On our way to Santiago de Chile, our travel guide informed us that Chile is considered to be one of the least sustainable countries in the world, indiscriminately using its natural resources to improve economic growth and often allowing foreign companies to do all the exploiting. Ironically, our very first request by email to give a lecture and workshop came from Santiago de Chile where Duoc University just started a new course for designers focused on sustainability.
Besides thinking about the pros and cons of Chile's environmental policies, today's thoughts are captured by the deep valley we see from our bus window. Is our bus driver's penchant for speeding into the hillside curves with reckless abandon due to his poorly developed sense of fear or a demonstration of his driving skills? We hope it's the latter.
Notes during an exciting bus trip through the Andes
South America Experience Continued
After our experience in Brazil, we (Aart and Paula) continued our travels to Argentina. Known internationally as the birthplace the tango and described as the "most European" city in South America (among other designations), Buenos Aires piqued our curiosity. With the help of the Metropolitan Design Center, we have been preparing for a week of interviews focused on sustainability in materials and design to be broadcast to Germany. Meanwhile, a private university in Chile contacted us to prepare a lecture and demonstrate our first do-it-yourself bioplastics workshop in South America. It seems like a lot of interaction is coming up.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Metropolitan Design Center
Our stay in Buenos Aires was anchored by a one-week schedule of interviews with local designers at the Metropolitan Design Center, or (in local parlance) the CMD (Centro Metropolitano de Diseño).
The CMD was founded in 2001 to develop creative programs and projects in order to get the necessary financial support from the government. Instead of being a purely aesthetic pursuit, design is taken seriously and considered a tool for economic, ecologic and social change. One of the best examples is demonstrated by the Metropolitan Design Center itself, which is situated in the Barracas district. Barracas is the kind of district where locals warn: "Don't go there at night..." The city of Buenos Aires strategically located the design center here in a beautifully renovated fish market to improve the local welfare and establish design-related enterprises in the southern area of Buenos Aires.
The CMD is based in a historical fish market with lots of space (14.000 m2)
Paula discussing the interview schedule at the CMD with project manager Gloria Ayerza
Live From Buenos Aires
Most of the designers we interviewed are participating in an incubator program that offers free housing and business support for young designers during their first year(s) while they start up their business. It was interesting to discover how the designers we talked with work with sustainability in different ways. For instance, some focused on materials (i.e. reusing industrial waste) while others tried to improve local manufacturing or addressed sustainability in the education of children. Also, many design studios were inspired by earlier workshops focused on materials such as bamboo or silk which were organized by the CMD. A live-connection broadcasted our interviews directly at the Materials Cafe, a special event during this year's Hanover Fair in Germany.
Visitors at the Materials Cafe in Germany, photo by Daniel George
Interview with Constanza and Gabriel from design/architecture studio Gruba
During our week of interviews, we experienced how easy it can be to share sustainable ideas overseas while learning how hard it can be to transport your thoughts to a workshop next door. For instance, Pomada told us that manufacturing items from reused materials is more expensive than having items made from new materials because the local workshops don't see the economic benefits of reuse. One of the most inspiring interviews took place with Diseñaveral, an industrial design studio that does not use sustainability quotes and labels. By choosing not to use branding that says "green" or "eco" they hope to reach a bigger audience (instead of only the fanatic LOHAS audience) with their products. Even though their design process includes a lot of sustainable thinking, the focus of their communication is about a quality product. We appreciate this kind of "silent green" approach, which is more likely to surprise customers about the product's sustainable qualities after its purchase (not in advance such as many green/eco labels).
Interview with Leandro and Maximiliano from studio Diseñaveral
Interview with Bruno and Antonela from Pomada
Learning to Love the Mate
Even though we enjoy the typical European culture of coffeehouses, in Argentina we started loving the mate. Mate is probably the most sustainable practice we spotted in Buenos Aires. Unlike green-labeled foods, drinking mate is a phenomenon that doesn't wear the label of "being green" but demonstrates how sustainability can be rooted in culture (probably without even realizing it). The coffee-to-go service we know in Europe is frustrating for us due to the wasted cups we spot in many streets and parks. The art of drinking mate is a common social practice among people of all ages. Mate is about bringing your own dry leaves, a hollow gourd with metal straw, thermos with hot water and sharing a single cup with your friends. We experienced this bring-it-yourself approach of sharing mate as simply great and we are sure nature loves its zero waste.
