A canoe ride to remember

Come back with a bucket full of rubbish that you have picked up along your way and you may be rewarded with a free canoe ride through Ghent’s canals.

Four years ago, five environmentally-minded locals were brainstorming ways to encourage the type of behaviour change that they hoped would help inspire more sustainable lifestyles when they hit upon the idea. Each promptly invested in a canoe.

“And straight away it was a success,” exclaims Hans Marly, one of the five founders of the Dokano project.

Every little helps

The clearest indication of the scale of the environmental burden that rubbish presents is that, four years later, Marly and the original founders are still at it.

To begin with the volunteers thought the project might have a lifespan of six weeks – how much rubbish could there be in just one location in the city?

“But again, and again, and every day again, there is a lot of rubbish,” explains Marly.

But again, and again, and every day again, there is a lot of rubbish
— Hans Marly, one the founders of 'Dokano'

One of the best illustrations of this is that following actions on World Cleanup Day when 600 kilogrammes of waste was collected, just two days later it was possible for a group of school children to come along and find another 69 kilogrammes of waste.

“The biggest problem is that we have too much rubbish on our planet and we really need to find a solution to that,” says Marly.

But until such a solution can be found, Marly and his team are thinking about what can be done where they are.

With the city council, the volunteers at Dokano are trying to build motivation to keep the oud dock clean – at least. According to Marly, if the waste can be collected here, it stops it from being washed out to sea.

That includes working with local companies, but a big part is just to set the example.

“Several times I have been fishing rubbish out of the canal, in busy areas of the city. When you pass by with a canoe and get all the rubbish out the water, all the people are watching you, and if they see that they try not to leave their rubbish also,” explains Marly of the knock-on effect he has observed from his own actions.

Thinking about solutions

Working with young people is another strand of the work for the Dokano volunteers. The ‘clean water project’ invites local school children to spend a morning or afternoon in their class groups in an ‘experiential learning’ enviornment.

“If they see the litter on the water, we believe it would set them to thinking about the problem,” says Marly.

An adult may enjoy a rest on the water and the view of the city from a boat, but children go straight for the rubbish
— Hans Marly

Children also respond differently to the rubbish collecting action than adults, according to Marly. “An adult may enjoy a rest on the water and the view of the city from a boat, but children go straight for the rubbish.”

“Also, when children come back from canoeing and fishing litter, sometimes I already see a change,” continues Marly. “They think not about the problem, they think about solutions.”

For example, one young girl recently suggested to Marly that the Dokano team put a net in the water, to capture passing rubbish, and more easily fish it out.

“So she found a solution. It is not the best solution, but she was thinking about it. And then we can answer with a better solution like a bubble barrier – it’s not a net, but it brings up the rubbish.”

In this way, Marly hopes that more brains thinking about the problem, and potential solutions will lead to new innovative breakthroughs.

Sustainable City

The Dokano model aims to contribute to the development of sustainable cities and to achieving climate objectives.

It’s doing a lot of work in Ghent, and Marly believes it could be trialled in other cities – and in fact, in various forms the idea is taking shape elsewhere.

From the original 5 founders, the project now welcomes a rotating core of 40 helpers, including many from Refu-interim, a local charity that helps integrate refugees into local life, by matching them with volunteer working roles.

“They really give a lot of input to our organisation. And now we don’t have to ask anymore, our partner organisations suggest people to us, they may also bring their friends,” and so the work is done.

To help finance the growing scale of Dokano, the project asks for donations and contributions – while individuals may canoe for free at the weekend, the majority of rentals must be covered.

Company team day outs are another popular venture that has helped to build the reputation of Dokano.

Still time to hope

“The future maybe is not possible, or it’s a dream,” concedes Marly, “but the future of Dokano is, I think, to solve the problem together with everybody,” he muses.

The future of Dokano is, I think, to solve the problem together with everybody
— Hans Marly

It is certainly something on the mind of Bram Van Braeckevelt, Ghent’s Deputy Mayor of Staff, Work and Social Economy, Public Cleanliness and Tourism, who represents the Greens. “Sometimes it is very confronting to see the rubbish that comes out of the river,” he says. “You need people that are willing to actively roll up their sleeves and get ready to achieve the targets.”

The environmental problems created by the rubbish we leave behind are well documented, with plastic in particular said to have entered every ecosystem on earth. The burning of these material affects our air, and the detritus impacts the quality of our soil and water, let alone the health implications of the food we eat.

The hope of Dokano is to impact one of the sources – our individual behaviour and relationship with waste by highlighting its burden.

Ghent is part of the Mayors Alliance for the European green Deal, which strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible, with mayors and cities on board.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer