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"Bringing people in close contact with the ocean and providing them with the relevant knowledge will make them see the urgency of caring about it."

Ocean Witness Tijmen shares his story

In the beginning hearing about the negative changes frustrated me, but later on it started to motivate me. This motivation made me approach the problems as challenges and it really pushed me to do something about it.” While travelling, Tijmen Sissing was shocked by the amount of polluted areas he encountered. Feeling the urge to make a positive change, he started to organize beach clean ups. His actions quickly gained a lot of attention. When he realized he was able to mobilize others too, he started a community called ‘Trashpackers’, which has now grown into a global movement and non-profit foundation. Today, Tijmen shares his story.

become an ocean witness
22 January 2019 | Hengelo, The Netherlands

What is your earliest memory of the ocean?

I was around 5 years old; my sister and I went swimming in the sea with dive masks on. When we looked underwater, we saw some kind of eels. I remember how beautiful it looked, but my sister panicked, yelled “snakes!” and ran back to the shore as fast as she could. The funny thing is that I didn’t really understand what was so scary. To me, it all looked pretty peaceful.

“Spotting a whale shark during a dive can take your breath away, though 70% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.”
Tijmen Sissing

What does the ocean mean to you today?

To me the ocean means ambivalence. Water is intriguing. It feels so soft, yet the ocean is the most powerful force on earth. Life itself arose from the ocean, but at the same time one tsunami can kill thousands of people. Spotting a whale shark during a dive can take your breath away, though 70% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. The ocean itself is like a poem. I think the underwater world is the most beautiful piece of nature that exists, sadly all the plastic you see nowadays makes it less beautiful. I always tell non-divers that if they are a big fan of nature, they should see the mesmerizing scenery that is found underwater.

“Water is intriguing. It feels so soft, yet the ocean is the most powerful force on earth.”
Tijmen Sissing

What changes are you witnessing in the ocean?

It’s upsetting to know that approximately 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year, which is affecting marine life negatively. When I was snorkeling in the Philippines, I saw this with my own eyes. I was literally swimming in all kinds of waste. Every few meters I had to pick plastic of my arms.

“This motivation made me approach the problems as challenges and it really pushed me to do something about it.”
Tijmen Sissing

How do these changes affect you?

In the beginning, hearing about the negative changes frustrated me, but later on it started to motivate me. This motivation made me approach the problems as challenges and it really pushed me to do something about it. I hated the word plastic, so I gave it a different definition: Polluting Less = Always Something That I Control.

So you decided to do something about it?

Yes, I have been travelling since October 2017 and I’ve had many conversations with other backpackers about the pollution in Asia. A lot of them said that “the locals are just lazy” or “they don’t care about the environment”. I felt like those kinds of judgements were too simple. We should also look at our own impact as tourists. For example, the 200 million tourists who visit the Mediterranean each year generate a 40% increase in marine litter during summer (WWF, 2018). Think about the impact of the plastic usage coming from mass tourism.

Besides that, it is not only local littering. Marine debris can wash up on the beach because of the high tide. That trash can come from countries at the other side of the planet as plastic can travel hundred miles in the ocean. We should stop pointing fingers at each other and focus on what we can do. So, I decided to initiate a cleanup behind our hostel. Remarkably enough none of the backpackers from the hostel wanted to join me. They reacted skeptical to my opportunism. So, I did the cleanup on my own. Within a few minutes, people were making videos, wanted selfies with me and thanked me for cleaning. One guy even thought I did it, because I got in trouble with the police.

I realized that people are surprised when they see a tourist cleaning up their country. And what happens when people are surprised? They talk about it. I had collected some bags of waste, but I found it more interesting that I made people think and talk about it. That kind of commotion and attention was much more interesting for helping the environment than the waste I had collected. I decided to continue doing the cleanups to raise awareness. I called myself the Trashpacker, and I’ve been travelling and organizing cleanups ever since. 

Then one day, a passerby posted a video of one of my cleanups on social media. The video got over 250.000 views in one day. The Trashpackers Facebook page made it to the headlines of the Malaysian and Chinese newspapers and I was featured in the Malaysian and Chinese news on televisions.

