Show Notes: Saskia Rysenbry - The Circular Economy

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Show Summary:

Saskia Rysenbry uses design as a lever for positive change – first by building open-source tools to recycle and re-use waste at Precious Plastic, and now as a co-founder at Circology, a materials research and circular design studio.

Show Notes:

  • [0:38] What is circular design?
  • [2:24] What drives us towards something that’s more circular?
  • [3:52] How is our current recycling environment broken?
  • [6:36] What role do 100% biodegradable products play in solving our dependency on plastic?
  • [16:30] The practice of open-sourcing companies for global solutions
  • [20:41] What’s one thing we can actually look for when we’re trying to buy responsibly?
  • [22:33] Anything positive to say about the future?
  • [24:56] Project Drawdown as inspiration in the darker moments
  • [25:20] The future of landfill tourism

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Transcript:

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Jimmy We are about to get on the line with Saskia Rysenbry. Saskia uses design as a lever for positive change-- first, building open-source tools to recycle and reuse waste at Precious Plastic, she's now a co-founder at Circology, a materials research and circular design studio. G’day, Saskia.

Saskia
Hey, how’s it going?

Jimmy
Good. Thanks. So first question. Maybe it’s an obvious one. What is circular design?

Saskia
Not such an obvious question, funnily enough. So circular design is actually part of what we call a circular economy. So circular design is just a method in which we can achieve something that would be a total shift in the way that we operate, the way that we produce, the way we consume. Circular design is something that we can all do now. So the problems that we have with our current economy is that we are taking virgin resources and then we’re using them for a short period of time and then we’re basically burning them because recycling is a system that doesn’t work very well in our current economy. So circular design really allows us to reframe how we’re using materials, how we are putting them into our products, and then how we making sure that they don’t end up in a system that, you know, will go into the ocean, will go into the landfill or, what is done mostly in our Western countries, is it is burned and put into the atmosphere. So circular design is reframing how we produce and consume our products and it helps us get towards the circular economy which is, we’re still quite far away from that, and circular design is helping us take small steps to allow ourselves to be much more in balance with the biggest system that is the earth and its resources and how we use things and how we and how we actually dispose of them.

Jimmy
And you talk about the circular economy and obviously, in the economy, there are two sides, supply and demand, does it start with supply? Does it start with demand? What drives us towards something that’s more circular?

Saskia
That’s always a question that comes back and forth. I feel that there is arguments for both I mean, I feel you know, since at Circology, we work with the supply, we work with the producers, we work with companies, but also I believe that there is such a responsibility in demanding something as being consumers of products and things like that. So I don’t know if there’s one I don’t know if it comes with something first. I feel like there is responsibility on both sides to make sure that we can move towards a circular economy. So, firstly when it comes to supply, moving towards a circular economy means really understand like stepping back and really looking at the system in which we operate in, you know, like biological systems of circularity are very complex, you know, like a tree will create its leaves to be able to grow and to be able to get food from the air and the sun, and then those leaves will drop down and then those leaves produce nutrients to then feed the grass and feed the roots and then be able to grow again. And so, circularity is not just understanding how we can put one waste stream into another product and sell that, it’s about stepping back understanding that we exist in an entire system. And really, really, really trying to see how we can produce and consume like within a bigger system and yeah, if that makes sense.

Jimmy
it does. It does. And you mentioned back a little bit about recycling something along the lines of recycling not really working. And what’s, if that’s the case, what’s broken with our current recycling environment?

Saskia
Well, recycling is just a plaster like a band-aid that goes on to a system that is definitely not working. And recycling is trying to make sure that the waste products don’t reach the environment, which is basically destroying obviously, as we all know, it’s creating huge social problems and environmental problems. But recycling is, it should never have to exist in the first place because recycling is just trying to understand how we get rid of waste, essentially.

Jimmy
Right. So if you don’t create that waste in the first place, then you won’t need to figure out the problem of how to get rid of it safely.

