there Is no logical way to save the home’s of sea creatures without changing the behaviour and perceptions of men. The steel reefs of high rises that we call home are often so far removed from
the natural world that many of us forget about the connection between our actions and the habitats of other species. As individuals it is hard to see that our actions and the crisis we know is pressing down on us are related. Especially when it is so easy to reassure ourselves with the knowledge that we probably are doing more to help than the majority. However in actuality there is no limit to how much one person can help.
Merijn understands that one pieces of plastic dropped is another habitat destroyed and one picked up is a home rescued. He has become a globally known activist in the fight against plastic pollution. Instead of wallowing he has decided to be the one to clean up his part of the world. If everyone just cleaned up their part then the problem would be solved. A few extra bottles collected seems tedious to you and I but to the animals below the murky water it is greatly appreciate it.
By Chris Kelly, 2&6 Photojournalism.
You can learn more about Merijn in the new National Geographic documentary ‘From Source to Sea’ about his quest to build a board made of plastic and too change the tides of human behaviour.