Changemaker Challenge finalist Donna Algra

Soaking up the culture, and the smell of trash. A holiday to Sri Lanka made a huge impression on Donna Algra, a Master’s degree student in Biology and Biotechnology from Wageningen University: ‘The pollution was so bad that I decided to fully focus my studies on solving this problem.’ And she has come a long way, because her solution was one of the winning ideas in the Changemaker Challenge. 

Turning ocean plastic into something valuable

‘In Sri Lanka it smelled like rotting water and burnt plastic. Traditionally, everyone burns household waste in the back yard and now that a large part of it consists of plastic, this has become a problem,’ says Donna. Well, what can you do? Donna thought about it and came up with a research proposal: ‘We want to develop a low-tech solution for the locals which enables them to process plastic into new products in their own back yard. This should turn waste into something valuable to the people.’ But what would be so valuable that you are willing to collect rubbish for it? Donna: ‘We want to turn the ocean plastic into modules that can be used to build a new, artificial reef. Such a reef will significantly increase the fish population, which will also increase the fish yield. And so the plastic waste becomes valuable for the local people.’

At the moment, the effectiveness of such an artificial reef construction is being tested at the Wageningen Reefolution project in Kenya. Donna: ‘They made layered cake reefballs – a kind of igloo made with a special concrete. And we see that fish and lobsters find shelter and food here. With the help of our technology, the local population will soon be able to make these kinds of reef structures from plastic waste and ocean plastic. They can then place these clever structures in the ocean to create an artificial reef’.

Are you throwing plastic back into the ocean?

But does this mean the old ocean plastic is going back into the sea? That feels strange. Donna: ‘Although people sometimes literally raise their eyebrows, we are taking precautions and the department of marine animal ecology at Wageningen University has a great deal of knowledge in the field of toxicity. Old plastic is already “weathered” and therefore less harmful. In fact, plastic may even be a good basis for growing new coral.’

A sustainable island

Donna’s idea was one of the winning ideas in the Changemaker Challenge. Once participants could submit their research, she was told by five different people in one week that she should participate. ‘It was inevitable,’ she says. ‘And when my research proposal actually won, it snowballed. This year, we will investigate which material is most suitable for creating the reef modules and assess which types of plastic can be used as raw materials. ‘

Additionally, the Changemaker Challenge helped Donna to develop a good test case. She is now in contact with By The Ocean We Unite and together they will work on her idea as part of an internship. Donna: ‘I’m going to the island of Silba in Croatia for six months to run a pilot project’. At the moment, By The Ocean We Unite is part of a project to create an infrastructure on Silba that ensures that the island can be managed as responsibly as possible. Donna: ‘Silba is a good place to test our project and see how far we can push it. Maybe even an extra student or a small team will join us!

Who are you going to call?

Donna really is a changemaker. Everything she does is focused on solving the plastic problem. ‘Who knows, I might even start a business based on this concept. In my opinion, companies are an efficient way to tackle climate problems. And if I get stuck, thanks to the Changemaker Challenge I now have a large network of people with the same goal who like to get involved. Even the people of the jury said “you can just call us and we’ll see how we can help you”. I’ll hold them to that!’


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