Mate is enjoyed among people of all age
Paula enjoying mate served in its typical gourd and metal straw
The Magic Of Trash
We were just as impressed by the amount of sustainable initiatives within the Metropolitan Design Center as we were by the lack of it in everyday life. For instance, there is almost no separating of household waste within the city. Every day, all types of waste piles up at street corners, which are cleaned during the night. Earlier, one of our contacts in Curitiba Brazil described this as something magic: "In Buenos Aires, you'll notice a lot of trash in the evening and the next day...it is just gone!" Of course, there is no such thing as "just gone". The students at the University of Buenos Aires (FADU) even explained that separated household waste is thrown together by the garbage trucks. So much for their recycling efforts. We hope the city will not remain ignorant and deal with this issue soon. We experienced this at the Rio de la Plata riverbank where people were enjoying the sun but sitting in the middle of a pile of plastic trash.
People "enjoying" their weekend break along the trashy riverbank of the Rio de la Plata
Daily piles of trash decorating the streets of Buenos Aires
PUERTO DE IGUAZÚ
A Green Break
Even though the stepping stones of our journey are based in cities, we try to get out of the heavily urbanized areas to get ourselves closer to the local flora and fauna. One of our first "green breaks" was a four-day visit to the Iguazú Falls, which span the border between Argentina and Brazil, touching the Iguazú National Park World Heritage site. The sheer amount of water pouring over the spectacular falls demands silence and respect for the power and beauty of nature. Besides the system of some 270 waterfalls, the surrounding parks are wonderful areas to walk and enjoy the local habitats. After three days, Paula's list of animal sightings included wild toucan, nose-bears, big ants, wild deer, butterflies, Macaco monkeys, woodpeckers, more unknown birds, cutia, birds of prey, spiders with strong silk, lizards, muskrats, snails, turtles, (baby) Caiman, cranes, egret, fish, preying mantis and eagles (in order of appearance). It was impressive to see how the diversity of living things is celebrated in nature.
Some 6,5 million liters of water falling down per second at the Iguazú Falls
Relaxing Iguazú Jungle Tour passing along baby Caimans and bamboo forests
During the jungle tours and at the information center, we realized that for a national park, which is currently admired by thousands of visitors everyday, it is not easy being green. An enormous part of the rain forest has been destroyed in the last century. At the visitors center, we read that, of the original extent of 1,000,000 square kilometers of Paranaense rainforest, only 60,000 square kilometers are left, mostly in small patches. Today, the three countries (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay) are collaborating in a project called the "Three Nations Green Corridor" that should protect and relieve the rainforest from human destruction. It is shocking to see how fast the forest has been destroyed, considering that these rainforests are home to some 80% of our planet's plants and animals.
Close encounters with one of the colorful Toucan
Various signs along the walking trails reflecting the diverse wildlife Three Nations Green Corridor
SANTIAGO DE CHILE
Preparing for the Worst?
It's no secret that Santiago is infamous for it's smog and back in Buenos Aires people warned us for the upcoming air pollution. We might have been lucky to arrive on a rainy day because the air did not attack our lungs as much as it did in Buenos Aires. The city has an "air quality forecast" that informs people whether it is a good day to do outdoor sports. In the same newspaper we read that the air quality has improved due to filter systems applied to public transport buses and lower exhausts of new cars. Smog-wise, we were happily surprised by the conditions in Santiago.
This blue-grey color fade is not a Photoshop filter but downtown smog
For Me, It Is Easy Being Green
We enjoyed a very welcoming experience at Duoc University. The lecturers at the University had learned about our project from our website and invited us to inspire their students with a workshop and lectures. We were invited by Natalia Nuñez, one of the teachers who initiated a special course on sustainability for design students. We were surprised by the Director Vinko Goravica words who introduced our first lecture saying: "For me, it is easy being green!" The lecture attracted a lot of students and teachers, who were curious about our experiences. We loved the enthusiasm of some students who took notes on their arms and requested autographs on a poster. Duoc University supported our stay and introduced us to the biggest local newspaper El Mercurio to spread the sustainable word in Chile—you can read the article here (in Spanish). All told, it was great to see the positive response and openness to new knowledge. Before we left the University, the director told us with a smile that Green is his second family name: Vinko Goravica Green.
Portrait with a kind and supporting team at the Duoc University
Design students making their own bio-plastic with basic ingredients
Business from China, Business of Bio-plastics
One of our first encounters with sustainability gone wrong in Santiago de Chile was when we went shopping for our first meal at one of Chile's biggest supermarkets. The supermarket was selling reusable bags to its customers communicating "Reduce Reuse Recycle," which we even saw on TV. Surprisingly, these "green bags" were made of brand new Polypropylene and had been imported all the way from China: so much for its Reduce-Reuse-Recycle message. Later on we learned that these imported bags were rather famous, not as an act of sustainability, but as a billion-dollar business deal for one of local entrepreneur.
