How Cinderella became a Circular Economy Thinker
Once upon a time, there was a young woman who had to clean up the mess that her evil stepmother and stepsisters made. Four years ago, I had a similar experience. Ok, well, instead of evil stepmother and stepsisters, I had a bus full of elderly Belgian tourists. You see, I was a bus hostess, one of those jobs you had to take to pay the bills.
Before I continue this Cinderella story, I have to talk about my Nepalese “fairy godmother”, who is a close friend and invited me to stay at her house in Kathmandu during my 6 week trip in Asia four years ago. She was the one who handed me the magical “glass slippers”, my key to a more fulfilling and conscious life. It started when she saw me looking around for a garbage bin in her apartment and told me that she did not have one.
“I do not need a garbage bin,” she said. She reused all the plastic container/packaging, bought very sustainable products with long lifespans and composted all the organic garbage.
I looked at her as if she had announced she came from Mars. Ironically enough, I come from Flanders, the place which claims to be the capital of waste management in the world.
“What do you use to wash your hair and brush your teeth?” I asked. What I actually wanted to say, was “Your shampoo, your toothpaste are all in packages. What happens with those?”
She knew what I wanted to know. “My parents give me all what I need in jars and bottles.”
I could not stop there.
“What about your menstruation products?”
“Oh, I use cotton pads.”
She took me to the farmer’s market the next day and introduced me to a Taiwanese social entrepreneur who sold “eco-friendly woman-friendly” products. I was so intrigued by such a new, yet simple idea, that two days later I travelled for a half day to visit her enterprise and permaculture farm in the countryside. She taught four rural woman how to make cotton pads and sold the products at the farmer’s market once a week, mostly to foreign (white) women. In the three days I stayed with her, I learned more about sustainable development than during my three years of undergraduate studies at university. I had entered the Wonderland of social enterprises, permaculture, systems thinking and sustainable consumption. The seeds were planted.
One month later, I was back home and could not find a job suited to my profile. So, I took the first job that pays while doing 2 days voluntary work at a documentary house on the side. That’s how I became a “bus hostess”. I took (mostly retired) Belgians to Spain and back and one of my tasks during these 20-hour trips was to sell drinks and give them lunches all in single-use packages. Then I had to collect all the waste.
I always got to stay for 12 hours in Spain. While the drivers slept, I walked around in the city of Calella, enjoyed buffets of a four-star hotel and rested at the beach. It seemed a great job, but I was restless and felt bad most of the time because I got disgusted by all the waste I collected. It also did not help that I had to process videos and other materials about ecology for a video art project on “radical ecology” and learned a lot about the global problems at the documentary house.
I started to have nightmares about fighting against this “army” of garbage, I wanted to do something about it but I felt so alone and scared.
Eventually I quit my job at the bus company and took the opportunity to join the film director and his daughter in Greece where I got to take a two week permaculture course, a gift for my volunteer work. The course gave me the romantic idea to have my own garden and apply the systems thinking approach I learned there. I also started to organise permaculture workshops for geography students from all over Europe. In fact, last weekend, one of these students told me that the workshop had inspired her to start a community garden in cooperation with a school in Berlin, which made me happier than getting my last paycheck. At that time, it was clear that I would become a circular economy mediator.
All these experiences inspired me to apply for graduate studies half year later… after 5 years away from academia! Then I found the MIND program, Erasmus Mundus Masters of Industrial Ecology, during which, I got the opportunity to study in Thailand for exchange where I have co-founded a sustainable lifestyle hub for students.
Upon completion of my graduate program in 2017, I started pursuing a PhD on Environmental Science at Nagoya University in Japan while discussing ideas to improve the disposable housing problem with stakeholders there. My Cinderella story continues as I’m still trying to clean up “the mess”, albeit in a radically different way. I am working on two projects aiming to educate citizens on circular economy. One of them is co-funded by the Flemish government, where I share sustainable living ideas through storytelling, transformative tours and experiential learning. And I’ve been a blogger for Mo*, a Flemish magazine for two years, where I write about education, circular economy and Asia. I am also work on an e-book called “Circular Economy for Slow People”, using stories like the one you are reading now to explain why I do what I do to the public.
What I’ve learned so far is that many people do not care about sustainability unless we make it sexy and funny. Second hand clothes should become the Coco Chanel of the 21st century. Co-housing should be the new trend. And why don’t we make a Marvel or DC adaptation of sustainability warriors with A-list actors?
In the face of a big mess, I did not find a Prince Charming who carried me away from it all. Nor did I become a princess and live in a palace far away. Instead, I found a mission “happily ever after”.
Where you can find me and follow my journey:
Bold Branders: https://www.facebook.com/Furnistories/
My lab in Japan: https://sites.google.com/site/ensap758/en