On Wednesday 22 June 2016 The Ocean Cleanup launched its prototype for cleaning up plastic from the oceans in Scheveningen Harbour. Founded in 2013 by then 17-year old student Boyan Slat, the project has attracted worldwide attention and support. Since January 2016 a team of students from Leiden University is involved in the legal research regarding the actual operations of The Ocean Cleanup in the Pacific Ocean which are planned to kick off in 2020. Our Leiden team was happy to attend the launch and to meet our client.
In January 2016 the Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic (LAPP) started with twelve enthusiastic students. LAPP is working under the umbrella of the Moot Court and Advocacy Department and is offering students the opportunity to work on real projects, on a pro bono basis. Trained as an environmental lawyer 20 years ago, teaching public international law at the Moot Court Department and always interested in applying the law, I was contemplating how to involve students in projects that would help them apply the law to actual issues. Realising that plastic is increasingly seen as an environmental problem, from the perspective of using non-renewable resources as well as from a waste viewpoint, I chose plastic as the focus for research. There is hardly any law that regulates plastic as a material that can be harmful for the environment, so I knew that there were several challenges ahead. My next step was to find clients with a legal question regarding plastic. Clients who were committed to working on environmental issues regarding plastic and who could not afford to do legal research themselves. But that was not really hard: several Dutch organisations had legal questions that needed research. One of them was The Ocean Cleanup with questions relating to the cleanup activities planned for the high seas. Also the Plastic Soup Foundation, known for its ambassador windsurfer and Olympic champion Dorian van Rijsselberghe, had several questions, one of them about banning microplastics from cosmetic products. A third project arose from my own experiences during a holiday in East Africa. In several months Coca Cola changed its packaging from a glass bottle to a plastic bottle but without any envisaged collection system for empty bottles. Local NGOs expressed their concern but no specific action had been taken yet.
So in January 2016 three teams of students got down to work on those three projects. And now in June 2016, we can announce some of our results. First of all, we have outlined the legal framework for the clients. With the help of our faculty members, among others Professor Alex Geert Castermans and Dr Barbara Cooreman, we were able to clarify the legal difficulties and to identify possible solutions. This has led to new questions, instigating further research. For our CSR project we will now turn to Coca Cola for a clarification of its policies. Also at The Ocean Cleanup many questions lie ahead of us and we hope that LAPP can make a small contribution to its success. We will keep you informed of our work in the near future.