Copenhagen: The man who wants to save our plastic world
Unless we act now, the world's oceans will have more plastic than fish in weight by the year 2050. Although Europe isn't necessarily faced with the direct consequences of plastic waste, it still produces millions of tonnes of plastic each year. So where does a Danish biologist, sailor, diver and father of two sons stand in all of this? Right at the heart of the problem.
For our YoTambien project, we dove into the themes of Yo!Fest @ the EYE2018, Europe's largest youth-led political festival, to explore the issues that matter to young people the most. This article focuses on the theme "protecting our planet".
I’m walking alongside Henrik Beha Pedersen next to the canal at Islands Brygge, in the centre of Copenhagen. Despite the fresh temperatures, the sun is shining. A soft breeze carries small objects scattered across the black boulders next to the water. “We should arrange a clean-up here,” Henrik says. A few metres from us, a concrete platform is occupied by a mute swan, Denmark’s national bird. In the water next to it, a plastic bag floats by.
“Look at all that plastic over there!” he exclaims. While we walk down the scenic harbour, Henrik is rambling on about how irritating it is that we think trash only ends up in the streets of low-income countries. “Just look at it,” he insists, pointing to all of the plastic objects floating in the water and in between the boulders.
Out of sight, out of mind
A lot of the waste that Europe doesn’t know what do to with is exported to low and middle-income countries. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ seems to be the dominant mantra. In 2016, for example, of the 8.5 million tonnes of plastic waste produced by European citizens, 1.6 million tonnes were shipped to China.
But Henrik isn’t just a guy who talks about change. He walks the walk. The 54-year-old Dane is somewhat of a plastic waste hero. In May 2014 he founded Plastic Change, a Danish organisation that actively carries out clean-up missions globally and raises awareness about the consequences of increasing plastic pollution in the oceans and the environment in general.
In the middle of our chat about EU waste exports, Henrik decides to climb down between the boulders. “We should really arrange a clean-up here,” he says again, his head bent over a yellow plastic bag that he has managed to salvage from the rocks. He mutters the words “what a waste” to himself multiple times. More rubbish washes up next to the rocks, and he starts putting all he can find in the larger plastic bag. A straw, a pharmacy bag, a red cup, some glittery candy wrappers… objects from everyday lives, everywhere.
Two men pass by wearing matching black T-shirts. They are carrying big trash bags and pick up tools. Henrik looks up at them from the rocks: “That’s awesome. Good job guys.” The two workers seem slightly surprised by the encouragement they have received from Henrik, but it’s all part of the change that he wants to see. While the men walk on, Henrik climbs up from the boulders and another plastic bag floats behind him in the canal.
Gazing into the plastic ball
While we eat Danish rye bread, Henrik tells me about how he ended up working with plastic. He studied to become an environmental biologist, specialising in the cocktail effects of chemicals. After finishing his studies, the Dane went on to work for Greenpeace, first as a campaign manager and later as the programme leader of Greenpeace Denmark.
“The environment and the protection of it has been the governing principle of what I have been doing for the last 20 years,” he tells me. But five years ago, Henrik decided to part ways with Greenpeace and pursue his own vision. “I took out some time after Greenpeace just looking into the crystal ball. I was trying to get a feeling of where I could [have the most impact] for the world and for nature with my experiences,” he explains, looking into the distance of the canal.
In his younger years, a few incidents pushed Henrik to go down the yellow plastic road. With a smile on his face, he recalls the time he hitchhiked through Europe and North Africa with a friend and stumbled upon a pile of plastic in the backyard of their hotel in Tunisia. He tells me how the pile was about two metres tall and twenty metres wide, stretching his arms out to indicate the size, knife and fork in hand. “We started playing with the plastic, building sculptures from it. It was the first time I started thinking about this fantastic material that had only been used once, and was now lying in the backyard,” he explains.