Saskia
Exactly. And… the recycling system, like unfortunately, at the moment doesn’t really work, like, a lot of us, we find it really tough to, you know, I did work at Precious Plastic for a year. And we always say to ourselves, you know, we hope that this doesn’t have to exist sometime very, very soon, because it’s not a solution. It’s just propping up a system that is still taking virgin resources. You know, we’re not recycling products that have been recycled, we’re recycling products that are new, that are virgin, using materials and then we’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t end up in these places that are destroying the environment. So recycling is… it’s just a symptom of a much bigger problem. And we don’t actually recycle very efficiently like nowhere in the world really can recycle its waste. And so recycling is just an interim to hopefully help us as a society understand that actually, this shouldn’t be existing at all. We shouldn’t be using materials that last for hundreds and hundreds of years if we only want to use the item for a very short time. It doesn’t connect well at all. If we take a step back, we pull up materials from the earth hugely energy intensive, we use them for a short time and then we burn it and put it straight into the atmosphere. And recycling comes in there to try and make sure that we don’t burn it, but it’s just it’s not efficient. And so but at the same time, I don’t think recycling properly is going to be the solution in the first place.

Jimmy
Right right. So, talking about solutions, I mean, I hear you talking about the issue and circular design as a concept. And I immediately think, okay, for this to be solved, we have to make everything from 100% biodegradable materials is that the case?

Saskia
I definitely think that we need to design products for the ways in that they are supposed to be used. So some definitely should be made of biodegradable materials. I’m not going to say that like everything needs to be made of something that can then go into the earth. I think that it’s really about case by case I think the important part is that plastic was actually never the problem. Plastic is a pretty amazing material. If we think about how cheap it is to produce, how flexible it is, how many different thousands of different ways that we can use it. You know, if I, if I have an accident and I’m rushed to hospital and I’m bleeding, I’m going to hope that there is a single use plastic bag there that is going to give me a drip. However, I don’t need to use a plastic bag while I’m going to take my shopping 300 metres from the supermarket to my home. So it’s a contextual thing rather than let’s get rid of this material that’s ending up in our oceans. So I think that if we think about how materials can be reused, it’s less about if they can be biodegradable or not, and if they can be fed into, ideally, they will be fed back into the product that they are – so you know, you have that closed loop system where you know, items products can then be recycled to make the same product. It’s quite hard to do because the recycling process, the technicalities of it can sometimes degrade the actual materials that you can’t make the same quality. But it’s more about understanding the use of the material and inviting many more people, many more experts to be part of the design process or the research process. So if you are making something out of plastic, how about you invite a marine biologist who works in the deep sea? Because that’s probably where it’s gonna end up? And how about we talk to them about, you know, what might be a better material that if it is going to end up there, or maybe some of the downfalls that would happen if materials ended up there. So, yes, I think that we need a lot better materials, a lot more sustainable materials, that a lot of them would biodegrade because I think that there is so much amazing opportunity now to produce products with biodegradable properties. But at the same time that’s not the specific answer to make everything biodegradable, it’s more that we need to really think about the use in which we’re using it and if we need to use it at all…

Jimmy
You mentioned plastic in there and obviously like you said, you work with plastic a lot over the past few years. And plastic is something that all of us touch every day, but we don’t really stop and think about it that much. So was there anything that surprised you early on, when you started working with plastic, that surprised you about it as a material or or how we use it?

