The Ocean Cleanup founder Florian Dirkse about realizing sustainable dreams

A sailing trip around the world, (co-)founding The Ocean Cleanup, taking The Great Bubble Barrier a step forward, refurbishing an old polyester sailing ship to sail for seven years and now a mysterious new project involving shipwrecks… Florian Dirkse is certainly not an idealistic dreamer, but a hard-working ideal chaser with a can-do mentality. How does he overcome challenges and limiting thoughts? And what is his formula for transforming (sustainable) dreams into impact?

Sailing around the world for two years

If a dream is big enough: go for it, believe in it and don’t look (too much) at all those possible difficulties. In short, that is Florian Dirkse’s recipe for making dreams come true. The first time he applied this was for his sailing trip around the world. Dirkse: “After a sailing trip from Central America to Europe as a co-skipper in my student days, the dream of sailing around the world arose. We started with four friends, but after five years of saving, we ended up with just the two of us.”

In order to realize his dream, Dirkse had to show a lot of discipline. “We put everything aside for five years. Even dinners with our girlfriends were no longer an option.” The result was a two-year sailing trip across the oceans, past various (nature) projects. They recorded their findings in the eight-part TV documentary Sea, salt & sailing and the book The Green Miles.

Give back to the oceans

The do-gooder was raised environmentally aware and was already interested in nature as a child. It was only when he sailed across the oceans that his eyes were really opened to the massive destruction that humans are doing to nature. “By sailing, you are one with nature and you see how fragile our planet is. We saw a huge amount of plastic, sailed through an oil slick for days and found plastic in fish stomachs. The beaches in particular were shocking: bizarre what all washes up there.”

When Dirkse returned, he wanted to give something back to the oceans. “We started looking into it and found out that oceans generate most of our oxygen and have the richest biodiversity. As a result, we concluded: we cannot do without the oceans. That strengthened our sense of giving something back by cleaning up the plastic soup.”

80 hours a week for The Ocean Cleanup

After Dirkse had seen Boyan Slat’s TEDx talk about his school research project, he contacted him. “Boyan first wanted to finish his studies and then do a serious feasibility study on the project. I then volunteered to help him a few days a week. That was the beginning of The Ocean Cleanup.”

Full throttle, believe 100 percent in the matter and don’t listen too much to limiting thoughts: that was also the motto of Dirkse and Slat at The Ocean Cleanup (TOC). “For the first two and a half years, we each worked on it voluntarily for eighty hours a week. The great thing is: if you want to make the world a better place and you have a good idea, it’s easy to get people on board. At TOC we quickly received a lot of support from, for example, volunteers, sponsoring companies, a secondment agency that sponsored a project manager for a year and TU Delft that gave us an office and workshop free of charge. We raised money for a feasibility study through a crowdfunding campaign.”

Vocation: making rivers plastic-free

Dirkse has not been working at TOC for several years now, ‘for various reasons’. He is critical of the current approach of dragging nets through the oceans with diesel tugs and hopes that it is an intermediate phase towards anchoring nets to the ocean floor and thus catching plastic via natural currents. He does, however, wholeheartedly support TOC’s initiative to clear up the rivers via the so-called Interceptors. “90 percent of all plastic in the oceans comes from the rivers, so it is better to tackle the problem there.”

After TOC, that was also his new calling: for a while he helped The Great Bubble Barrier, among other things by setting up a major media campaign. This Dutch startup has developed a system that blows a screen of air bubbles up from the bottom over the full width and depth of a river. The result: all the plastic floats to the side and ends up in the collection system.

No matter how well the system works: it is and remains symptom relief. Dirkse prefers to see the problem tackled closer to the source. “In addition to stricter regulations for manufacturers, there must also be more awareness: waste simply does not belong in nature.”

From refurbishing a wreck to rescuing leaking wrecks

Dirkse started his own business about seven years ago. He refurbished an old polyester sailing ship, after which he organized sailing trips with his company Zeildromen. By saving this boat from destruction, he wanted to address a major ecological problem: all old fiberglass boats now go to scrap, but cannot be burned or recycled.

Dirkse: “Zeildromen was great, but that’s over now. I am currently giving lectures and something new has come my way. It has to do with all the shipwrecks that rust through and then cause ecological disasters because of the released oil. I’m working with someone right now who… Well, because of a non-disclosure agreement I can’t say too much about it. But in any case, it revolves around this mega problem that will become much bigger in the future. A beautiful new dream to work on again.”

‘Just start and involve the right people’

Looking back at all the lessons he has learned since he set sail in 2008, what is Dirkse’s advice for turning sustainable dreams into reality? “Go for it and don’t listen too much to all those limiting thoughts. Just start and involve people who have the right knowledge. Then it will eventually work itself out.”

Dirkse strongly believes in an ‘agile’ working method and mindset. “Is something not working properly? You can always change your plans again. You try something, you learn something, you adjust something and then the next iteration begins. And remember, you can always stop. Only that is not in my DNA, haha.”