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Fighting for Brussels Canal: Group launches petition for bottle deposit scheme

19:55 16/07/2021

The Brussels Canal is, in a word, a mess. While it functions quite well as a “highway for boats,” it is full of rubbish, the water quality is beyond poor and there isn’t a speck of biodiversity.

This may not come as a huge surprise, but exactly how bad it was did come as a surprise to Pieter Elsen two years ago when he decided to read his paper alongside the canal one bright morning. “I saw a lot of trash floating by,” says the young engineer (who coined the term “highway for boats”).

When he started to pay attention he “was shocked,” he says. “It had never occurred to me before that there was so much trash in the canal.”

While most of us would shake our heads and go look for a nicer place to sit, Elsen (pictured above) went out and bought a kayak so he could clean it up. “I didn’t have a kayak before; I had never been into kayaking. It was just the means to get it done.”


His brother helped, but it soon became clear that that there was no “getting it done”. The more rubbish they fished out, the more there seemed to be. So Elsen founded the non-profit organisation Canal It Up to not only sensibilise Brussels residents to the atrocious condition of the canal but to put pressure on various levels of government to do something about it.

The first thing they did was offer to take people out in kayaks to help collect rubbish floating in the canal. It soon became a popular outing for school children, community groups and even politicians.

“We find lots of stuff,” says Elsen. “Most of the trash is single use plastics. Bottles, plastic bags and also cans. But we also find lots of clothes, shoes. Sometimes there are dead rats and birds, or other dead animals.” He chuckles. “It’s really not so pretty.”

But fishing out the rubbish with nets and garbage bags “isn’t really the point” of the kayak tours, he says. It’s about building awareness. “It’s about informing citizens, drawing attention to the problem. So we don’t take out the same people twice, for instance.”

That’s because it will take action at the government level to make a real difference. And Canal It Up is seeing success.

The Brussels Canal
Ten million cubic metres of contaminated rainwater flows into the Senne every year, some of which ends up in the Brussels canal  ©Hatim Kaghat/BELGA

According to Elsen, who cut his job as an engineer at a building contractor to part time so he has enough time to devote to Canal It Up, there are three basic problems with the canal: Rubbish, a lack of biodiversity and poor water quality. He has already convinced the port of Brussels to launch feasibility studies to tackle the first two.

“For the trash problem, we are working with a company on a mobile trash barrier. The port of Brussels has started a study to see if it works in our canal and with the locks and everything.” The port has also come through on Canal It Up’s suggestion to install green islands.

“If you look at the canal where it runs through the centre, it’s grey stone walls, vertical,” he says. “No one can do anything with it. Not humans, not animals, not insects, nothing. And there’s no plan to change that. For this lack of biodiversity and nature, we have worked out a plan to create islands with plants that have root systems that grow into the water. They grow 30 or 40 centimetres down. Fish can lay eggs in these roots, they can hide from bigger fish, they can find food there. Birds can use the larger islands as a nesting spot. The plants will attract lots of insects as well. Birds, insects and fish will all attract each other, creating an ecosystem. We would be attracting life to where today there is nothing.”

The port has already carried out a study on the islands, and the first are scheduled to be installed by next spring. “We are seeing it much bigger, many more islands, so that it will really have an effect. But in any case, next year we’ll see the first ones.”

Raw sewage

The water quality is a much bigger fish to fry, so to speak. While a rubbish barrier will help, it’s really the entire rainwater system that needs to change to make the biggest impact. Yes, people toss rubbish directly into the canal and it is blown in from off the street. But a lot of the smaller bits are what has washed down sewer drains.

“When there are heavy rains, the sewers cannot absorb all the water,” explains Elsen, “so they overflow into the canal. First into the Senne river, but if the level keeps on rising, it makes its way to the canal. Since there’s no grid or anything to keep out the trash, everything just flows into the canal. All the rats, for instance, flow in with the contaminated water.”

Trash and rats – and raw sewage. That’s not an accident; it’s a planned system. “In most cities, the rain and the sewer are all one system.” The rainwater and sewage that doesn’t overflow into the river ends up at the wastewater treatment plant, “which isn’t necessary anyway because rainwater doesn’t need to be treated.”

Pieter Elsen of Canal It Up
It’s so easy to sign the petition!

Some cities have divided this system, Elsen continues. “One system of pipes for sewage and one for rainwater, which you can lead to canals or use for something else. From the moment you mix it up in the same pipe, it’s all contaminated. It’s a waste of the water.”

He points to Paris – once known as one of the dirtiest cities in Europe – as an example of a sustainable system. It began separating its rainwater pipes from its sewer pipes in the 1990s. Currently, 10 million cubic metres of contaminated rainwater overflow is pumped into the Senne in Brussels. In Paris’s Seine, the number is three million. And when they finish the last storm water basin in 2023, it will be zero.

In 2024, the Summer Olympics are in Paris. Swimming events will take place right in the Seine. Elsen realises perfectly well that this is why Paris is working hard to finish the project. But “either way,” he says, “they will not have overflows anymore.”

It’s difficult to convince Brussels – or any other city – to take similar steps. It is hugely expensive and takes decades of work to build stormwater basins and alter the entire system. But Elsen insists there are other ways.

“There are so many solutions where we can make sure that the water infiltrates into the ground or where we can capture it and use it. We just need the politicians to acknowledge the problem and invest in it.”

Bottle deposits

While that’s a longer-term goal, this summer Canal It Up is working on one with fast returns in the short term – getting Belgium’s regional governments to finally pass a bottle deposit scheme. About 40% of the rubbish they find in the canal are drink bottles and cans.

A deposit scheme would see people charged €0.15 or €0.20 for each beverage container they buy and getting it back when they return it to a supermarket. It’s also common for people to pick up this waste from the ground or fish it out of rubbish bins and take it back to get the cash.

Elsen says that other countries that have deposit schemes see up to 90% of that source of waste simply disappear. So the ‘Deposithon’ is working to get people to sign a petition to pass a deposit scheme.

They need 15,000 signatures – on paper – to get it before the regional parliaments. People need to print the petition and then sign it and scan or mail it back. Or find a volunteer in a kayak: They are on the Brussels Canal every day gathering signatures.

“Brussels cannot do this alone and neither can Flanders or Wallonia,” says Elsen. “So we are targeting all of them. In the Netherlands, they started a deposit on plastic bottles this summer. They will start with aluminium cans next year. So what are we waiting for?”


Written by Lisa Bradshaw