Some ten years ago, Jeremy Nijk came across the term ‘plastic soup’ for the first time. At the time he had no idea of the magnitude of the problem. Now he knows plastic waste products are polluting oceans everywhere. Each year a million birds die because of it. Sea lions get tangled up in it and fish eat it. And, as he was surfing off the coast of Bali, Jeremy himself experienced it: he emerged covered in the stuff. The Balinese haul tonnes of plastic waste out of the sea on a daily basis. Two metre high mountains of waste punctuate the coastline. The sight of them shocked Jeremy into action.
Artist Impression Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Clean-up
As a Special Projects Engineer at The Ocean Cleanup, Jeremy thinks of ways to keep the project’s unique sea waste disposal system in place. In his efforts to come up with affordable ways of making them work, he may well be found waist-deep in the waves of the white water feature of a public pool, testing away. For Jeremy the ideal job is about sustainability, room for initiative, and an inspiring team. At The Ocean Cleanup he found all three.
Even as a little boy Jeremy wanted to find out how things worked. His favourite toy was Technic Lego. His love for research and construction eventually prompted him to take up both Aerospace Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology. Still uncertain about which direction to choose, he attended a lecture on soil mechanics and realised civil engineering was were his real interest lay. His motivation meant the hard work on his specialised subject of structural engineering came easy.
At the Delftse Bedrijfsdagen, the university’s career fair, he applied for an internship abroad. In Costa Rica Jeremy was part of a small team devising a supporting structure for a 57 storey building commissioned by an architect. He went on a second internship as a concrete designer, this time working for Royal HaskoningDHV in India. ‘You will encounter cultural diversity wherever you work, as I found out during my internships. In India you are not allowed to touch a woman, and that includes tapping her on the shoulder. It’s better to make that mistake as a young student than later on in your working life.’
When time came to graduate Jeremy started looking around for a project based in the Netherlands. He wrote to some twenty companies and within days received ten positive reactions: ‘That tells you something about the value of a TU Delft diploma.’ Jeremy eventually opted for the technical challenges of a project commissioned by KH Engineering in Schiedam. He subsequently found a job laying electricity cables in the ocean floor, first at Tideway and then at Visser & Smit Marine Contracting (VSMC).
His experiences abroad were a vital part of his education, Jeremy says. ‘In the West we look at a problem in purely technical terms and if it works, that’s fine. But if you develop things that will be used in countries outside of Europe without any experience of how things are done there you will miss out on too much valuable information. You have to understand the context or you may unwittingly end up creating new problems.’ His advice to engineers in training is to aim for internships in Africa, Asia or Latin America: ‘You’re on the ground and that will give you a much better idea of people’s needs. You start to understand that as a builder you need the support of the local population. You really need to experience how important these aspects are or you won’t be able to move beyond he technical solution approach and you will never understand why the installations you designed break down so quickly, or why material is not maintained or gets stolen.’
It was when Jeremy was working for a wind turbine company that he realised he wanted a job in which he could contribute even more to a sustainable world. He found the number of sustainability jobs were few and far between compared to other types of technical functions. A friend of Jeremy’s told him about The Ocean Cleanup and in December 2014 he signed up as a volunteer specialist engineer. It later emerged that some 4,000 people had offered their services for free at the same time. The foundation filed the applications. Meanwhile Jeremy started on a course of workshops and networking events and volunteered as an environmental coach. After seven months of job hunting, just as he was about to set up shop as an independent engineering advisor for turbine parks he received an email from The Ocean Cleanup. Some work had been scheduled for the summer of 2015 in Rotterdam involving tests on waste concentration and they could use his help. Shortly afterwards he landed a job as a Special Projects Engineer. ‘I’m very happy that I can help the environment by applying what I learnt at TU Delft. And I can’t think of a better place to do it.’
The Ocean Cleanup - The Artist's Impressions