Cities are potential engines of the transition toward a circular economy. The City of Amsterdam is one of the early adopters of the circular economy concept at the city level. Closed loops, value generation, innovative business models, and modular designs. These are not only principles to guide the transition to circular cities, but also principles distributed designers have been working with for years. In our series Distributed & Regenerative Design, we introduce you to some of the creative talents making an impact. In this article, we interview Maartje Bos.
Can you give us a description of your project?
In Amsterdam 98% of all household food waste, 70 million kilos a year, is incinerated. This leads to carbon emissions, fly ash, and other pollution. The Green Hub is designing a network with at the heart of it the country’s first mini biodigester placed in an urban area. We want to form partnerships with locals; a primary school, restaurants and a community center. These partners and the Green Hub will deliver swill, food waste, that will then be processed by a biodigester in the Green Hub. A colony of bacteria do this work and they need to be taken care of. The biodigester needs to be fed regularly, to be cleaned, and pampered. The outcome is that every day we can turn fifty kilos of what would otherwise be wasted food into 15 cubic meters of methane and fifty liters of liquid compost or bio water. The green gas can be distributed amongst everyone delivering the swill. Once sanitised, the bio water can be used to feed local horticulture and aquaponics. This project combines social and sustainable issues that we need to address.
In what way is your work regenerative and distributed?
The biodigester is a regenerative machine in itself, turning raw material into valuable resources that can replace finite and polluting counterparts. Having a biodigester in an urban area is transformative as well. It changes the perspective of swill, which is no longer waste but a source of energy. It serves as a showcase of how a community can produce its own energy with swill and will involve education programs for the partnered primary school children. This circular model comes with so many advantages, it’s cheaper than incineration, promotes awareness around wasteful food habits and it economizes household budgets. It can also promote many social profits, the waste separation provides proper jobs, social cohesion and less litter in neighborhoods.
From the Donut Deal Expertise Centre, we have the ambition to eventually realize 10 to 15 biodigester locations in the city of Amsterdam. To achieve this, we are working with many partners in the City and partners abroad, for instance in Grenoble. This may be the first biodigester in an urban area but there are many biodigesters around and many people with knowledge of how to run them. We rely on our network to grow and share our knowledge on the digester and do research around the multi-value impact of our project.
What steps do you still need to take to realize this project?
There are several challenges that we’re facing now. We have a functioning biodigester in Holendrecht but it isn’t active because it’s complicated to get an insurance plan for it since a project like this has not been realized yet. Another issue is the bio water. This is a valuable organic resource for farming but according to current regulations it’s waste and we need to pay for it to be collected. Furthermore, we are working on gathering a network to feed the digester. It needs to be fed constantly so, we need to ensure that there will always be some kind of food waste available to us to keep the process going. The good thing is that what we learn while smoothing out these wrinkles and can be used by us and our partners when we set up biodigesters in new locations later on.
What drives you personally to work on this project?
I am impact driven and fascinated by the Donut Economy idea. I was introduced to sustainable awareness when I was very young. Originally my background is in social work, this evolved into community building and eventually into my passion for building resilient cities. Since 1.5 years ago I got more and more involved in the field of inclusive and just energy transition. To have the opportunity to work within the Donut enables me to combine ecological and social challenges. In a general sense what I like about the biodigester and the concept of a Donut Deal is that you build an economy that is just and distributive. As a Donut Deal Experience Centre, I think it’s fantastic to combine the social and sustainability components and to notice what kind of energy is created in this. What kind of multiple-value combination can you produce in a project?
How might we make the regenerative design the norm?
This question resonates with me because it touches upon the part of challenges, we are facing in realizing the biodigester. We as a society have set the standard that swill is waste, that bio water is waste, instead of an organic resource. If we are caught up in that we won’t get to the sustainable world we need to achieve. And this change of mindset starts with yourself by involving our politicians and our children. If I look at this from a more general level, in my perception rules and regulations are often a barrier in marking designs generative. If we showcase in practice that it works it can lead to a change in policy and new perspectives with a different mindset. The complexity makes it so interesting and at the same time challenging and sometimes even idle.
What is your biggest hope for the future and what can we all start (or stop) doing as of tomorrow to contribute to that?
My biggest hope for the future is we all look at our own footprint and make changes in our life based on that. There is so much a person can do, there is no size fits all when it comes to changing your consumption patterns. For instance, start collecting your household organic waste. You will then immediately be stimulated to reduce your consumption of food. It provides a starting point for combating food waste. I hope that in 5 years it will be self-evident that fruits and vegetables are raw materials (or organic resources). Related to the digester my biggest hope and ambition is that we have proven the value of digesters on a city scale, with at least 20 digesters in the city of Amsterdam.The biowater is no longer considered waste but an organic resource. And last but not least; the biowater is used as a fertilizer for our farms in the environment. This has led to the improvement of the soil and the crops. There is a more direct connection between the residents of the city and farmers.
Distributed & Regenerative Design interviews are part of our program for Distributed Design, the exchange and networking hub for the European maker movement. Want to know more about Distributed & Regenerative Design ? Re-watch the programme where talents explained more of their projects at Pakhuis de Zwijger here or check all the Talent interviews here.