Andreas Noe is a free spirit with a mission. For the last few years, the German molecular biologist has been living in his van on the Portuguese coast and devotes his time to surfing – and collecting the garbage washed up on shore. “It was a logical development. When you are constantly in the sea and surrounded by waste, you simply can’t look away,” he told us in an interview last year. As a result, Andreas began to clean up Portugal’s shores. This hobby has turned into his mission. Today, Andreas is known on social media as The Trash Traveler and has caused quite an international sensation with his elaborate art projects and handcrafted surfboards. Jack Wolfskin has been able to provide him with support in this work.
We get a hold of Andreas, aka The Trash Traveler, in Lisbon, where he often finds himself of late preparing for an upcoming exhibition. If things go according to plan, organizing the next show will be even easier. And the next time is already scheduled for next year. The Plastic Hike Exhibition will then be on tour in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, and the show will be even larger. Like everything Andreas tackles, the exhibition is sure to be a success. His idea of transforming collected garbage into art has been universally well-received. “We started from scratch and simply contacted a few artists and told them about our idea. Once we got the ball rolling, it didn’t take long to assemble a team, and it became even easier to convince people of our idea. Since then, artists have approached us on their own and asked if they could participate.”
Some of them have used material that Andreas had already collected on Portugal’s beaches. Others were motivated to go out on their own, with an eye on specific waste, such as fishing nets, empty bottles, or microplastics. More than 50 percent of all garbage washed up on shore comes from fishing. In addition, there are many plastic bottles. As well, Andreas has found some bizarre and even somewhat charming objects on the beach.
He frequently categorizes his finds, makes up little stories about them with punch lines or composes accompanying songs with his ukulele, and posts his clips on Instagram. The videos don’t feature finger-pointing or sermons but are instead creative, clever, and often funny. Yet, how many people can be reached in this way, and how durable are these messages?
Collecting garbage in and of itself changes nothing. Andreas already knew this. A beach swept clean one day is transformed overnight once again into a waste dump. And everyone keeps on polluting as usual. “My goal is to raise awareness for sustainable lifestyles and to oppose the use of single-use plastics. This requires that every single cigarette and piece of plastic I pick up has to be seen by people,” he explains. He gave a great deal of thought to how his work could be made more visible and came upon the idea of an art exhibition. Being part of a team with a common message and using a visual approach to highlighting the issues makes it much easier to gain attention.
Nowadays, Andreas is accompanied on his so-called Plastic Hikes along the entire coast of Portugal not only by spontaneous helpers but by a permanent documentary team. The resulting film will also celebrate its premiere at the exhibition opening on 19 June in Lisbon. The event will display numerous artworks brought to Lisbon from all over Portugal. Exhibits by 26 artists include large-scale sculptures, figurative and abstract works, illustrations, and the first surfboard Andreas built out of trash with his friend Steve. In addition to wood, from which Steve usually makes his boards, they used found cardboard for the skeleton, a refrigerator door, and cigarette filters and plastic pieces for the exterior, which combine to form a pictorial mosaic.
And this is where Andreas and Jack Wolfskin began a cooperative effort. The company found his idea so good and in line with its own corporate philosophy that it decided to support Andreas’ work. Among other things, this meant providing him with clothing from its Texapore Ecosphere Collection. This outdoor apparel from Jack Wolfskin focuses on recyclability. Texapore Ecosphere is the first weatherproof material manufactured from 100 percent recycled raw constituents. It is a real breakthrough in the sustainable textile branch. The membrane of the material consists of production scraps that are reworked and reused, thereby returned to the production cycle. The outer fabric and lining, on the other hand, are made from recycled PET bottles. In other words, it is a zero-waste concept.
To draw attention to Jack Wolfskin’s sustainable processes and products as well as to recycle textile scraps in a meaningful way, Andreas and Steve laminated surfboards with waste fabric. “This gives the boards more strength and economizes on fiberglass for the surface, which is also made out of residue materials from surfboard production,” explains Andreas. It is, therefore, a meaningful supplement to handmade boards.
