In 2019, the Great Pacific Patch measures approximately four times the size of Germany or 36 times the size of the Netherlands. One headline after another alerts us to the pollution pandemic afflicting our waters. Gut-wrenching images plaster cover pages around the globe: a little seahorse riding a current clutches a neon pink cotton swab, having mistaken it for a blade of seagrass, a turtle entangled in the remnants of a shopping bag gasps as it struggles to take its last breath of air, the carcass of a sperm whale washed up on a pristine beach, all but bursting from the 40 kilos of synthetic waste trapped in its stomach. Yes, plastic soup is as devastating as it sounds.
Sadly, similar images can just as easily be found close to home. A stroll along the bank of any river near your residence should unveil a myriad mix of plastics in all shapes and sizes. While the human race collectively continues to dump eight billion kilos of plastic waste into the ocean annually, more often than not, as if spectators in a theatre, we avert our eyes. Will we manage to say no to straws before the entire seabed is blanketed in polyethylene? Will we refuse products wrapped in synthetic materials only if our own offspring come into the world suffocating in their embrace?
Foekje Fleur’s plastic soup wake up call came over a decade ago in the form of an article in a local newspaper. For the Rotterdam-based “concept maker”, the scope and severity of the subject matter hit home and hit hard.
From arbitrary to awareIn 2009, Foekje was enrolled in her second year at the art academy AKV Sint Joost in Breda, the Netherlands. She had already dabbled in product design and had previously touched on elements of functional design. When a professor challenged her class to design an object simply because they found it intriguing, Foekje suddenly found herself stuck for ideas: “I thought it was very difficult at first. I didn’t know where to start. This teacher urged me to read the newspaper for a week and just cut out everything that I found interesting. And that was when I read about plastic soup for the first time. I started going up and down the Maas River to see if I could find the kind of plastic that wouldn’t degrade. And I found it. A lot of it. I found these really old pieces of plastic that were from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and were still totally intact. That in itself really demonstrated their lack of degradability. I took all of it to school, sorted the bottles by colour, and made this big display. But it wasn’t really something at that point, I just thought it was an interesting image because it was really beautiful aesthetically. It was also interesting because the shapes were very old, so the project was clearly also about consumption. I knew I wanted to capture this image in a slightly different way. In the end, I cast them into porcelain because porcelain was a material that would last even longer—the oldest archaeological finds are all ceramics, so I figured if I made them in porcelain, they would stay around for millions of years and become a souvenir of this era.” The plastic era.
Foekje’s project quickly generated a lot of enthusiasm. Her teachers urged her to try her hand at selling the final pieces in a store. And so her Bottle Vases were born. Over the next couple of years, Foekje’s plastic-inspired vase project evolved into a booming business. Her partnership with Middle Kingdom, an artisanal porcelain manufacturer in Virginia, USA, not only helped bring her products to the other side of the pond, but also allowed her to keep up with the demands of a rapidly-growing enterprise. While Foekje continues to dedicate the majority of her time to developing new bottles for her portfolio and expanding her sales channels and customer base in Europe, Middle Kingdom handles the production of the products themselves as well as sales in the United States.
Over the years, Foekje has also occasionally conceptualised single commission pieces. She admits, however, that she has always been cautious about creating objects that do not serve a meaningful purpose or back a specific cause. Her reasoning for this is simple, “It really stresses me out if I have to think about [large-scale] production and bringing more ‘stuff’ into the world, because I think that there is already too much ‘stuff’ in the world. If possible, I only work with biodegradable or recycled materials.”
Getting clean, going green
Three years ago, Foekje was approached by a Dutch company called Good to Give, a fair trade gift shop that asked her to design a soap dish for their corporate gift boxes. “I had actually already been thinking about soap dishes for a long time. I had already progressed to using soap bars in my personal life as a means of cutting back on plastic bottles.” Deeply inspired by her bottle vase project, Good to Give initially suggested she head back to the Maas River to find an interesting shape to cast a mould for a line of porcelain soap dishes. Foekje doubted the functionality and durability of porcelain for slippery, wet soap bars. Also, she was eager to with materials that already existed, so she pitched the idea of melting down and recycling plastic. Her intention was to create a dish that could not only be used for hand soap, but for a wide range of cleaning products in soap bar form. Having taken to grating her own detergents at home, she decided to add a grater to the concept. And that is how Bubble Buddy came to be: “I was super excited because I thought it would be so niche. Yes, it was something I was interested in, but I thought other people would think that it’s really weird. As it turned out, lots of other people were also quite interested in it.”
