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Working on sustainable solutions: ‘Beware of the pitfalls’

The world’s population is expected to rise to 9 billion people in 2050. At the same time, climate change urges us to dramatically reduce our use of resources. Does the transition to a circular economy offer us a way out, and if so, how? Master Honours Class’ students are looking into this issue: ‘Change is possible, given the right motivation.’

Participants of the Master Honours Class Circular economy: from challenge to opportunity investigate what is sometimes called ‘the economy of the future’: a system in which resources are mostly reused, instead of turned into waste. They partake in seminars, pitches, and practical assignments on top of their regular master’s programmes. Their goal is to become familiar with the opportunities and the pitfalls when looking for sustainable solutions.

Guest speaker Stefanie Tseggai during one of the seminars (12-02-2020)

Subtle stimulation

A seminar in February revolves around the construction industry. Architect Stefanie Tseggai has been invited to talk about her work at a ‘circular’ firm, which reuses materials to build a wide variety of structures – from playgrounds built out of windmills, to an office inside an abandoned swimming pool (more examples can be found here). The reuse of materials often goes unnoticed: ‘I love it when you don’t instantly see it, because it just looks good,’ says a smiling Tseggai.

But the looks may not even be the best part of this circular approach. According to Tseggai, the ecological footprint of a project can be decreased with up to ninety percent. Students Leander and Nikki think others in the construction industry should follow this example. ‘Sustainability is not enough at the back of the minds of those who design buildings, even though the design the largest impact on the outcome. We need to think ahead.’

The students are doing just that by discussing concrete challenges, such as the unpopularity of shared housing facilities. ‘People usually treat their own property well,’ argues a student. ‘But when it comes to sharing with strangers, we often need an incentive, financially or otherwise.’ There are more subtle ways, another student adds: ‘Create a positive association with the shared facilities, by installing laundry machines at the top of buildings for example, so that people can enjoy the view.’

(12-02-2020)

Hopeful developments

Ideas are good, ‘but beware of the pitfalls,’ says René Kleijn, the coordinator of the course. To ensure the pitfalls don’t go unnoticed, his students work on a practical assignment: to find solutions for the sustainability problems of local organisations. For instance, one group investigates the operating rooms of the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC). The students discover that recyclable materials are being incinerated and that kits are thrown away in their entirety, even when not all tools have been used during an operation.

By the end of April, the investigators present their solutions online. More recyclable tools, containers for plastic waste, and training for employees to change their attitudes. ‘People tend to forget that greenhouse gasses hurt public health. This should be of more importance than the unease towards taking measures.’ The developments during the corona crisis have given them hope: ‘The LUMC Green Team has tried to alter the guidelines for years, and now they are finally making progress. This shows that change is possible, given the right motivation.’

An interesting ride

Motivation is also what the Honours Class participants have shown, according to coordinator Kleijn. Once all pitches are finished, he expresses his gratitude for their enthusiasm. ‘The last few months have been an interesting ride. Thank you all!’ More sustainable solutions will be needed, but now it is time for a breather. ‘I hope we can organise a better ending to this course someday – maybe with a drink in our hands,’ proposes Kleijn with a wink. After hours of video calling, that suggestion can count on nothing but applause.  

Text: Michiel Knoester
Photography: Buro JP
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(12-02-2020)
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