“We Are In A Toxic Relationship With Trash. Why Can’t We Imagine A Different Way?”
As one of the founders of Berlin's Circular Economy Hub, Garbologist Alice Grindhammer is blazing the trail for a different approach to the environmental crisis.
It’s not everyday that you meet a ‘garbologist', so as I wait for Alice Grindhammer at CRCLR House in Berlin I’m not quite sure what to expect. A Google image search throws up several pictures of a man in a white lab coat, standing triumphantly on a pile of landfill. “Is that what a garbologist does?” I think, “conquer trash?”
In a way, yes, but you won’t find Alice clambering up piles of landfill with a flag pole anytime soon. When she and her team founded CRCLR House as a hub for all things circular economy in 2014 it was with the intention of creating a space where the human relationship to trash could be redefined, collaboratively. Having worked for four years in the waste management sector, she’d already seen first hand the implications of the current model and been shocked, not just by the scale of the problem, but the inefficiency of the system - especially when it came to recycling. “I just thought that’s recycling?!” she says, speaking from an armchair in one of CRCLR’s meeting spaces. “I think everyone expects something far more sophisticated.” In her mid-30s with short, dark hair and a warm smile, Alice exudes a confidently optimistic attitude which, considering the urgent nature of current waste crisis, seems somewhat at odds to the field in which she works.
Located in Berlin’s Neukölln district CRCLR House is in good company at the heart of Berlin’s burgeoning startup scene. Before Alice and her team secured tenancy of the former brewery with the help of the Edith Maryon Foundation, there were plans to convert it into a commercial shopping mall. The current use couldn’t be more ideologically different. Inside the 2,000 square meter building, meeting spaces have been constructed out of up cycled wood pallets and plastic sheeting, window frames are sealed using bicycle inner tubes and shredded paper is used as insulation. The cavernous space is softened with the addition of mismatched second-hand sofas, potted plants and threadbare rugs. You can imagine that if there was an apocalypse and the only survivors were millennials who had to construct new buildings using only found materials, they might eventually come up with something a bit like this.
Keeping with the post-apocalyptic theme, CRCLR House describes itself as ‘Berlin’s ground zero for all things circular economy’. The idea is that in a circular economy nothing goes to waste, everything has a purpose and materials are not down-cycled or reduced in value no matter how many times they are used. When it comes to consumer products and processes, this means that from disposable cutlery to mobile phones, things are designed from the get go with a consideration to how they will be repurposed once their current lifespan is over. It’s an innovative idea, and one which is gaining increasing momentum for its business-friendly approach to sustainability. A recent McKinsey report estimated that the circular economy could be worth 1.8 trillion euros by 2030 in Europe alone.
As well as providing a concrete example of the circular economy in practise and incubating social entrepreneurial projects in it’s co working space, CLCLR House aims to be a working test case for new ideas related to sustainability. Alice and her team currently facilitate the running of waste-free events and workshops and over the next few years they aim to convert the space using an entirely circular construction model.
The creation of waste under a ‘take, make, use, dispose’ model - known as the linear economy - has been the story of the last century, but it’s starting to catch up on us. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" to avoid disastrous levels of global warming. Whilst for many this might seem like an abstract statement, Alice believes that a circular economy is the solution, but to get there will require a huge systematic shift not just in the way that we do things, but the way that we think. “We are in a toxic relationship with trash,” says Alice. “We know it’s bad for us, but we keep producing it and don’t know how to stop. This phenomenon of waste is less than 100 years old - so why can’t we imagine a different way?”
Before she discovered her passion for sustainability, Alice was keenly interested in social issues. When she was 8, her teacher wrote on a school report card that she had a ‘strong sense of justice.’ “I was probably always making sure everybody had the same amount of cake or chocolate milk or something” she laughs. Her mother is from Brooklyn, and as a result her English is peppered with upbeat Americanisms. Growing up with a Jewish-American Austrian background in Hamburg during the late 80s and 90s, Alice thought a lot about what it means to belong or not belong. As a child her Austrian grandparents on her dad’s side would warn her not to tell anyone that her mother was Jewish. The Nazi occupation during WWII had bought a lot of anti-semitism into Austria, and she says they were fearful of what would happen to people deemed to be part of the ‘out’ group.
When she was 8, Alice's teacher wrote on a school report card that she had a ‘strong sense of justice.’
When her parents eventually got divorced her mum moved in with another woman. Observing how people responded to what she calls her “queer, rainbow, patchwork” family meant that Alice had to develop a tough skin, but it also made her passionate about inclusion and social justice. One time, a family friend sporting high heels and a full beard picked her up from school and she experienced what it was like to feel like an outcast, virtually overnight. “I just thought, how do I get people to understand that she is great, and so is he, depending on the day in that specific case, and why is there so much fear and anxiety around this?” Alice says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering her parents met at an anti-Vietnam war protest, Alice spent her teenage years going to demonstrations for various social and environmental causes. “I believed that capitalism was bad, but at some point I realised that if you asked me to define what it actually was I would have gone blank,” she says. After completing an undergraduate degree in sociology she opted to study finance, driven to understand this thing which was supposedly destroying the planet. It was here she developed her belief that money can be a force for good. “I think money is great,” she says. “With money you can enable projects, that’s awesome, but let’s just think about what type of projects we want to enable, and how.”
