The probable future of an unsustainable society | Training | Economy

If you have ever wondered to what extent sustainability is important in our future as a society, the answer has two sides: the physical and the metaphysical, because “we cannot survive as a species without the minimum resources necessary for our survival. It is not just a matter of guaranteeing that today there is “bread for everyone”, but of doing so without mortgaging the future of the next generations,” says Anna Bajo, Director of Sustainability at ESIC. Perhaps, on many occasions, you have even heard of the circular economy, but cannot fathom the extent to which it impacts our family, social and professional life. But both, sustainability and circularity, are inalienable axes so as not to exhaust the limited resources available to us.

“At the moment, the most advanced solution is to try to make the most of existing resources, minimizing material needs, optimizing their use and consumption, reusing materials through recycling and extending their useful life,” adds Bajo. All this is related to the circular economy, intrinsically linked to sustainability and to challenges as pressing as the proper management of waste that as societies we continue to produce at a rate unaffordable for the planet. It is a problem that, today, continues to offer scenarios as daunting as those that can be seen daily in places as touristic as those on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, where the accumulation of plastics represents not only a threat to public health, but also also for the environment and the life of many species. A challenge facing a small, under-resourced social enterprise, Green Phenix, in a project that, with the help of the TUI Care Foundationaims to promote the management of this waste, sustainability and the circular economy on the island.

A paradise submerged in plastic

In one of its idyllic tourist resorts, guests receive a cordial “welcome to paradise”. And, in everything that your eyes see, it really seems like it: palm trees, beaches with calm and crystal clear waters, flamingos, turtles, caves and an attractive offer of diving and snorkeling. However, on the other, more windswept side of the island, plastics arrive on the island with no apparent respite, and Green Phenix volunteers and workers flock to several of its beaches three times a week, in order to collect as much plastic as they can to help recycle and reconvert into new valuables; a job they have been doing since 2015. “For me, it all started with the impact that pollution had on sea turtles,” recalls Sabine Betendse, founder of green phoenix. “When we went along the beaches, what we found were layers and layers of plastic up to a meter high (…), and the pollution made it extremely difficult for them to build their nests. But it is also, “he continues,” sea turtles are a sentinel species, so by protecting them, you protect many other species, including humans.

Given the passivity and the short scope of public measures, Green Phenix is ​​confident that their efforts will serve to make the population aware of the magnitude of the problem. In addition to collecting plastic from the beaches (just today, they have filled an entire van and the next day they will take 160 kilos of materials that they cannot recycle to the landfill), they organize educational workshops in schools and visits by students, residents and tourists to their facilities, where they can see first-hand how waste is sorted, shredded and converted into different decorative objects thanks to 3D printing and other types of machinery, such as an extruder used to make plastic bricks. Thanks to the work with the children, they “check all the cool things that can be made with the waste, so that they can see how, from a big problem, something very nice can be obtained; a creative and innovative way of thinking is promoted, and their minds are opened”, explains Betendse.

But sustainability is not only environmental, but must cover many other areas, such as social. What began as an initiative in the patio of Betend’s house gradually became an umbrella that today houses eight workers and 24 people who participate in the program Work&Learn [trabaja y aprende], an initiative developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor and Social Policies of Curaçao with which they help the long-term unemployed, in social exclusion, with disabilities or with learning difficulties to develop their skills and can, after a year, enter the labor market. People like Nona, a young 32-year-old mother who had her son when she was only 18 and was forced to abandon her studies; or Erwin Sprot, a 64-year-old local artist who makes art objects and jewelry from recycled materials (in 2014, he even received recognition from UNESCO).

