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Canal Cups project 59th in Trouw newspaper’s Sustainable 100

Canal Cups, Auke-Florian Hiemstra and Liselotte Rambonnet’s project to rid Leiden of disposable plastic cups and its canals of litter, has taken 59th place in Trouw newspaper’s Top 100 sustainable initiatives.

Trouw has published its annual sustainable Top 100 for some time already, but this year it changed tack. Whereas politicians, directors, academics and activists used to populate the list, they have now made way for city dwellers and lovers of the great outdoors; normal people who are trying to live a sustainable lifestyle or have taken a sustainable initiative. The Canal Cups project is a perfect example of this.

Auke-Florian Hiemstra, Gabriel Olthof and Liselotte Rambonnet in the bathroom with some of their haul.

Auke-Florian Hiemstra, Liselotte Rambonnet and Gabriel Olthof were all studying biology when they discovered while out canoeing how many disposable cups were floating in the canals of Leiden: they fished out 1,000 over an 800-metre stretch. And for anyone who thinks the canals look fine: a great deal of plastic is below the surface. It takes a single day for this plastic to float to the sea at Katwijk. 

The three decided to launch a project to ban disposable cups. Olthof graduated and soon found a job, but Hiemstra and Rambonnet carried on with the project. Hiemstra is now studying for his master’s in biology and Rambonnet is a project leader at Leiden Observatory. Replacing the disposable cups with eco-friendly cups that users pay a deposit for was already on the agenda of political Leiden, but no one dared touch the big party in Leiden: 3 October. This left a carpet of cups in the city centre, some of which inevitably blew into the canals. 

Much has already been fished out of the canals, from a canoe. But the ambitions are now higher.

Hiemstra and Rambonnet started a campaign in which they posted a photo on the internet every day of a cup that had been fished out of a canal. They wanted to continue until no more cups were littering the canals of Leiden. This attracted a lot of media attention, also because the photos were fascinating: the disposable cups look different on every photo. Pristine, broken, smeared, with marks on them, with leaves sticking to them, with logo, without logo... There was even an exhibition of the photos.

Hiemstra and Rambonnet achieved what they set out to achieve. This year’s 3 October was the first one without disposable cups. There were a few hitches – the cups ran out here and there – but overall it was a success. And children had a lucrative new hobby: collecting stray cups and earning the 1 euro deposit per cup.

The project now has a follow-up: fishing litter out of the canals from canoes. A crowdfunding campaign has started to fund a fleet of canoes.

The place in the Sustainable 100 is a pat on the back for Canal Cups. ‘We were invited to the celebration at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam,’ Hiemstra says proudly. And he and Rambonnet have every right to be proud.

Help fund the fleet of canoes.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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