A simple solution to plastic pollution

At Westerdok in Amsterdam, close to central station, and where the canal exits to the IJ river, eagle-eyed passers-by will see a ripple running diagonally across the water. This is the world’s first bubble curtain to capture plastic pollution, the keystone technology developed by Amsterdam cleantech startup, The Great Bubble Barrier. 

It’s a simple idea that can dramatically reduce the amount of plastic ending up in our oceans. Air is pumped through a perforated tube running along the bottom of the waterway, which creates an upward current that directs plastic to the surface. Following the natural flow of the water, the plastic then is guided to a catchment system. The bubble barrier targets the full width and depth of the water and allows marine life and ship traffic to pass through unhindered.

The Great Bubble Barrier at Amsterdam WesterdokLike many great ideas in history, the concept was dreamt up at a bar. Long-time friends, now co-founders, Francis Zoet, Anne Marieke Eveleens and Saskia Studer, were talking about plastic pollution when the bubbles in their glasses sparked a theory.

Together with Philip Ehrhorn, who was also looking into the idea, the company was founded. The first full-scale pilot of the bubble curtain launched in the River IJssel in 2019.

“That was more successful than we had dreamed,” Francis Zoet tells I amsterdam. “After that, we were looking for a longer term pilot and the city of Amsterdam was very willing to give it a go, especially because of the high waste load in the city.

“We're very happy that Amsterdam took this first step. They are very happy that they will catch plastic in our canals, and, with other parties, it has been a very good starting point to see it in action and see that this is what we can do to remove plastic from our rivers.”

The Great Bubble Barrier now has three more projects in the pipeline: two in the Netherlands at exits to the North Sea, and a Bubble Barrier in the Porto region, Portugal, to stop plastic entering the Atlantic Ocean. Backed by the EU, the project also includes ecological monitoring to gather new insights about plastic in waterways. In 2023, the team hopes to use its technology in South East Asia, in some of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Supporting plastic policy

The Great Bubble Barrier Amsterdam sorting plastic

The Great Bubble Barrier also monitors its catch to help develop policy for plastic waste management, so that cities can implement solutions to clear up waterways, as they do streets. Francis says that while cities and citizens are eager to take action, there is a gap in policy and budget to address the issue. 

“In the Netherlands we have the municipality responsible for litter on the streets, we have the water management boards responsible for micropollutants and water quality in general, but not really the macro pollutants like plastic and bigger stuff. And we have the Rijkswaterstaat, the water authority responsible for the five main rivers and water quality in the rivers. So there's still a big gap there. Right now, we see there is a budget for innovation – that's what cities can use to make this happen. 

“There's a budget for removing litter in the streets and general trash but not really any budget to remove waste from waterways. We found out recently the budget for a Bubble Bbarrier can be compared to a budget for a new waste truck, we thought that was a nice comparison.”

An innovative environment for startups

The Great Bubble Barrier co-founder Francis Zoet

As an already booming startup and scaleup hub, the Amsterdam Area has a high density of connected companies, universities and research institutes which often collaborate.

Buoyed by Amsterdam’s Startup in Residence programme, which links startups to urban and social issues, The Great Bubble Barrier also credits its success to the city’s reputation for innovation. 

“The City of Amsterdam, with their approach towards innovation, has really helped us to gain momentum, also because they have quite a good reputation internationally around technology, that has in turn supported The Great Bubble Barrier.

“On top of that Amsterdam is part of the [WWF’s] Plastic Smart Cities programme, which means they are consciously investing in solutions to prevent plastic pollution and to make the city smarter in terms of plastic management.”

“I think definitely our first long term implementation here in Amsterdam has really helped bring The Great Bubble Barrier to the public eye. I think, especially, to see it in action, it's quite a simple concept of which a lot of people have said, ‘Why didn't someone come up with this before, why isn't it deployed everywhere, is it really working as it's so simple?’ 

“For people to visit it and see it doing its job, is really nice and hopeful. It's been quite a journey but I do think we're really going in the right direction and being at this place where we are now, it’s looking really good.”

Read more about Amsterdam's cleantech sector or more interviews with companies in Amsterdam.