After graduating Alice looked for a corporate job because she wanted to get an inside understanding of how the system worked. “I wanted to know where these choices that resulted in social inequality were being made, and by who, and why,” she says. By chance, she landed a traineeship at a waste management company. Although she’d always been interested in environmental issues, she admits that she didn’t have much prior knowledge of the subject before starting the role. “Growing up in Germany I never really thought about waste,” she says. “We have a reputation for having a great recycling system so I just figured it was all taken care of.”
“I think money is great,” says Alice. “With money you can enable projects."
Alice was still green in the world of waste management when she first saw the ‘other side’ of the linear economy. Her company had recently purchased a paper recycling plant in Spain and, curious about the process, she had asked to accompany one of the truck drivers on his rounds. Sitting in the truck, the driver explained that they would be visiting the dump to dispose of the leftovers that couldn’t be recycled. As they drove to the outskirts of Madrid, he told her that as they got nearer he would have to lock the doors, because the neighbourhoods around the dump weren’t safe. As they approached the dump there was a long traffic jam of vehicles all waiting to dispose of the city’s rubbish, and when they finally got through they had to ascend a mountain of waste. “There was people digging in the trash and birds circling around, it felt really morbid,” Alice recalls. When they’d finally arrived at the spot where their truck was to unload she prepared to hop down from the vehicle when the driver stopped her, warning her that the stench would be too much. Alice insisted, but once she was down on the ground she took one vomit-inducing breath before retreating. She calls this her ‘aha’ moment. “When you think about all the people that were living and working around that environment” says Alice. “You see that it’s the most vulnerable populations that are subject to it, whilst the privileged people, the ones that are doing a lot of the consumption, don’t see it.”
Despite her unconventional upbringing having given her a certain immunity to standing out, in the workplace Alice felt a pressure to conform to an established set of norms and values. “It’s a very male dominated field and there was certain ideas around what it means to be professional, how you carry yourself and how decisions are made,” she says. After working in the sector for nearly five years she was advising governments all over the world on how best to dispose of waste and it was whilst working in challenging environments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that she saw scope for changes, not just in the management of waste, but in the working culture of her sector.
She and her colleagues were increasingly trapped in individualistic power struggles and under pressure to hit revenue targets, which created a huge amount of stress. At the same time it was seen as the norm to suppress your emotions. It got her thinking about the culture into which capitalism is embedded - perhaps it wasn’t the money that was bad, but the attitudes and values that came with it. “There was so much pressure to make a certain amount of profit,” she says, “I just thought why do we need to make that much profit, and who is it for?”
When her friend Aaron Pereira, founder of The Wellbeing Project, told her that he was on an “inner work journey” she was initially nonplussed. “I was just like a what journey? What country is that?” she says. He explained that by doing what he called ‘inner work’ he was better prepared to think about how to contribute to the world more effectively. This hit home for Alice, who was one of the thousands of young professionals on her way to burning out before she turned 40. She realised that if she wanted to be part of changing a system that she saw as abusive to people and the environment, it was contradictory to abuse herself in the process. “I thought, I want to do something sustainable and healthy so how can I do that if I’m not in a healthy place myself?”
“I thought, I want to do something sustainable and healthy so how can I do that if I’m not in a healthy place myself?”
Although CRCLR is still in beta phase exploring new possible avenues, these values of openness and communication have been implemented into its foundations, with coaching and mentoring being a key part of their business model. “It’s really important that we start sharing and connecting and supporting each other” she says. Not only does this create a work environment which is better for employee’s mental health, but it also helps to nurture creative thinking - something we desperately need if we are to come up with solutions to the current climate crisis. Alice and her team recently founded a circular construction co-op called TRNSFRM which is about to start its first project building a 400 square metre space in Neukölln. After that they plan to make full use of CLCLR’s size and convert it into a larger co working and events space. In the future, they hope that TRNSFRM will pick up building projects elsewhere in Berlin, with a priority on social, environmental and artistic tenants. Considering that the construction sector is currently responsible for over 52% of Germany’s waste, solutions like this are not just welcome, but crucial.
This new attitude to work culture is all the more important because of how easy it is to lose hope in the face of impending catastrophe. Recently Alice has been reading a book by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu called The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World and one concept in particular stands out to her. Mental immunity is the idea that, just as we have physical immunity to defend us against disease, human beings can cultivate the ability to tolerate negative or fearful thoughts when they arise, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. “When it comes to my inner state sometimes it feels like I’m driving a car without a license,” she says. “At school you learn to be a good employee, but not how to be a good human.”
“The world is so loud, and there’s so many problems and pressure to decide the right thing from the wrong,” she says. “At the end of the day we all live a certain amount of years, and we just have to learn to live a good life, and do something positive here on the planet.”
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the lead editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Caroline is a Berlin-based South African artist. Inspired by the natural world, her work focuses on the human form and it's juxtaposition within nature. Capturing the essence of being and experiencing, her dreamscape aesthetic shows the spontaneous need for the raw, wild and free in this world.