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'In an ideal world we would recycle everything'

Merijn Tinga hit the headlines in 2016 as the Plastic Soup Surfer. In force six winds, the Leiden biologist ventured across the English Channel on a hydrofoil kiteboard made from plastic bottles. Interview with this Leiden artist who is fighting the mountain of plastic waste and finding his feet as a father.

Tinga, who graduated in 1996, created the green version of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust in 2014: the Plastic Soup Surfer, who is seeking ways to reduce the mountain of plastic waste.

Before you built your board and set sail for England, you were already an artist with a social conscience, weren’t you?

‘Yes, but more about art itself. After the millennium we, a group of young artists from Leiden, wanted to take art out of the elite context. It began with a set of chisels that we used to carve wooden posts on the beach. Later on we started illegally installing large sculptures in public spaces. Essentially, we were still struggling with the question of what art is or should be.’

When did your artistic ambitions start?

‘Around 2000 I think. Perhaps the biggest turning-point in my life was the decision I made then to cycle to Morocco with a kiteboard. I taught biology for a few years at Rijnlands Lyceum after graduating. Teaching was fun, but I also found a school to be limiting environment. There I was in my late 20s, lying like a rock in a stream with the pupils flowing around me like the water. Teaching for me also has a lot in common with controlling, avoiding chaos, whereas my heart lies with inspiring, experimenting. I gave in my notice and a friend advised me to take my board and cycle to Morocco. Which was something of a challenge. After I had burnt all my bridges – waved goodbye to my girlfriend at the time, sublet my room – I found myself on the Haringvlietbrug with painful knees, on a bike with 80 kilos of luggage behind me. That was an intense feeling, and it is one I felt more often. For instance, in the rain on a winding mountain track along the north coast of Spain. But it was in Morocco that I discovered that I wanted to do something else with my life.’

And then?

‘I didn’t become an artist straight away, but I did start experimenting. A period followed in which I did many different things, from working in a nightclub to caring for disabled people on a yacht that sailed between the Netherlands and Sweden. That’s where I met my wife. And the good thing was that I would work for three weeks and then have two weeks off. A friend and I made sculptures in his attic. I also drew and played a lot of guitar.’

Read more (in Dutch) in our free alumni magazine Leidraad.

Sign the petition

Deposits on small plastic bottles would greatly reduce the amount of plastic in the sea. Merijn Tinga has started a petition to convince the Dutch House of Representatives. To sign it, surf to plasticsoupsurfer.org.

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