From ten minutes to ten rivers

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Thomas de Groote, a parent at ​ISD​ since January 2018, has truly found his passion and calling. It began with a challenge from a friend back in August 2017: pick up trash for ten minutes each day for ten days. He didn’t think it was his job or responsibility to clean up other people’s trash and was reluctant to accept the challenge. Nevertheless, he was able to turn the idea into a fun activity for himself, Maxine, Jeff and Jack (his children). They dressed as superheroes and enlisted the help of neighbours and friends nearby.

(As an aside, the friend who challenged him has now been collecting trash for 10 minutes each day for over 1,230 days!)

Following his ten day challenge, Thomas became keenly aware of the amount of trash in his local area. It spurred him to take action and be a part of the change.

Shortly after moving to Düsseldorf, Thomas contacted the organisers of the city’s yearly Dreck weg Tag​ (Cleanup day) and, together, they agreed to organise the first RhineCleanUp in September 2018. Cleaning up this great river was a logical choice. Eight billion kilograms of plastic trash end up in the world’s oceans each year – sadly, 80% of this flows into our oceans from rivers.

The more Thomas researched and worked with his friends from ​Dreck weg Tag​, the more inspired he became to create an event focused on improving the condition of the Rhine. Together, they formed the ​Rhine CleanUp​.

For ​World Cleanup Day,​ 15 September 2018, the ​Rhine CleanUp​ team had a goal of enlisting three cities in three countries – nine in total – to participate in a clean-up along this vital waterway. From the start, the team exceeded their goals. The event in 2018 spanned 59 cities in five countries and included over 10,000 volunteers. The power of the river not only naturally connected these locations, it also connected the people and their concern for our environment.

And if this was possible along one river, why not try it for all?

Less than two years after the first 10-minute cleanup, an organisation focused on rivers around the world was established: ​River CleanUp.​ This non-profit organisation currently coordinates cleanups along ten major rivers in Europe (Volga, Rhine, Scheldt-Meuse, Danube, Pregolva, Neris/Neman, Drin and Belaya) in partnership with local groups. The aim is to “clean locally, celebrate globally”.

River CleanUp​ is all about activating citizens, companies and politicians to participate in cleanups and become part of the solution. When ​River CleanUp​ was launched in Belgium, Thomas had the opportunity to pick up river trash side-by-side with management from Delhaize, Unilever and other partners. Having this firsthand experience helped business leaders to understand the extent of the problem, which will hopefully inspire them to effect sustainable change in the companies they serve.

In addition to forging powerful partnerships, the team organised a cleanup with over 20 members of the EU Parliament the day before their crucial vote on the ban of single-use plastic. This hands-on experience was likely one of the many factors in their ​vote to ban single-use plastics by 2021​.

This year, the ​Rhine CleanUp​ on 14 September​ took place in 109 cities throughout five countries. ISD students and community members were part of the clean up in our portion of the river in Kaiserswerth.

Thomas’ work has impacted ​ISD​ internally as well. Last year, his daughter created a zero plastic team in our elementary school. This team helped raise awareness of plastic use by having classmates pick-up trash and count the plastic items they found. After a successful cupcake fundraiser, she and her team have purchased and installed yellow bins (the receptacle for plastic trash in Germany) in every room at ISD’s Elementary School.

In two short years, Thomas has gone from a ten minute cleanup to impacting cleanups in cities along ten rivers. His efforts prove that the ripple effect of a single act can change the world for the better.

Thomas recently gave a TedTalk on this topic at ISD – click h​ere​ to watch.

You can connect with Thomas directly by e-mailing

Written by

International School of Düsseldorf

International School of Düsseldorf

Founded in 1968, the International School of Düsseldorf is a not-for-profit, independent, co-educational day school located in the heart of the international community of Kaiserswerth. Due to our non-profit status, all our income is invested back into the school for the benefit of our students.