Saskia
I think I’ve always been a pretty environmentally minded person. And so I kind of thought I had a handle on plastic before I started at this organisation in the Netherlands in 2018. But nothing really prepared me for just the amount in which plastic is produced; it’s something like 300 million tonnes a year, virgin material is produced. So that’s pulled from the earth and then made into all sorts of things and then dumped because we cannot recycle it properly. But I think I was just so surprised in its durability like that really like grasping that not not saying because we all know that plastic lasts for like 500 years and but I never really sat down and like held this piece of plastic in my hand to say like, actually, this is going to last like five times of my lifetime. Everything that I’ve ever used in my entire life. My plastic toothbrush when I was four years old, still exists somewhere unless it was burned. But I was just really surprised that we have allowed ourselves to build a system that is so obviously wasteful, but we still do it because financially, it’s making very few people very, very rich. And it is creating these huge, huge social problems and increasing inequality at such a rate that isn’t really fathomable, like in our normal daily lives when we just want to, like pick up a, you know, a bag of crisps or like a coconut water, you know, and I think that it really drove it home when I sat there really working with it. It was just kind of mind blowing to understand that this is so unavoidable - actually, at the moment - it’s very, very hard to avoid plastic completely. Some people can do it, and that’s amazing. And I really love what they do. I can’t avoid it completely. I haven’t. You know, I still have that occasional item but I think that it is… it surprised me just how widespread it is, how we’re very misinformed as a society and how actually very destructive it is. I mean now plastic is in the rain, they found it in the rain, they found it in the deep sea. They found it in their bellies of tens of thousands of different types of animals. They found it in 100% of the poop that was tested in humans in three different continents. So it is absolutely everywhere and we just don’t know enough about this material. I didn’t know much about the insane amount of carcinogens that are released when it is burnt in a way that isn’t filtered properly. So the thing that surprised me the most is that it seems it does seem pretty harmless when you go into the supermarket, and you pick up something that you want to buy and, and then you throw it in the recycling bin, and then actually like that, that narrative that we’ve been told doesn’t actually exist and then plastic is a pretty big problem, not because of the actual material, because we do need it we do, there are parts of our society that definitely need plastic. But the way that we the reason and the way that we use it is just not necessary, like it is really not necessary to be having the amount of destruction that we’re creating, I don’t know if anyone read the press release from Coca Cola last month that said, actually, we did a survey and our customers are the ones that want plastic bottles, so we’re going to have to produce it for them. And this is where the supply and demand argument comes in, put it on consumers because there was no real other option that we face and I do so I see guilt. I see guilt in my own life and my family and friends’ life, and I see it, I see it in marketing strategies to say like, you know, like if you really cared about the environment you would buy this product instead of this product. And so I think that we’re just misinformed.

Jimmy
It rings true for me in that we don’t see the end result right and we feel okay about it because we hide it very well. And we don’t see the small things ending up in the oceans, we don’t see whatever ends up in the air, and even the big pieces get taken away for us and then end up somewhere else for someone else to deal with.

Saskia
Exactly. And we have this and we have this idea and now language which is to throw something away and like we we learned that before. You know, I never ever thought differently as to what throwaway means. And in our society, it means that we throw away, we never have to think about it again, just throw it away, just recycle it. And it’s actually a very clever way of thinking that, you know, well, it’s just gone now, like, I don’t have to deal with it and there’s other issues with things like organic waste. Organic waste is an amazing form of energy, if it’s actually done properly. And I think you know, everybody could once in their life, even better once every year, go and visit a landfill to see actually where our waste ends up. Because I think that that’s part of being a responsible person of society is to say, actually, like, you know, it’s not, it’s not up to everybody else or up to the municipality just to just to be able to process my waste if they’re not going to do it properly. So, you know, it gets really frustrating when you when you try and recycle something when you when you get a bag, and it’s half plastic, and it’s half paper, and you kind of try and rip the plastic bit out to kind of put in the plastic and then you rip the paper out to put in the… And then there’s products that are made, like built-in materials that you definitely can’t recycle. And it just feels heavy, because you’re like, well, I know this is not going to be recycled. And you know, is that my fault because I couldn’t buy another product that didn’t have all paper? Or is it the responsibility of the company to say hey, actually, you know, we’re going to try and make this in a way where it can be recycled properly? Moving to a different economy means being uncomfortable for a while and allowing ourselves to just know that we don’t know the answer right now. But to keep, keep, keep trying, because I think that, you know, we’ve seen a lot of ambivalence now because people just don’t really, we just don’t really know, it’s just really, it’s really tough to keep recycling or to keep trying to buy the right things. If we keep on hearing things that oh, this company actually lied about this, or, oh, did you know that you know, Germany doesn’t actually recycle 70% they only recycle 12% because the rest is burnt and yeah, so it’s it’s very hard to keep positive about the whole situation. But it’s very, very, very important that we do.