One of our last meetings in Santiago was with Augusto Cubillos, owner of BioMorgan, which he hopes to grow into the leading company for bio-plastics applications in Chile. Mr. Cubillos is an inspiring personality who made a career switch from being an IT-specialist at Microsoft to pushing the business of bio-plastics in Chile. Their proposal for LAN airlines (South America's major airline) to use drinking cups made of bio-plastic is a perfect example of BioMorgan's innovations. Unlike consumer products that leave supermarkets, airlines are often able to deal with their waste on the spot. For instance, LAN airlines benefits from a composting site not far from the airport. To Mr. Cubillos, bio-plastics have a promising future in Chile.
Reusable bag promoted at Chile's supermarkets
Advertising material of BioMorgan's bio-plastics
Being Curious and Being Green
We experienced the Chileans as very curious people that are willing and able to adopt and change towards ideas they appreciate. For instance, the French botanist Patrick Blanc kicked off a vertical garden trend in Santiago, a concept that is now being repeated time and again, turning the city in an urban oasis—in our opinion, a nice alternative to the earlier trend of mirror glass buildings. Chile's culture are rooted in Europe but now also include practices from the USA such as shopping malls. The ability to adopt new ideas and ability to change sounds promising to us. Even though Chile is considered very low on the list of sustainable countries, we see them as one of the most able countries that can make a radical shift towards sustainability. One of the biggest challenges will be getting the Chileans excited about sustainability. We believe that passionate entrepreneurs such as Augusto Cubillos of BioMorgan and dedicated teachers such as Natalia Nuñez have already made a great start in doing so.
Natalia Nuñez teaching her students at the Duoc University
Self-made papers by Miroslava, one of the Santiago workshop participants
While exploring articles about sustainability in Chile, we discovered the case of Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine Tompkins. Their names may not directly ring a bell but they are the founding partners of the well-known clothing companies The North Face and ESPRIT. This couple dedicated themselves to environmental activism and conserved over 8,100 square kilometers of wilderness in Chile and Argentina. Accordingly, their conservation efforts focus on preserving wild landscapes and biodiversity. After purchasing large blocks of wilderness, they work to create national parks, believing that this governmental designation serves as the best mode of guaranteeing long-term conservation. Currently, the parks offer visitors wilderness experiences to inspire them with a deeper environmental ethic (you can read more at the Foundation for Deep Ecology http://www.deepecology.org). However, their efforts have provoked a lot of controversy and are sometimes seen as a kind of landscape hijacking.
Local protest against the heavy traffic in Buenos Aires
WHY IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
During our journey in South America we have talked to a lot of people about the importance of sustainability. Most people consider sustainability as something important but often this was followed up with excuses as to why environmental actions were not put into practice. The most common reason was that "other issues" such as basic welfare standards had to be improved at first. Of course, we agree about the importance of people's housing and well-being, but we disagree that one thing only comes after another. Instead of being seen as a kind of "luxury problem" in Western Europe, sustainable thinking should be a fundamental, or common sense, for everyone. In short, sustainable thinking is not something limited to welfare but matters for all levels of income and all age groups. Unlike being exclusive or academic, sustainability is more about an everyday common sense.
Necklace made by weaving dye colored horsehair, one of Chile's distinctive folk crafts
CALL FOR GREEN TIPS
As of press time, Aart and Paula traveled through New Zealand, Australia and are scheduling the final part of their journey through South-East Asia (from June - August 2011). Their schedule develops as they go and welcomes invitations from interested designers, schools or companies to provide lectures, workshops or simply share ideas.
If you have any tips on sustainable people, places or things in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam or Malaysia—please inform Aart and Paula by sending an email to: info[at]itsnoteasybeinggreen.net. You can follow the It's Not Easy Being Green project on Facebook or Twitter or see the photos on their website.
About Aart & Paula
Aart van Bezooyen and Paula Raché are a Dutch-German design couple living and working in Hamburg, Germany. With the "It's Not Easy Being Green" project, they are using their creative skills to give our tired planet a helping hand.
Paula Raché is a Berlin-born designer with work experience in graphic, packaging and exhibition design. Aart van Bezooyen is a design teacher and founder of Material Stories where he inspires and enables the best use of materials to make design more competitive, creative and sustainable. Together they provide lectures and workshops to explore and share solutions that can give our world a better future.