Being a sailor and a diver as well as an environmental advocate, Henrik has spent a significant amount of time – 20 years to be exact – in oceans and seas across the world. “I saw an emerging issue around plastics in nature and in the oceans. I felt a need to focus on that, and Greenpeace wasn’t on that track at that moment,” he confesses. After he quit Greenpeace, he started asking himself how he could make a positive change for the environment. He also asked his two sons. Their answer? “Dad, you need to work with plastic.”
Henrik’s tone becomes more serious. “We have a huge responsibility towards the next generation. That is the basis […] of Plastic Change. But what’s more, there’s a link between the issue of plastic and the climate: overconsumption. We can’t just consume and not think about reducing our consumption,” he explains. Every now and then, I have to stop asking questions to let Henrik eat his rye bread.
“As human beings, we can do a lot”
After our walk along the canal, we go back to the Plastic Change offices. Upon walking in, two things catch my eye. First, the large white plastic ball hanging from the ceiling, decorated with repurposed white plastic bottles of different shapes and sizes, forming a globe with mountains and trees. Second, the office dog Else, who curiously comes to check if newcomers have any snacks for her. Henrik greets the dog, without giving her treats. He takes me to a quiet office while the rest of the team is having lunch.
We take a seat, and Henrik continues energetically, despite the grim topic. “Our biggest challenge is how we can make it something that people can afford in their daily lives and that everyone can take part in solving. As human beings and as individuals, we can do a lot,” he says, mentioning small things like bringing your own water bottle, separating trash or reusing shopping bags.
As an organisation, Plastic Change has several activities. They publish learning materials and academic writing on plastic waste, arrange clean-ups, designed a bench made from reused ocean plastic, organise plastic-photo competitions and even developed an app called Beat the Microbread in which users can check if a product contains micro-beads simply by scanning the barcode. Still, for Henrik, it’s not enough: “I think it’s important that we also focus on the responsibility of the plastic industry and politicians. We can only solve this together.” He hopes that one day, Plastic Change will be the go-to organisation when it comes to plastic waste.
The plastic hero struts around the office space with skin that is visibly more tanned than his colleagues. A few days earlier, Henrik was sailing in the Pacific Ocean to see how critical the plastic waste situation has become. “We want to see, feel and expose the issue. Being close to the ocean and picking up pieces of plastic in the middle of the plastic soups, and sending photos of what we see back home is a strong way for us to raise awareness,” he tells me.
Earlier this year, a young sperm whale washed ashore in Cape Palos in southeast Spain, dead. Inside the whale, scientists found 29 kilos of plastic rubbish, just a fraction of the 8 million tonnes of plastic we are throwing away each year. On his boat, Henrik has encountered plastic soups, which are millions of pieces of plastic concentrated in certain areas of the ocean, floating on the surface. In the past years, the Plastic Change has travelled to places like Hawaii, where Henrik and his team organised clean-ups on beaches and trawled plastics out of the waters. “I became really angry when I saw all the micro plastics. It’s just such a system failure,” Henrik says passionately. “We have had a party with plastic. That party is over now. It has been the Wild West.”
Still, Henrik doesn’t want to abolish plastic. Time and time again, he insists on how fantastic a material plastic is. “We haven’t been able to value the single-use products after they have been used,” he adds, referring to return schemes as a way to avoid waste. He is a big fan of the EU’s circular economy strategy. Being Danish, that isn’t too surprising. In Denmark, citizens pay minor deposits for many beverages. Once finished, consumers can return the plastic bottles and reclaim their deposits. Discussions of whether or not to introduce a similar concept with plastic bags are slowly surfacing as well. It’s a simple and efficient system, that has proved to be extremely successful in Denmark, with 90% of all plastic bottles being collected for reuse throughout the country. “We need a movement of young people,” Henrik adds, “The next generation needs to be asking themselves how they can reduce their plastic consumption, and take part in a society where every piece of plastic is reused and never ends up in nature.”
My day with Henrik has come to an end. Before closing the door of the Plastic Change offices behind me, Henrik manages to slip in one one last conjecture. Contrary to his light and energetic attitude, his last words make my heart feel heavy: “If we don’t succeed, we will be drowning in and eating plastic in the future.”