The artist Erwin Sprot next to two of his works, at the Green Phenix facilities in Curaçao.
The artist Erwin Sprot next to two of his works, at the Green Phenix facilities in Curaçao.Nacho Meneses Poncio

The importance of awareness

Developing the circular economy depends on many actors: public administrations, companies, independent and research organizations… and, of course, consumers, because, without their involvement, it is impossible to develop it in all its complexity. “The role of consumers is key, and that is why they need to be educated and generate impact on their behaviors and thoughts. In sectors such as food or commerce, they are working very actively to generate changes in consumer habits, because without them it is impossible to launch initiatives where they are precisely the end of the chain”, says Diego Fernández, CEO of the collaborative innovation platform Gellify Iberia. “In some industries, the circular economy is already applied in a natural way. It is the typical case where the waste from an industrial process is transformed into raw material for another industry, saving costs and pollution and even increasing profitability”, he adds.

The example, in the end, spreads: in Curaçao, recycling measures are already visible in places as popular as the tourist Mambo Beach, while Byron, a 45-year-old public transport driver, has been working as a volunteer at Green Phenix for a year , in the sea turtle conservation program. Three times a week, early, he goes to different beaches looking for the nests left by the turtles, to take care of them and protect them: “I create the time to come here. It’s a win-win situation, because it also helps me stay busy and exercise,” he explains with a smile. And, of course, he also goes when he can to clean the beaches. “People are curious about what we do… At first they didn’t want to see it, but I’m sure that over time it will make people behave differently.”

For Betendse, glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel also involves greater involvement by both companies and the Government. But what about in Spain? Do public administrations do everything they can to promote this sustainability and circularity? For Anna Bajo, measures are taken, but they are insufficient: “It is necessary to apply more harshly the sanctions for non-compliance with commitments, although the difficulties of companies to apply certain changes and offer, for example, a service of accompaniment for SMEs. It is true that you have to be patient,” he continues, “but it cannot be that 40 years after the approval of the old LISMI (the current General Disability Law), there are large companies that still do not cover 2% of their workforce with people with disabilities”. The same thing happens with equality plans: many companies have not begun to adopt measures, and on the environmental level it is still tolerated that there are companies that emit beyond of the established limits.

Energy, a key sector

Although the principles of sustainability and circular economy are applicable to any productive sector, energy is undoubtedly one of the most important, as it is an essential ingredient to make any economic activity work. “It’s that it’s mathematical: we have built a production model that is based on fossil energy sources that we exhaust in minutes, but that take millions of years to create,” explains Bajo. The responsibility of this sector is greater than in others due to its effect as a transmission belt: if the energy pollutes, the companies that use it also pollute. “If we are able to offer a mix energy more careful with the planet, companies will have no choice but to use it. But we are not giving companies real options, because it is still cheaper to pollute,” he adds. In the list of objectives, he stresses, appear to achieve solutions that improve the efficiency in the production, distribution, storage and consumption of energy.

The problem arises when, for example, the adoption of circular economy measures comes into direct conflict with the business model itself: this is the case of so-called fast fashion, low cost, popular in Spain and many others. countries because the possibility of filling the wardrobe with showy clothes for very little money is clearly tempting. But it is worth remembering that behind each one of them (100,000 million garments were manufactured in 2015 alone, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation), there is a high environmental cost and a person working in precarious conditions somewhere in the world.

“The most critical thing, in the short term, is the political instability that we are experiencing at a global level. We are at a critical moment: in the coming months, we may end up throwing away decades of effort in the transition to a circular and sustainable economy. That there are states that are now considering going back to burning carbon, when they had opted for other ways, is a huge step backwards”, warns Bajo.

collaborative innovation

Collaboration between corporations, startups, universities and research centers can facilitate the development of projects linked to the circular economy. It is the case of Going Circular Hub, a Spanish collaborative innovation ecosystem promoted by Gellify where the different agents access relevant knowledge from experts; they exchange good practices; identify possible collaborations; and carry out new and innovative projects with other agents present in the same hub. “What we do is find areas where, naturally, different corporations can collaborate, such as an airport: a space whose value chain offers many ways to optimize processes, save costs or improve the user experience,” says Fernández.

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