How are you all doing? It has been a while since my last post, which solicited a lot of responses. Thanks a lot for that! It was exactly my goal to stir up the debate around our consumerism-centred economy. While that post focused a lot on problems, I want to turn back to a vision for solutions today. I want to make a case to empower the complainers around us to become doers… the doers who will solve the societal and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
I presented this vision last week at the World Resources Forum Conference – a gathering of scientists, industry leaders, and policymakers to discuss innovative use of materials and resources. Based on my experience from the citizen’s initiative fighting plastic waste, that I have set up with a couple of friends in Brussels, I showed that bottom-up solutions can turn the impossible into possible. In what follows, a slightly adapted version of what I told the men and women in suits last Tuesday. Enjoy!
Did you know that every day, 4 million barrels of petroleum are turned into plastics? They have a considerable impact on the environment during their production, and leakage to nature at the end of their life is a real threat in most places around the world. As a rule of thumb, we, therefore, should only use plastics when a) no other alternative is available, b) we use them as long as possible, and c) we make sure they are properly disposed of. As a rule of thumb, we should use plastics with caution!
Yet, obviously, we don’t. Quite the opposite. Plastic pollution is rapidly becoming a worldwide environmental and public health crisis. A crisis that citizens have woken up to. But our call for action to industry leaders and policymakers has largely been discarded. Either no, too little, too slow, or wrong action is taken. Take the recent hype around biodegradable and compostable plastics for example. Presented as an easy fix, these materials only make sense in countries where no proper waste management exists and where waste leaks into nature. For countries with proper waste management (like in most parts of Europe) they are actually hampering the normal recycling processes. Diffusing materials with good properties into nature is a pretty inefficient way of managing resources.
Anyway, more and more young people like me start asking ourselves: do the people in charge even get the point? I have the feeling that the way we run our democracies, our companies, our universities, are not equipped to address the challenges of the 21st century.
We are stuck in a model where citizens, employees, and students who see a problem, are turned into complainers. Only if we complain enough, maybe someone higher up will listen, consequently come up with a solution he or she thinks is appropriate, and push it through in a top-down approach. This is not a good recipe for effective and broadly supported solutions.
I invite everybody to empower the ‘complainers’ around you to become ‘doers’. Doers are people that not only see problems but also see solutions. And they are willing to test, improve, and implement them. This grassroots approach is far more effective in addressing local environmental and broader societal challenges.
To prove you that it is not just talking, I want to tell you about the Plastic Free Place du Luxembourg project I have been running in Brussels with a couple of friends over the last year.
Place du Luxembourg is a square in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, dotted with bars. It is a great place to go out for drinks and networking, especially on Thursday evenings. My friends and I love to join the international crowd – you always encounter interesting people.
But the square is not as innocent as it looks like. On busy evenings, drinks are served in single-use cups. My friends and I didn’t like that at all, so we went to the bar owners to ask why we couldn’t be served in reusable goblets.
“Impossible! Why would we invest in reusable cups of we get the single-use ones for free from the brewery? Where are we going to store them? How will we keep up with the cleaning? You guys are asking too much!” Bar after bar, we got a njet.
Do you see what happened? We were turned into complainers.
But we did not want to give in and decided to take action ourselves. We started simple, by bringing our own cups and mugs from the office. Although that was very original, it was not that effective. For most people, drinking beer from a coffee mug is not convenient and it also looks a bit weird. We realised we needed something better.
So we designed a reusable cup for Brussels, with a fun design that would appeal to the people at Place du Luxembourg. With a bit of financial help of our alumni association, we got 300 cups made by Ecocup, a Belgian company specialised in customisable reusable cups.
During the summer months, we rented out our cups at Place du Luxembourg, where people could use them in all bars for a 2 euros deposit. We took care of the washing and cleaning. And when fall kicked in and the buzz slowly died down at the square, we went back to the bars and their breweries to share our experiences and our data. Reusable cups work and the people love it, we told them.
At last, the first bar, Café Luxembourg, decided to break free from single-use plastics with the financial support of their brewery AB Inbev. Two weeks ago, on Valentine’s day, we officially launched their cups. We are confident that the other bars on the square will soon follow suit. Once all bars on the square are single-use plastic free, we go to the next one, until the whole of Brussels has quitted its addiction.
You know, Nelson Mandela once said: it always seems impossible, until it is done. In less than one year time, a bunch of friends was able to prove exactly that – in their spare time! Every single bar told us it was impossible to introduce reusable cups. Yet, here we are.
Therefore, I repeat my call: dare to empower the complainers to becomes doers. It’s going to put us on track for positive change!