People started sponsoring me, giving me food, water, free accommodation, free taxi rides.. It was crazy. Within a week I had over 10.000 followers on my social media accounts. That’s when I started my first Trashpacking Tour, from North to South Borneo. I organized a cleanup in every city I visited. Within a month 442 locals joined me and we collected 959 bags filled with waste. Meanwhile people were sending me pictures of their own cleanups. A movement was born. The website is now a proactive platform for anybody who wants to host a cleanup. Our challenge (and goal) this year as a global community, is to collect 100.000 bags filled with waste. It’s also a competition to see who will collect the most bin bags.

I’m always busy organizing cleanups. So, I’m constantly looking for polluted areas in Asia to clean up. I’m now in Thailand and I will be travelling through Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore until March 2019. In May I will travel to Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia. I really hope that people can help me to find polluted locations, so I can organize and promote cleanups in advance. This will attract a larger group of people, which means we’ll be able to clean up a big area.

Besides organizing cleanups, I give lectures and workshops at schools. Just a fews weeks ago I went to a school in Kuala Lumpur to give a lecture and organize a cleanup. This was such an inspiring experience. I wish to do things like that a lot more often. I want to get in contact with as many schools as possible so I can tell my story and motivate others.

“That kind of commotion and attention was much more interesting for helping the environment than the waste I had collected.”
Tijmen Sissing
“Bringing people in close contact with the ocean and providing them with the relevant knowledge will make them see the urgency of caring about it.”
Tijmen Sissing

And what are good solutions for better conservation of our oceans globally, to your opinion?

I think a great solution is experience-based education. I feel educating people about the existing problems and letting those people experience the beauty of the ocean will help connect them to the ocean. Because of the urbanization we get more and more disconnected from nature. Bringing people in close contact with the ocean and providing them with the relevant knowledge will make them see the urgency of caring about it.

 

In 2030, what does the ocean look like according to you?

Some scientists predict that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Imagine life underwater with barely any colorful coral left, just a few fishes and plastic everywhere. I’m not sure if this prediction is true, and I hope it isn’t.

“You hear a lot about big cleanups online, but we value the smaller efforts just as much. All the small efforts combined, make a big difference.”
Tijmen Sissing

Thanks for sharing your story, you’re an Ocean Witness now. What do you want to say to other Ocean Witnesses?

Organize one cleanup, with a group or by yourself. You hear a lot about big cleanups online, but we value the smaller efforts just as much. We want to spread that message to the entire world. All the small efforts combined, make a big difference. Just organizing one cleanup helps to extend the Trashpacker Chain. When you organize a cleanup, ask someone else to do it to, that person asks the next one and so on and so on. You’ll do so much more than you think. You can visit www.trashpackers.org for more information.

How did you first find out about Ocean Witness and what motivated you to share your story?

I’ve been contacted by Ocean Witness to share my story. I hope my story shows others that doing a simple thing can help improve the world.

 

And if you would give one tip to the reader at home about how they can contribute to a healthier ocean in the future, what would it be?  

One very simple thing you can do to contribute is to limit or stop using straws, plastic bottles and plastic bags and go reusable. Also, as I’ve mentioned before: organize a cleanup. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your home area or in a foreign country, the world can use your help everywhere.

About Tijmen

Tijmen Sissing was born in Hengelo, The Netherlands. Before he started Trashpackers, he was working as an organizational psychologist and gave various courses. One of which, he developed himself: Light up your inner flame. He created the course to inspire young people to pursue the life they really want to live. Besides that, he’s been a social worker for 9 years. He has worked with a wide range of people: from disabled kids and the elderly to people with behavioral problems and drug addictions. Tijmen has been interested in music since he was eleven years old, and performs as a rapper and producer. He’s very interested in philosophy and sustainability and is a very big fan of nature, diving and travelling.

 

PS, want to get in touch with Tijmen to organize your own beach clean up? Visit his website.

And do you know of a school or other institution that would be interested in getting a lecture from the Trashpacker himself – don’t hesitate to get in touch! Contact him via info@trashpackers.org, www.facebook.com/trashpackersorg or www.instagram.com/trashpackers.

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Tijmen

Hengelo, The Netherlands

Tijmen has been travelling the world for the last couple of years. He was shocked by the amount of polluted areas he encountered Determined to make a positive change, he started the non-profit foundation ‘Trashpackers’.