The message is clear. Don’t waste anything and reuse it. Waste material is inserted into the production process as a valuable addition to avoid generating more garbage. As Andreas already explained in our first interview, recycling isn’t the most efficient option. “I don’t particularly like to use the word ‘recycling’ in the context of sustainability. I prefer the other r’s: refuse, reduce, and reuse, or, in other words, refuse or reduce consumption as well as reusing products. For every object in the chain of consumption, you should really consider if you can use it again or if it has reached the end of its lifecycle. Only then do we still have the option of recycling it.”
Unfortunately, not everything can be so easily recycled. We use an almost infinite number of different kinds of plastic, and it is practically impossible to separate them from each other. “The complexity of our products makes it very difficult for recycling operations to process waste,” summarizes Andreas. In fact, only a minimal percentage of waste from our recycling bins gets recycled. “Globally, the recycling percentage is only 13 percent, it’s 17 percent in Germany, and only 11 percent in Portugal.” And people are already overburdened with three different recycling bins. “This is why we should not continue with our present pattern of consumption or place our hopes on recycling. Instead, we have to reuse the waste from fabrication or the leftovers from the production process. First and foremost, however, we have to reduce our consumption. And what we do consume should be of high quality and, ideally, be capable of somehow being reused in a circular economy. This is the direction we have to go!”
The power of consumers lies in the feedback they provide to the industry – it’s the simple decision as to whether and for what they will spend their money. “The goal must be to eventually stop producing new plastic, which in turn requires petroleum. Instead, we should be looking for alternative materials and also design products simpler so that they are easier to separate and reuse.”
In this context, another ‘r’ is brought into play – ‘r’ for repair. Shouldn’t you first see if you can repair a broken product before replacing it with something new? “Absolutely,” agrees Andreas. “Jack Wolfskin even offers a repair service to which customers can send their products for repair. I find this very good.” Unfortunately, this is a rare service in the industry, as repairing is still more cost-intensive than just throwing something away. In fact, not only do large companies rarely consider this option, but also most people hardly ever think about repairing either, and so their children grow up without the idea of preserving value. It used to be that everyone would learn how to patch an inner tube or darn a hole in one’s sock. Here it is worth taking a look into the past, says Andreas.
“The last two generations or more have forgotten how to repair and reuse things. Our lifestyle tempo is very, very fast, and it is preferable to buy something new. This is why I am calling for more patience. First, to look for alternatives instead of buying something new. And then, take some more time and perhaps find something with less packaging.”
In addition, reusing waste has the advantage of not costing anything, except perhaps time. “The two surfboards that we produced mainly from garbage are quite valuable objects. Our mindset should once again reflect a certain appreciation for existing things. This is my vision.” Andreas enjoys sharing this vision with school children, students, companies, and just about anyone interested in learning the facts. His talks could be considered a kind of prevention work and offer an alternative in the struggle against mounting environmental pollution. Companies, artists, and NGOs have long since approached him on their own. “The art events, the exhibition, and the surfboards are excellent opportunities to show how even trash has value – or how trash can be given value when it is reused, especially if one goes about it creatively. I find this extremely exciting, and I really enjoy reusing and repurposing things.”
At the moment, Andreas concentrates his work in Portugal, yet his vision has long since become international. The art exhibition has become a pilot project for further worldwide events. There has been a lot of interest in his projects, and the problem is a global one. “Fortunately, there are people all over the world ready and able to clean up beaches or wherever else garbage accumulates. And also artists who want to work with the collected trash. We are now a community that would like to shape awareness together.”
When the pandemic has subsided, Andreas wants to do more with school children again, taking them to the beach, collecting trash, and making things out of it in small workshops. Last year, they made pretty little sardines out of melted microplastics. In this way, children come to understand the need to deal more responsibly with consumption and waste. Andreas has not yet revealed what new projects he is working on. We just have to remain curious and let ourselves be surprised. If you follow him on Instagram, you are sure not to miss anything.
Andreas and his team have since become affiliated with an NGO that will invest all profits, including those from the exhibition, towards good causes and to ensure the continuation of the Plastic Hikes and artistic projects. Whoever would like to support Andreas and his work of making the environment cleaner and promoting greater consumer awareness can donate here:
Associacao Novo Mundo Azul
PT50 0007 0000 0048 4569 0302 3
Reference: The Plastic Hike
The Plastic Hike Exhibition can be seen from 28 June to 30 September 2021 in Lisbon and will then tour along the coast of Portugal to the city of Porto. The artworks will be auctioned off or donated after the exhibition.