What’s the problem really?
Have you ever noticed it? All the plastic floating, the green colour of the water in summer, the complete absence of nature except for a few ducks and occasional dead rats and fish? Maybe not because you’ve always seen the canal in that state. And for sure, it doesn’t look like a healthy place, let alone like a suitable habitat for animals. Rather, it is an environment where only boats can thrive. Today more than ever we have to strive to reintegrate nature in cities and tackle ecological problems and climate change. Trash abounds in the canal, blown from the street by the wind or dumped in directly, overflows discharge sewage into it and its concrete bed is not welcoming for aquatic life. There are many problems but many solutions as well.
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Kayak outings to raise awareness
The problems of the canal aren’t known to all, not even the floating trash. And yet, if you walk by the canal in the city centre, you can always see some – any time of the day, any day of the week. If it’s not fished out, it ends up in the Scheldt and further in the North Sea. Every year 8 million tons of plastic waste worldwide find their way into the oceans via rivers. And of the three problems, that is the most visible one. The bad water quality and the lack of biodiversity are less obvious. To raise awareness about these issues, we organise kayak trips every week, always with new volunteers. The activity is open to all – families, friends, groups, schools, businesses and associations.
The installation of a trash barrier
The Port of Brussels has already undertaken several actions to tackle the waste problem in the canal (trash collecting boats, litter traps) but they are not sufficient to contain the never-ending flow. Moreover, the canal is first and foremost a transportation route for boats. This makes it an even harder nut to crack. How do you stop the stream of waste without hindering the passage of the boats? We propose to install a mobile trash barrier covering the whole width of the canal to stop the trash and lead it to the side where it can be taken out regularly. A mechanism could be triggered by the lock operators to open it and let the boats pass. The Port of Brussels has launched a study to analyse the waste problem and will examine our proposal. Canal It Up is a member of the monitoring committee.
Deposit system on cans and bottles
Despite current efforts with respect to recycling and awareness-raising, and despite the many clean-ups organised by citizens, the volume of litter keeps increasing. 40% of the trash we find in the canal – and in nature in general – are single use beverage packaging. Fortunately, there is an efficient solution for it, which has been successfully introduced in many countries: the deposit system. By giving value to cans and plastic bottles, we give incentives to people to stop throwing them in the environment or to pick them up if they are lying around. In July 2021, we launched a petition to obtain the right to speak in front of the parliament to ask for the introduction of a deposit system in Belgium. We have collected the 15.000 signatures needed to do so and we will be heard by the Flemish parliament in October 2022. And since the best waste is the one that doesn’t exist, we will also ask for a political strategy that encourages the use of reusable packaging.
The green islands
The canal zone in Brussels centre consists entirely of grey, sterile and steep walls. It’s not a welcoming place for people and animals. Fish have nowhere to lay their eggs, birds cannot find sufficient food and people are kept well away from the water. In 2020, we thus developed a project and proposed to install green floating islands to create a new natural habitat in the Beco dock in the city centre. In April 22, the Port of Brussels launched a pilot project and placed 220m² of floating islands at the Brussels Royal Yacht Club. If this first project is successful, 440m² will be added elsewhere in the canal. We applaud this very positive initiative but we will keep advocating a more central location where Brussels inhabitants would be able to enjoy their proximity. Concretely, the islands serve as a stepping stone between existing natural zones and as a habitat in their own right. The plants take their nutrients directly from the water and their submerged roots provide a safe space for the fish to lay their eggs and hide. On the surface, the islands attract insects and birds. Such a project on a very large scale could also have a purifying effect on the water and help counter the problem of heat islands.
The improvement of water quality
The quality of the canal water is bad and it’s even worse for the Senne. The main source of pollution are the many sewage overflows. Indeed, Brussels has a combined sewer system, which means that waste water and rainwater end up in the same pipes. When it rains, the sewer gets saturated and discharges the mixed waters directly into the canal – along with the trash and the rats since there are no roasts to hold them back. Officially, a sewage overflow can be activated a couple of times per year as a security to prevent flooding, but in Brussels it happens several times per month. According to the European Water Framework Directive of 2000, the water quality of all rivers will have to be compliant with the ecological and chemical standards by 2027. As things now stand, the city will not reach these objectives. We put pressure on the authorities and we launch regular communication campaigns to shine a light on the current situation and ask for more ambition to solve this environmental problem. We discuss some possible solutions in the articles below.
The best kind of waste is the one that doesn’t exist. In the meantime a big part of the plastic waste we produce still ends up in incinerators. We can do better. We started to recycle the plastic waste we collect from the canal. And we wanted to do so in a way that it prevents more plastic trash from ending up in the water. That’s why we used the first recycled plastic to give feathers to Henry the Cormorant. Read more about it here.