Andreas Noe dropped out of his regular life and lives in a van off the coast of Portugal. Not only to surf but, above all, to take action against plastic pollution in the ocean. And to persuade us to rethink our consumer behavior. “We have forgotten how to make do when everything isn’t immediately available.”
You are a German living out of a van in Portugal, and you collect plastic garbage. How did you get here?
I am a molecular biologist, and I love to travel a lot. While vacationing in Portugal, I decided to move here. Three years ago, I found work in a Lisbon laboratory, where I conducted research into leukemia and then held a position as a medical consultant. Since living in Portugal, I have spent every free minute surfing. In my first year here, I lived a completely normal life in an apartment, but I decided I wanted a more minimalistic lifestyle and to be closer to the water. So, I moved into my VW minibus. I had always dreamed of being able to jump right into the waves before and after work. Suddenly, I was confronted each day with plastic and garbage. It struck me while in the supermarket how much disposable plastic we actually use each day. Since then, I’ve increasingly attempted to live without it.
How did you get the idea to collect garbage? Was there a key moment?
When you surf on the beaches around Lisbon in the winter, you notice how much garbage washes up from the storms in the Tagus River, which flows into the sea here. Then you find yourself literally surfing in plastic and garbage. This proved to be the decisive point for me to rethink my career. I no longer felt truly satisfied working in the biomedical field. If we continue to produce and consume as we’ve been doing, then in another 20 to 30 years, none of us will be happy.
Then you not only decided to collect the garbage around your van but to start a kind of movement.
There was no real plan at the beginning. Exactly one year ago, I quit my job and started collecting garbage. But I needed a greater sense of purpose. Of course, I can collect five tons of plastic on a deserted beach, but that wouldn’t really change anything. People have to see every single cigarette butt and every single piece of plastic that I collect. In this way, I can hopefully prod them into reflecting on this problem. This was why I started an Instagram account called The Trash Traveler, which also includes info on my travels, my ukulele, and, above all, fun. I am not interested in judging people. Instead, I want to motivate them to think, and, above all, in a positive, humorous, and sometimes even serious way. I make entertaining videos about a severe problem. I try to package the topic well so that people want to look at my posts. You can’t motivate people to pitch in if you put them in a bad mood. My concern is not only about collecting garbage but that we rethink and change our habits. I would love to trigger a transformation with my work.
What do you do with the collected garbage?
At first, I threw out the plastic garbage into the designated containers. Then I became increasingly occupied with this subject. I discovered that worldwide only 14% of plastic refuse is recycled. The remaining 86% ends up either burnt at landfill sites or is sent to developing countries. These countries have become flooded with garbage, and they can’t even begin to manage it. As a result, it often ends up in the oceans. Even in Germany, the waste management system is not efficient. We have to reduce the quantity of our garbage and turn to sustainable products.
I quickly reached the point where I didn’t want to put any more garbage in the recycling containers, as here in Portugal, even less than 14% is recycled. In terms of sustainability, we have to mention the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. As a guiding principle, I regard it as faulty because our focus must be on reducing and reusing. My three Rs are Reduce, Reuse, Refuse. I don’t even mention the word “recycling” anymore. Reducing the amount of garbage and reusing packaging sounds like a lot of effort, and many people, therefore, think that recycling is just as good an option. There simply isn’t enough pressure on people to generate less garbage. Most disposable plastic, for instance, isn’t recyclable at all.
So, if recycling isn’t an option, what do you do with all the collected plastic garbage?
I’ve initiated the Plastic Hike. It involves me hiking along the coast of Portugal collecting plastic garbage, and promoting awareness about our consumption habits. Every single piece of garbage that is collected is stored. I work together with various cities, NGOs, and surfing schools. In parallel, my team colleagues arrange partnerships with Portuguese artists, who make artwork out of everything we have collected. Whatever is left over is used to decorate the exhibition rooms.
In every city that I reach along my hike, I meet with artists, hand over the plastic garbage to them, and speak with them. While I continue with the hike, they create the artworks. In every city, a local exhibition is organized, featuring only one artwork. In 2021, a large exhibition in Lisbon will include all of the participating artists.
Isn’t it frustrating to see how the beaches you cleaned are covered in plastic garbage by your next visit?
Definitely, such moments are very depressing. I then ask myself why I am actually doing this. But if no one would do it, then there would be no pressure on those responsible, and industry would go on producing as they have been doing. In the context of climate change, there will come the point when we have no choice but to alter our ways of thinking.