Several months of product development later, 20,000 Bubble Buddies successfully found their way into gift boxes across the nation. Today, Bubble Buddy has expanded to a brilliant multi-coloured line of soap dishes, all of which are available in her online shop. While she currently sells soaps skillfully made by Werfzeep, an organic soap factory in Utrecht, Foekje is looking into the possibility of eventually making her own line of soaps in the future.
This passion for sustainable practices runs in her family. Foekje’s mother owns Een bloemetje op tafel, an organic flower store in Rotterdam that promotes positive plants and bouquets. As the perfect accessory to her earth-friendly flowers, Foejke’s mother displays a wide assortment of her pastel bottle vases on a wall in her store. Bubble Buddy, on the other hand, had to proove itself first. “At first she was like, ‘No I’m not going to put all this soap bullshit in my store’. And I was like ‘OK then I guess not’. And then one week later she ordered a box. Today, she is very proud when people come in and ask for the Bubble Buddies. ‘Of course’ she exclaims, ‘they’re my daughter’s.”
One of Foekje’s biggest battles, both as a businesswoman and a concept maker, remains striking a healthy balance between creativity, demand and growth. “I find it very difficult to add products to my portfolio just because they look nice. I have many friends who are product designers and get commissions from big brands to design things like ashtrays. But for me, it doesn’t really work like that. I wouldn’t even design an ashtray to begin with because I’m not a smoker and I don’t want people to smoke. So this ethical part is extremely important to me. I feel really responsible in that way. When you start making products, it echoes everywhere.”
Foekje designs her objects in pretty pastel colour schemes that appeal to her personally. The result is a juxtaposition to the serious nature of the message they carry. “I think I am good at making attractive objects, which I use to almost trick people into exploring more serious topics. They’ll be like ‘Oooh nice bottle’ or ‘Oooh nice colours, nice shapes’ and then they’ll start to read the story behind them.” Foekje intentionally avoids using what she considers “dramatic” shades such as blacks and greys. “I want to leave some room for positivity when thinking about change. People often don’t really want to cooperate or collaborate or do anything really to instigate change. People are super sceptical when it comes to that.”
Foekje highlights that her Bottle Vases and Bubble Buddies attract slightly different customer bases. Her porcelain vases appeal to a wide audience of culturally-interested women, generally in their 30s to 60s. Her Bubble Buddies, on the other hand, tend to resonate with women in their 20s to 40s, while also striking a chord with people over 60. “Whenever I go to a trade show and exhibit Bubble Buddy, it’s elderly people who stop at my stall and want to talk about the product because they have all these fond memories of using soap bars. For them, it’s really nostalgic. They often recall it being such a good product and wonder why we ever switched [to liquids and bottles].” Whether it’s the lifestyle choices they represent or the stories that inspired their making, all of Foekje’s products have two things in common: the ability to grab people’s attention and the potential to trigger a shift in people’s mindsets.
Creating a community
Foekje resited Instagram as a medium for her brand for a long time. “I was a bit late when it came to that. I only started using Instagram two years ago. I always thought it was just something for fashionistas because of all the filters. When I took a closer look at some point I found out that people had actually been tagging me for the past seven years. When I actually started using it, I discovered that it was not only a good way to communicate with my audience, but also a great way to receive feedback. During the development of Bubble Buddy, for example, I conducted a lot of surveys with my followers. I asked them to vote on their favourite colours which helped me make decisions on production numbers for each colour. I also did these little contests and the name ‘Bubbly Buddy’ actually came out of one of these contests. We had so many entries, it was really fun. My favourite was ‘Jasper, de seepen rasper’, which translates to ‘Jasper the soap rasper’. In Dutch it makes more sense than in English, but I thought it was super funny.”
Despite her thriving community, she initially struggled to get her account off the ground as a result of her aversion to it. “I felt like I was a slave to Mark Zuckerberg. When you have followers, you want to grow and get more each time you open your app. And then you open it and have 100 less and you get worried. But I’m over that now. I’m OK with being Mark Zuckerberg’s slave.” Foekje has profited immensely from her @foekjefleur community and takes pride in the brand she has built for herself. Today, she is contacted regularly by boutiques and retailers who discover her on Instagram, wanting to feature her products in their store, and she enjoys sharing her day-to-day processes with her fan-base.
