Updated: Feb 12
I woke up one morning to an email from Nova Blooms in my inbox. My friend, Ingrid Tenekam from Cameroon had given herself a cool nickname.
She had asked me to register for the third annual Global Science, Technology, & Innovation Conference (G-STIC) organised by UN Major Group of Children and Youth. The conference was to be held in Brussels, Belgium from November 20th to 22nd. On usual days, I might overlook plans that require me to spend money and miss my lectures at the university.
But I saw the usual fee to attend this conference was over 1200 Euros for attendees and students from my university, Rhine Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany, were waived the cost to attend the conference. To my surprise, my friend booked a bus from Germany to Brussels for only 10 Euros and a three-story airbnb. I had no reason to say no. And, Belgian waffles!
Even though I'm a huge fan of Germany's infrastructure and cleanliness, I couldn't help but admire the vibe of Belgium. Maybe it was all the french speakers. Maybe it was all the graffitis on the train platforms. Maybe it was all the trash bags put outside the houses early morning on Belgian streets. Maybe it was the presence of my favourite Indian restaurant chain, Sarvanna Bhawan, in Brussels. I don't know.
I only get to wear a blazer very few times, so I was very excited. A group of 10 students were representing probably the most international university in Europe. What funny coincidence that we were from a German university but we had only one German in the group. Instead my team came from Cameroon, Brazil, Tunisia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Indonesia and India.
Brussels had already set the benchmark high when I had visited European Parliament on my first trip to the city. But the G-STIC conference surpassed that. A 3-day massive conference was all about how to achieve 2030 climate goals.
I got the opportunity to meet a variety of businesses, companies and organisations that had developed a new business model around sustainability. For them Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wasn't just a page on their websites. For instance, Aliter is a large IT firm in the Netherlands. They buy laptops from Dell, HP etc. that can no longer be used and extract alloys from those laptops to helps reduce waste that can be generated from the IT industry in large amounts. It is the main idea of circular economy.
As a student of Science Communication, I was highly impressed by the well-moderated debates amongst scientists and businessmen. My favourite one was about Technological Solutions For Marine Plastics. And before I tell you what I liked about the debate, I'll tell you something about myself.
A few months ago, the coffee machine in my university stopped giving cups that were made of plastic but instead started selling glass coffee mugs. I was quite annoyed. Of course, it was inconvenient. But that was not my point.
There are 5Rs of Sustainability:
Banning coffee cups for the students is a classic example of Refuse. But aren't we stuck on the first level of sustainability since decades? My argument is not necessarily against banning plastic. But what I wish to work on, in addition, is to come up with light weight, biodegradable materials that can be as good as plastic but not plastic. We need to strive harder in the field of technological innovation. We need to unlock all other 4Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle) if we truly want to become sustainable on a larger scale. We need more than "BAN PLASTIC." But if we only expect our consumers to change their habits while we still don't come up with an innovative solution, chances are plastics will never leave Earth.
My favourite debate on the topic of Technological Solutions for Marine Plastics involved various stakeholders namely, Karl Vranken, Research Manager Sustainable Materials management at VITO, Kim Ragaert, a polymer materials scientist, Alexandre Dangis, Managing Director of European Plastics and Converters (EuPC) and Peter Schelstraete, co-founder and CEO of Ubuntoo.
After attending this conference, I realised many plastic lobbyists, scientists and politicians are working on a common goal to end plastic waste in marine oceans, but they have different ways and ideas to achieve so. Also, there is so much going on in the tech world to recycle plastics, but it never makes a front cover news.
"Plastic is a relatively new material compared to aluminium and other materials, so we are still catching up with the technology to recycle it. But we should not look at plastic as evil. Increase the awareness of using recycled bins, not litter etc. Increase the taxes on non-recycling plastics and give corporations a reason to come up with alternative materials," said Dr. Kim Ragaert, an associate professor and material scientist at Ghent University in Belgium.
My last day at the conference in Brussels ended with an Industry Night where I got a chance to interact with some of the most prominent CEOs of different companies, all doing their bit to contribute to the EU 2030 Agenda.
Belgian wine, soups, sandwiches and ice cream. It was a fine evening until Vice President of Project Drawdown, Chad Frischmann, refused to eat the ice cream. Thousands of ice cream cups were distributed in Ben & Jerry's classic plastic packaging during the conference.
"Oh, but it's recyclable," said another person.
"They could have used just cones or big vessels instead," said Frischmann.
Standing besides them and hearing them talk, I continued eating my chocolate ice cream awkwardly.
But it stuck me then. Maybe not providing plastic cups at my university's coffee machine was the right thing after all. It would be cool if someday we can come up with an eco-friendly material that is as amazing as plastic. But until then, we really need to follow sustainability Rule Number 1: Refuse.
I love my coffee and not carrying a glass with me all the time. But if you informed me, where my plastic cup goes in the life cycle after I throw it in a bin, I would feel guilty.
I remember how I would eat ice cream in Indian weddings standing in a queue for a big buffet. It would be served from a big vessels for different flavours of ice cream without the need of any packaging. Maybe having the luxury to spend on packaging for such conferences is another high end issue.
But I wouldn't have noticed that if I had not gone to Brussels and not met a person who refused to eat his ice cream.