Jimmy
On the business that you’re involved with, both Precious Plastic and Circology talk about open sourcing, and open sourcing the process. And some people might have heard about Tesla doing that also… so what does it mean to open source your work process? and I guess also, what’s the goal behind it?

Saskia
Well, specifically with Circology where we work with companies to assess their waste streams, like really look at their waste streams, and we come to the table saying waste is actually very valuable if we just look at it with a different lens. And so you know, if we start working with a company, for example in construction waste, we might start looking at their concrete waste. Concrete is just an entirely new thing that I didn’t know about, about how incredibly wasteful and unrecyclable it is. And we’re losing entire islands because we are mining the sand, and concrete is just absolutely everywhere and it is used in everything. And we at the moment, don’t recycle it. And so if we figure out a way to recycle concrete, and we open source the process, you know, who’s to say a company in China won’t be like, oh, you know, hey, I learned about this thing, and they test it out, and we say, this is exactly what we did, this is the recipe that we use, and then they go and say, oh, actually in our context and our workforce and our environments, you know, this worked. We can work on these problems together. And so open sourcing really helps us create a system that works, helps us work much faster towards the goal of circularity and I do, we all believe at Circology, of course, but I do believe that businesses and companies are the force that can make this happen a lot quicker. Governments play a huge role and policies play a huge role, but they are not very fast. And we know that. And people play a huge role, but they don’t have the power to do it all by themselves. So I know that companies, it’s like the only language that you can talk to someone all over the world, you can say to a Mongolian farmer or someone in New Zealand or you know, a business person in Sweden, you can all talk about profit and loss. I think that’s a really important story of open source is actually saying, you know, like, let’s stop, let’s stop thinking about we need to create the knowledge for ourselves and ourselves We’ve just got to be a lot more collaborative. And I think that open source is a way that we can do that. And that’s how we did it at Precious Plastic for example, we were able to, you know, Dave, who started the project, he figured out these ways to recycle plastic, and he because he was looking at the way that they do it, and that was very complicated. You know, they had this huge municipality with the huge machines and they seemed very hard to operate. But when he looked at them more closely, you know, they did have pretty simple operations. And so he built these machines, he put them online and people started hacking them all around the world and then sending their ideas back. And then together collaboratively these, these machines got better and better and, and people started saying, well, hey, this is how you do it in India, but hey, this is how you should do it in New Zealand and, and so then it became very contextual for people who actually wanted to start recycling plastic in their local environments. And, and I think that that has also been a really awesome example of how open source can not only build an entire community that’s hopeful, but actually move development so much quicker than then Precious Plastic could ever have done internally. And for what reason. I mean, they, they’re a nonprofit organisation, they don’t make money out of it. Their goal is to make plastic recycling more accessible. And so open source has been at the heart of how they’ve been so successful.

Jimmy
And it really starts to compound doesn’t it? Once you have other people sharing ideas and sharing them back. And so let’s say that the supply side somewhat improves over time, as we as consumers, as customers, as people buying things, look to reward those sort of companies, how do we figure it out when we’re in the grocery aisle or anything else? What’s one thing we can actually look for when we’re trying to buy responsibly? In other words, you know, how do we separate greenwashing from the real deal?