I realize that my collection efforts only have a short-term effect. Still, the fantastic feedback people have been giving me is a source of motivation, just like the restaurants that have decided to no longer use disposable plastic. A lot can be achieved through small actions when everybody takes part. Maybe businesses and governments will also take part soon. That is the goal.
If you could pass laws, what are the main things that you would change?
In principle, plastic is not a bad material. It is beneficial in many sectors, such as in the field of medicine. However, I would make a point of only allowing the production of disposable plastic for exceptional cases. I would pass a law compelling everyone who wants to drink when they are en route to carry along a drinking bottle or flask. We should look back a couple of generations at how our grandparents lived. We have forgotten how to cope with the fact that not everything is immediately available. I myself don’t have any problem giving up plastic. It only needs just a little more motivation to look for a water faucet or ask for water in a restaurant.
There have to be much stricter regulations for disposable plastic. Much more has to be invested in a closed-loop waste management system. The biggest plastic polluters should have to invest at least as much in developing sustainable packaging as they do in their marketing activities. We can’t simply continue producing without thinking about what happens to all the garbage.
Can you recognize any trends in the production of garbage?
Masks. Since the outbreak of Corona, you find them everywhere. I was on beaches where I had to walk for two hours before seeing another soul, yet they were covered in masks and plastic. This is the greatest and most alarming trend at present. Even during the current Corona pandemic, with production having fallen everywhere, there is no easing up on environmental pollution.
What kind of unusual garbage have you found?
I separate my garbage into categories: mundane, disgusting, cute, and unusual. Bottles and cans are mundane garbage. I also try and tackle disgusting garbage. Here I try to include the van life community. I am also a “van lifer,” and we must be as aware as possible when we travel, respecting nature along the way. Many people make a quick trip to the bushes or into the woods before they go to the beach. They leave certain things behind, including toilet paper. You especially notice this on hiking trails, and it is truly disgusting. This morning I collected a tampon. These things are left behind because people themselves find them disgusting. They don’t even bother to think about how others will react.
Cute garbage includes things like small plastic figures, like the toys you find in surprise eggs. I also repair broken toys and give what I have collected to artists so that they can make something sweet out of it.
Unusual? I once found a doll that had really huge breasts and looked totally creepy. Unfortunately, I lost it. Otherwise, I constantly find doll heads. I am thrilled when I do because I can use them in my videos. I can talk with the heads, and it livens up my Instagram feed somewhat.
How much garbage have you already collected?
At the moment, it is over 1.3 tons. I always update the figure in my Instagram bio.
How can people support you?
There are two ways. One is to accompany me on my Plastic Hike and join in the garbage collection. I have published a map on my website and indicated various locations where I can be found. But it is also possible to support me remotely. On my site, you can find a donation link called Buy me A Coffee. There, it is possible to treat me to a cup of coffee and donate a garbage bag. You can even provide financial support for me, my team, and the project. We are working on a documentary film called The Trash Traveler. A small film crew currently accompanies me, and together we talk to various organizations and listen to the views of people active in the fight against environmental pollution here in Portugal. It is not about me illustrating the problems to people, but rather that I also listen to everyone who has something to say.
You work together with companies like JACK WOLFSKIN. How is that to be understood?
Currently, Jack Wolfskin is the only major manufacturer with which I am cooperating. It is important to me that any company I work with is on the same wavelength as me. This is the case with Jack Wolfskin. And I like to wear their collection that’s made out of recycled materials. I work together with several environmental organizations. It is very encouraging to see how many people and organizations want to help. Surf schools and many coastal cities here in Portugal have provided support, and this is how my team and I make ends meet. With so many small and medium-sized contributions, I don’t have to rely on large sponsors, and everything remains personal. Anyone who has an idea or who wants to work together is welcome to contact me. There are various ways to give them something back, such as displaying their logo in the credits of the documentary film. Even people who donate coffee are mentioned there. I find it important to show that we are all in this together.
What is your long-term goal?
I would like to develop my work further. The whole of next year is already scheduled with projects. I will be taking the documentary and some of the artworks to schools, universities, and various events and giving lectures. All this is to continue raising the issue and encouraging people to think and act on sustainability.
What can we do in our everyday lives to improve the garbage situation?
Simply count the number of plastic articles that you have in your hand each day. Do this for a whole week, and you will be shocked. Consider what you can do without it. You can already come a long way with drink bottles, cloth shopping bags, and bamboo toothbrushes. There is so much one can avoid. Actually, isn’t it crazy how much we consume? Look at it as a personal challenge to reduce your own production of garbage.