Can humanity survive without producing waste?

Today’s society evolved through countless cycles of mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal.
Are we powerless to change this one-way economic system?

A circular economy is based on recirculation of resources, eliminating the concept of waste altogether—and it might be what saves the societies of the future.



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To reflect on a modern society heavily relying on mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal, the environmental project team at the Think Human Exhibition created an exhibition asking how we can change our attitudes toward the environment and how to approach the concept of ‘waste’ differently. We wondered what we could do to halt our current unidirectional economic society, thereby transitioning to a sustainable society.

Changing how we view things produces a new sense of value

The Think Human Exhibition presented two experiments supported by the environment project team. These projects were conducted in two very different yet similarly challenging settings—the Antarctic and the Atlantic Ocean—with all those involved sharing a common goal: exploring whether we can live without throwing things away.

In the Atlantic Ocean project, twenty-one students boarded a sailboat and spent three weeks under grueling weather conditions to traverse the ocean. During this time, they discussed how they needed to improve themselves to become leaders in 2050 in a “circular economy,” one in which resources continually circulate. In the Antarctic project, as part of their ongoing Clean2Antarctica project, Edwin ter Velde and his wife Liesbeth boarded a vehicle made from industrial waste and headed for the South Pole.

Neither experiment culminated in concrete solutions to environmental issues, but they did provide clues for solving global problems. Taking a view to the future for reforming the very foundations of traditional ways of thinking will lead to a mindset for a new era. On the day of the exhibition, Prof. Emeritus Hideki Ishida of Tohoku University, a proponent of sustainable lifestyles and a concept called “backcasting,” gave a talk with environment project team leader Ton de Weijer regarding how we can take on environmental issues.

Ishida explores the state of environmentally friendly technologies in industrialized Japan, advocating a new concept called “nature technology.” He is currently based on Okinoerabujima, one of the Amami Islands, where he pursues what he calls “gap-filling research” that straddles self-sufficiency and reliance, which he positions as a higher concept than “nature technology.” According to Ishida, technology, services, indeed all businesses will require a perspective based on a scaffolding that is different from today’s. We must consider how to realize a fulfilling life amidst harsh constraints imposed by the earth’s environment. Ishida says that in place of the perspective we have taken until today—planning for and predicting the future through forecasting—we need to engage in “backcasting,” where we start by imagining the form of an exciting and yet sustainable society despite many constraints.

As Ishida describes it, “When we start from a basis of harsh constraints and imagine a fulfilling lifestyle atop that, we can visualize autonomous lifestyles that depart from a dependency-based society emphasizing comfort and convenience. Completely new technologies and services will surely arise there. The ‘nature technology’ that I propose first extracts those technological elements that will be needed for the lifestyle we imagine, then goes forth to find those technologies in nature. We then redesign the elements we find, passing them through the filter of sustainability.”

Lifestyle-oriented technologies arising from this concept include a futuristic foam bath that conserves the energy and water needed for bathing without placing constraints on how frequently we bathe, and a method for wind-powered energy generation even from the smallest of breezes, a technique learned from dragonflies.

“When we think from the perspective of a new scaffolding, we see a different world. I am currently engaged in a project on Okinoerabujima in which we are trying to reclaim a self-sustaining lifestyle. Education, food, energy, money—all of this will be self-sustainable. What will we come to see by doing so? The result should be more money and work, increasing the number of smiling faces and in the end improving quality of life, thereby boosting the island’s population. In this way I hope to create a local formula, but furthermore believe that such a thought process itself will become a new value.”

At the environment project booth display, this team distributed postcards with cutouts spelling out “IMAGE FUTURE.” The message of the Clean2Antarctica attempt at a crossing of Antarctica with the vehicle made of waste materials was that a new mindset is the first step for all actions. It is a call for imagining the future from a different perspective to grasp new ideas.

What a new mindset gives us

The conceptual basis for de Weijer and other environment project team members is this kind of value creation through new perspectives. Edwin Ter Velde’s Clean2Antarctica project too is the result of a completely new perspective—that waste should be reused, not thrown away.

“This is exactly our EVOLVE+ concept,” de Weijer says. “If we all change our way of thinking, then the totality of our actions under that new thinking will provide a major impetus for changing society. We can start with small steps, like not using plastic bags when we make small purchases at a convenience store. By accepting some small degree of inconvenience without forgetting our sense of play, we can take that first step without fear of failure. That kind of mindset will eventually lead to solutions for complex environmental problems.”

At the end of this talk, Edwin ter Velde sent a video message from Antarctica, describing his adventure. As he said, “Adopting the mindset that garbage is not a waste, but instead an important resource, made me realize the possibility of creating something new from that which was unwanted. I’m here in the Antarctic not because of some technological revolution, but because I broke through some preconceived notions I’d held within myself. When we take on challenges from a new perspective, without fear of inconvenience or failure, we can achieve growth.”

Global warming is already melting ice at the earth’s poles, raising sea levels. We can no longer stand around waiting for someone else to solve global-scale environmental issues. Now is the time when we must find policies for the initiation of concrete action. Accepting some degree of inconvenience, moving forward with a sense of playfulness, retaining bravery in the face of failure… These are the messages from the environment project team. Teijin hopes that this exhibition will alter attitudes even just a little bit, and as a result change behavior in a way that will build into a swell in the future. This is the EVOLVE+ that Teijin aims to achieve.

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