Saskia
That’s a really tough question because I working in sustainability probably put the last eight, seven or eight years and I saw greenwashing before as you know, a bit of a marketing ploy, it was a bit of a, as a bit of a push towards, you know, this is how green we are. And it was it was, for me, it was pretty obvious to see it was pretty obvious to see huge textile, clothing companies, you know, having these small recycling programmes and recycling, you know, a 100th in one week, what they sold in one day sort of thing, it was pretty easy to spot those. But now I feel that greenwashing is hard to spot. And I think that the best way that we can do it in our own lives is to understand how we can live with less. It’s not it’s not completely adopting a zero waste lifestyle or you watching the Minimalist film and saying, you know, okay, I’m gonna live with everything that can fit in my backpack. It’s not about that it’s about knowing that we actually need a whole lot less to survive. We are learning how adaptable we are. Our choices either protect or harm the environment, our choices, either protect or harm, the lower parts of our economy, our choices will protect ourselves or harm ourselves or our families or our future, or our kids future, just taking a bit more responsibility into what it is really, it’s really, really useful. And it’s trial and error, like, we’re not going to ever be perfect in this situation because, you know, that’s what it is to try and change things.

Jimmy
Someone was posting in our members forum the other day, they said, “I love travelling, but I fear for the future. I’d like to hear some positive thoughts on low carbon transport, pollution mitigation, overcrowding or plastic recycling from around the world.” So I want to ask you, if you’re seeing anything positive, just finish off on a positive note, and was there one or two things that you’re seeing that really make you positive about the future?

Saskia
Definitely, and I know that I’ve talked a bit about how challenging the current situation is. But being from New Zealand I’m a very, very optimistic person. And I think that a lot of people that are working in sustainability and circularity are very optimistic because there are amazing things that are happening now and also amazing things that won’t be too challenging for us to transition to. I just spent a month in India recently. And last year when I came, they had just the state of Tamil Nadu had just banned plastic. They didn’t ban plastic in a way that they say in our countries like oh, we’re going to phase out plastic packaging in three years time or we’re going to do this. There were blanket like, okay on this date, on January 10, or whenever it was, we’re going to ban plastic and yes it was really tough for a while and then I got back a year later and my god the the change in the society there was incredible, like you could not get plastic anywhere. You couldn’t get a plastic bag at a shop, like I remember going to a supermarket and I’d forgotten to bring the cloth bag and I asked her if they had any bags or paper bags and you know, she’s like you didn’t bring a bag? She just looked at me with basically disgust like how could you, how could you have done that? And the streets were cleaner and the recycling rate of PET had gone up to 90% because the value of the material had changed and that you know, to be able to sell recycled PET was actually much more valuable so they were properly recycling PET and not just burning it. So that switch in that society just makes me realise that anywhere in the world can change our relationship with this material and that we just have to be a lot stronger about it and we have to stop sort of thinking about how it’s going to destroy our lives and how we’re actually going to benefit from it a lot more so. I’m very hopeful if anyone wants to be even more hopeful there’s a really great project called Project Drawdown. If I ever need to kind of boost and sustainability I always just pop onto that and see how many amazing algae farms there are and how many amazing mangrove populations there are and, and so really, there are some really great things happening in the world.
Jimmy
I think bridging the gap between what we throw away and what ends up in the world is a pretty key thing. I thought the idea of landfill tours maybe that’s a new style of tourism showing people what they throw away.

Saskia
Yeah for sure, it’s kind of frustrating because you go to a landfill and then they have these tubes that come out deep from the ground because they have to let out all this methane, because obviously, it’s like very dangerous gas that you don’t want building up and so on and so forth. But actually, that’s a very amazing gas that you can use for cooking or for energy. And that comes from a lot of compost. So if we, if we were able to understand that we can compost better, you know, we can use that we can use that gas and we don’t have to use other types of gas, we could use that for heating, we could use that for cooking. I think landfill tours are a great idea. Maybe, maybe I’ll do one.

Jimmy
We’ll throw one together! All right. Well, I wish you luck with turning the economy circular. And thanks for jumping on.

Jimmy
You can find Saskia at circology.org and of course we’ll also be posting notes and audio from this conversation at minaalradio.com/saskia.