The engineer and pioneer of circular economy innovations was a key speaker at the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress 2018. INBAR spoke to Gunter Pauli about bamboo innovations and how to inspire change.
You mentioned that bamboo could replace plastic. How will that work?
We don’t have to understand how it works. When you have to substitute millions of tons of plastics you need a renewable resource that can bring you millions of tons. Honestly speaking, I’ve only seen two: one is bamboo, the other is seaweed. They are the only regenerative species on Earth that are able to produce the biomass that could be converted into all the types of substitutes we need for plastics.
For me, the vision is very clear. The science is not focusing on it – that’s the problem. So what we need to do is mobilise the science that permits us to see the pathway. I’m chairman of an engineering company – I know that we can do it. It’s just a matter of getting young scientists and young chemical engineers to start focusing.
“For me, the vision is very clear. The science is not focusing on it – that’s the problem.”
And how can we inspire people to start substituting plastic for bamboo?
We have to stop thinking about substituting one product with another product. If you’re only looking at substituting A for B, it’s never going to work. That’s not how innovation comes to market. Innovation comes to market because you have a captive market in a territory. You have to have a territorial vision… And that is why it’s so important that you develop the economy around the areas where you have bamboo forests. If you don’t develop that economy based on the bamboo, you’re never going to get anywhere, because you’ll never be able to compete with one ingredient only.
How do you inspire people to invest?
Don’t talk about money! When you talk to financiers don’t tell them you want their money; you’ll never get it. The first thing is to have a proposal that is hard to refuse. And that means you have to talk to the brain and heart.
You have to be very practical. When we have simple houses in Colombia, why do people like their house? Because of the bamboo – because it’s fresh. Its always cool in the house. If you live in the tropics, and your neighbours have a house that’s always fresh, I guarantee, people will want to live there. I have a traditional [bamboo] house. I designed it so it’s newly built, but it has no air conditioning.
There are too many people talking and researching and declaring and indicating. We need more people doing. That’s why Sven Mouton [bamboo architect at Cru!] designs village community centres with bamboo. He says: I have some ideas, shall we try together. He’s a real change agent.
“We don’t have to educate people; we have to inspire them – and bamboo is an inspiring product.”
Tell us about your work with bamboo in the circular economy.
I think we have not realised the extent to which we can go way beyond what we’re doing now. We make diapers with wasted bamboo and we turn the waste into charcoal. That allows us to have a very rich carbon soil, which lets us plant trees. We design it so that 1 tonne of bamboo waste is turned into a tonne of soil for planting fruit trees. Every fruit tree in 10 years’ time will be producing 50kg of fruits. That is the kind of design that goes beyond the classic thing – “it sequesters carbon, it has a big root system, it builds up soil”… That’s fine, but it’s not good enough. The systemic approach needs to be much more pronounced.
When were you first inspired by bamboo?
I was in Bali, in 1995. I was at the first bamboo conference in Bali, and that’s where I got infected. And I thought, those guys are missing something. They don’t have the science. This is why I built this huge structure in Hannover [for the World Expo in 2000]. I said, [you need to] convince the engineers this works.
What is one message you would like participants to take away from the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress?
The science is already there. We don’t have to convince people about bamboo. How is it possible that we remain stupid? Because this is a big deal. We need to take steps so the next generation say, ‘how is it possible our parents didn’t do this?’ We don’t have to educate them; we have to inspire them – and bamboo is an inspiring product.
Excerpts from an interview conducted with Gunter Pauli on Tuesday 26 June, at the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress.