How Copenhagen’s GreenKayaks launched DC’s Green Boats

It is a story that began with a sea kayaking instructor in Copenhagen who began to pick up plastic from the water as he paddled the canals with his groups. Then he noticed that the next day, there was trash in the same places. It was clear that he needed more help.

So he launched the first free-of-charge GreenKayak in April 2017, and it was a hit. During the first two seasons, about 3,000 volunteers collected 10 tons of primarily plastic waste from Copenhagen’s canals and at various beach cleanups.

From a testimonial on the GreenKayak website

Realizing that it wasn’t just a problem in Copenhagen, and that it offered a fun way of helping to clean up rivers and canals, they decided on a bigger vision. Oke, a business school graduate with start-up experience, joined the founder, sea kayaking instructor Tobias.

Now they operate in Norway, Sweden, Germany and Ireland, as well as Denmark, with a fleet of 58 GreenKayaks and a mobile fleet of 10 that they use for groups, tours, events and youth education, and they are now a UNESCO Green Citizen project. Since 2017, more than 42 tons of trash has been picked up by GreenKayakers.

Despite the pandemic, 2020 was their best year ever, with the most volunteers – 12,047 – and the most trash collected – 17.868,6 kg of trash.

And, as good ideas almost always do, the idea is spreading even further afield – in this case, to the USA.

Tommy Wells, who is the director of the Department of Energy and Environment for Washington, DC, saw the green kayaks when he was at a climate conference meeting in Copenhagen. “They had a bucket in them or kind of a trash bin, and they would have trash pickers, and people would take them out and just pick out trash out of their harbor. I thought that was a great idea.”

Photo by Lee Cain/Living Classrooms

Now his city has launched a Green Boats program that aims to help clean up and restore the Anacostia River, which has long been regarded as one of the most polluted rivers in the country, polluted by trash, sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals. That is slowly changing, with billions of dollars in local and federal money being spent on cleanup efforts, including major projects to keep sewage out of the water and to remediate sediment on the river bottom left by decades of industrial pollution. Now the Green Boats program will add one more element – citizen cleanup.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, announcing the program on Earth Day, said the Green Boat program “gives Washingtonians one more way to have fun while also helping to clean and restore the Anacostia River.” It’s believed to be the first such program in the US.

“Our river is getting much cleaner,” says Wells. “People are coming back to the river, and we strongly believe in equity and inclusion, that the river be accessible to everyone, no matter which side of the river you live on.”

The Green Boats program will operate every Saturday until the end of August. As with the GreenKayak program, boats can be booked online.

The non-profit Living Classrooms runs the program with a $30,000 grant from the DOEE. Doug Siglin, managing director of Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, says one aim of the project is to get more people on the water from the predominantly Black neighborhoods bordering the river. “Folks we talked to say that often they don’t get a lot of chance to to canoe or to kayak. And there’s a great deal of interest in not only doing that for fun and recreation, but also to help clean up and improve the rivers in the eastern part of D.C.”

Participants will be asked to help sort litter they bring in after their trip in order to help the city document what exactly is polluting the waterway.


These Boats Are Free, If You Use Them To Pick Up Trash On The Anacostia River. NPR, Apr. 23, 2021