Around the world and back again
Foekje and her intern Judith are currently working on developing and expanding her Bottle Vases into what she calls a “World Series”. Her idea is to look beyond the banks of the Maas to cast new, unique shapes from people’s plastic bottle finds across the globe’s rivers, lakes and seas. “I am encouraging people to clean up alongside rivers and oceans, and whenever they find something they think is interesting, they can send it to me. I will pay for shipping, of course. We will cast the nicest bottles into porcelain to show that this problem is worldwide, but we also want to tell the stories of the people all over the world who are spending their time as volunteers cleaning up our waters.” Ultimately, her aim is to call attention to our global crisis in the hope that we will recognise that our planet is drowning in plastic, and that we have the responsibility and power to do something about it.
The keys to Foekje’s happy home: her husband, hens & herbs
Foekje’s vision of sustainable living and eco-friendly consumption runs like a green thread through all areas of her life. Both her and her husband Marcel’s studios make up the ground floor of the breathtaking, eco-friendly home they built with their very own hands. He frequently supports her with visual communications, such as mood films and product imagery. They especially enjoy spending their free time together maintaining and developing their property. Their narrow garden boasts an astoundingly wide variety of edible as well as decorative plants, including thick rows of beanstalks, bushy climbing roses, budding sunflowers, and beds of leafy greens. There is something to discover in even the smallest square centimetre of soil. Her towering artichoke plant at the front of the house is by far the most impressive. Shooting towards the sun, its arms stretched out in all directions, this herbaceous perennial almost feels as though it has taken it upon itself to guard their prime real estate property. Beaming with pride, Foekje admits to being surprised by its stature, especially after having learned that it could eventually grow up to two meters in height
The duo went through great lengths to implement sustainable solutions while building their home. The yellow cedar wood decorating their facade was sourced from a Dutch forest which needed to be cut down due to a disease afflicting its trees. Solar panels provide them with year-round energy, and an electric heat pump eliminates their need for gas. Their eco-cycle composter allows them to turn their organic waste into nutrient-rich compost for their garden. Their happy family of chickens supplies them with free range eggs. And plans for the future include a rain collecting unit, which will allow them to utilise water from their roof for their household. One of the couple’s main aims is to become as self-sufficient as possible. Their motto? To shop less and make more; what must be built is constructed by hand, and what needs to be bought is acquired second hand. Just east of Rotterdam’s centre, they are proving that, with enough planning and dedication, conscious living is an attainable urban lifestyle.
A peek inside Leonidas and the local landscape
Projects such as Leonidas, the community Foekje calls home to, demonstrate that Rotterdam’s city planning, at least in part, seems to be heading in the right direction. It remains the responsibility of homeowners everywhere to invest, build and live responsibly if we hope to see a greener future. She underlines the important role a holistic approach such as theirs plays in building a more sustainable future. “In our neighbourhood, the city of Rotterdam has been really strict in regulating how our houses are built. They’re all carbon-neutral when it comes to energy use, so that’s a really good thing. But then you realise that many people here are doing it because they have to by law, not because they really want to. And I find that really difficult to deal with sometimes. To give you an example, I was initially dreaming of living in this little eco-village, but then I realised that many of my neighbours are building with unsustainable materials, planting lawns, and using pesticides.”
Nonetheless, Foekje definitely appreciates her city’s state-of-the art recyling programme. “Where we are living, we just have trash, paper, glass and compost. That’s all the separating that people need to do. Robots take care of the rest at a modern waste plant. Apparently they actually separate all the plastic from the regular trash.” She voices concerns, however, as the conversation moves to the consumption of drinking water in Rotterdam; a city where tap water is 200 - 800 times cheaper than its bottled counterpart. She is able to empathise with people who find tedious to carry their own tupperware and cutlery around with them as a means of minimising single-use plastics. But she admits to being baffled whenever she meets people who don’t, at the very least, keep reusable water bottle by their side. For this, she blames the government. “The city of Rotterdam or the government in the Netherlands, in general, should just make it easier to fill up tap water in the city. My favourite restaurant, Spirit, has a tap in the restaurant and you can just go there and help yourself to water while you’re eating.”
These are merely examples of the everyday choices that can go a long way in combating our plastic pandemic. Only if we rethink our own habits and behaviours individually as well as collectively will we be able to instigate change on a wider social, political and economic scale. With creatives such as Foekje dedicating their life’s work to shining the spotlight on these issues and bringing about positive change, the future looks promising.