(Re)Using Waste to Elevate Neighborhood Development

Introducing CITIES’ research linking waste to circular economies and neighborhood social and material prosperity through a multi-level collaborative, innovation-based implementation strategy.

Sustainism, Big Society and Little Neighborhoods

Graced with a slew of crises, we are presented grand opportunities to modify established practices as the world population grows and cities densify. Instinctively, the feeling to shake things up is more and more manifest in our everyday lives – challenging us to better broken systems. Michael Schwartz and Joost Elffers took an advantageous approach to this challenge, focusing on the transition from Modernity to Sustainity – where a new world is more connected and functional both locally and globally, through an innovative blend of technology and ecological principles.

In their 2010 book, Schwartz and Elffers say Sustainism is the New Modernism. Supporting Bottom-Up Sustainable Re-Design, sustainism calls for a resurgence of community-based social innovation to meet shifting cultural and political boundaries with aims to create more collaborative, social and sustainable living environments. This technique of designing the city from within, so to speak, elevates social cohesion, as citizens become active agents of change in their locale and simultaneously contribute to a global network of developing future-functional cities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society aligns with this thinking, pushing to shift from ‘big government’ to ‘big society,’ where the state supports boosting local empowerment and responsibility while generating ‘active’ citizenry. This controversial approach does garner criticism. For instance, it is argued that it resembles top-down solutions being imposed on people – where imposition overshadows autonomy in empowerment strategies. Supporting this critique, the former CEO of the Big Society Network, Paul Twivy, resigned to pursue an improvised approach. His creation, Your Square Mile, functions to “encourage and enable people to change their neighbourhoods in the way they see fit.” Emphasis is on the neighborhood, as Twivy recognizes in an article for The Gaurdian that one of the biggest untapped sources of happiness and practical resources in our lives is the neighborhood.

Circular Economies: When Waste Prospers

What do happiness, practical resources and notions of a thriving, cohesive and collaborative sustainist urban neighborhood have in common? Waste. It may not sound so beautiful, but the possibilities for productively and positively harnessing waste paint a pretty picture for our everyday viewing – from neighborhoods and the natural environment to the world at large.

The not-so-pretty picture is what we see daily and are tired of accepting – a linear economy dubbed in a literal sense as a “throwaway economy.” We make, use and throw away. The process is simple; the aftermath is a behemoth mess. An alternative is a circular economy, based on the cycles of natural ecosystems and their auto-regulatory mechanisms. The 18th century ‘Father of Chemistry’ Lavoisier sees a system where, “[n]othing is lost; nothing is created; everything is transformed.” Today we envision an evolved system where nothing is lost; everything is creatively transformed.

Rather than people paying to remove waste that degrades the environment and society in a linear resource to landfill style, re-using waste in a circular economic fashion could in turn pay people, sustain and elevate environmental integrity, and breed not consumptive, wasteful mentalities, but instead resourceful, collaborative, creative individuals and local collectives. These emotive underpinnings drive neighborhood innovation, which leads to our focal point.

Plastic’s Potential for Neighborhood Development

It’s everywhere. Plastic is inescapable in daily life. Most of it flows through the linear economic ‘throwaway’ pattern, from a bottle of water quickly consumed to a phone that lasts years, eventually all finds its place as waste. Dealing with all this plastic waste is a further strain on resources. It’s also ineffective, as we find plastic all over streets, in gigantic masses in the ocean, and other nooks and crannies. This is how it is. Now let’s imagine how it could be.

Tying back into sustainism’s bottom-up redesign and Big Society’s vision through the neighborhood-focused lens of Your Square Mile puts plastic in perspective as an accessible, local resource ready and available for circular economic utilization.

Neighborhoods can form new relationships between people, businesses and authorities to create a cyclical system of plastic re-distribution and re-use. What to do with all this plastic in your little neighborhood? This question is the gift plastic gives – open opportunity for ingenious innovation. Similar to plastic, aluminum presents parallel opportunities.

Take this must-see example of resource re-use ingenuity, where Studio Swine collected aluminum in Sao Paulo, invented a mobile foundry using re-used vegetable oil as fuel to smelt it, and created a brilliant collection of street furniture. Really, you have to watch their “Can City” video for the full experience. Their efforts extend beyond mere creation to establish relationships with local Catodores, waste collectors, who can also use the free metal and fuel to produce whatever aluminum craft they can think up. (Cheers to Heineken for supporting these guys).

Additionally, watch the video “Precious Plastic – at Work” by Dave Hakkens for another ingenious example of waste re-use. You don’t need to own all the featured fancy equipment to make use of plastic, either. Collaborative spaces like Fablab (short for Fabrication Lab) offer use of all sorts of handy gadgetry at a calm price. With locations around the world, there’s a Fablab right in Amsterdam.


How you re-use plastic (or aluminum, or waste) is up to you. And that’s (in part) what’s so great about it. On another level, by participating in such initiatives we take action to better the local and the global ecosystem – economically, environmentally, and socially.

The next questions to answer include how plastic is introduced and sustained in a local circulatory loop, further strengthening local relationships and economies on the neighborhood level. We can look at the Plastic Bank, presented in the 2013 edition of Green Futures, as another innovative example.

The Plastic Bank is a business that aims to tackle the problem of plastic waste in impoverished regions. Collected plastic is exchanged ‘at the bank’ for micro-finance loans and goods created from the plastic. While assigning value to waste and turning a profit, focus is also on social benefit. The CEO, David Katz, recognizes that “[g]obal social and environmental crises are linked, and so are the solutions.” Through their efforts, they hope standards of living will increase and a new ‘social plastic’ value will be recognized by end-consumers, similar to the Fair Trade label.

Stay current with CITIES, as they endeavor to make positive re-use of plastic here in Amsterdam. For more on our WASTED research theme, click here.

Featured links: Sustainism is the New Modernism, Big Society Network, Your Square Mile, The Gaurdian, circular economy, Studio Swine, Can City video, Precious Plastic – at Work video, Fablab Amsterdam, Plastic Bank

Created on 24 November 2013

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