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“Less pollution is still pollution”

Often introduced as the Steve Jobs of sustainable development, Gunter Pauli advocates for completely clean industrial manufacturing


Belgian national Gunter Pauli invented the blue economy concept – a model that maximises the potential of local resources and the recycling of organic waste into various goods. Pauli, 61, is an entrepreneur and die-hard ecologist who has founded several companies. He also established the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) foundation in Japan back in 1994 and the first World Congress on the Blue Economy in Madrid in 2013. Gunter Pauli has authored around 20 works on the economy and, perhaps more surprisingly, 365 children’s fables now translated into dozens of languages. He continually receives invitations to speak all over the world. Pauli holds a degree in Economics from the University of Antwerp (formerly Loyola University) and an MBA from INSEAD in Fontainebleau.

When we told Gunter Pauli that we were going to feature the circular economy in this issue and asked for an interview, he instantly agreed, a testament to his spontaneous, frank nature. Fresh off a plane from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, the blue economy guru (see inset opposite) explains his radical vision of an economy in line with nature.

How is the blue economy different from the circular economy?

The goal of the circular economy isn’t a radical paradigm shift. Instead, it develops progressively. It’s an economy that adapts to and adds to the existing model. We’ll still reuse and recycle, of course, but fundamentally there isn’t a huge conceptual change. The problem is that if we change things only slightly, we’re not going to achieve the sustainability that the planet really needs. Conversely, the blue economy is a complete departure from the existing model we have today. As an example, we can make paper from stone rather than cellulose, as we do today, since it’s absurd to cut down billions of trees when our forests are so essential to our future.


“Large companies function like the communist party did in the 1960s”


Isn’t the development of the circular economy already a step in the right direction?

It’s important to understand that less pollution is still pollution. In other words, doing less harm is still doing harm. And yet companies today are announcing that they’ve reduced their pollution and they want to be recognised for it. From an ethical perspective, this is questionable.

What’s stopping companies from being part of the blue economy?

Large companies are very risk averse. They function like the communist party did in the 1960s. Everything is planned, controlled, audited, etc. But it’s not a total loss. I’ve seen some encouraging work being done so far. Italian coffee company Lavazza uses capsules made from thistle polymers. The capsules are biodegradable in soil, warm water and seawater. So Lavazza has found a commercially effective way to create an alternative to aluminium capsules. Nespresso still uses aluminium because the touch and colours are important for their marketing strategy. The problem isn’t the capsule but the fact that aluminium is difficult to recycle. Of course, Nespresso recycles part of its aluminium capsules, but we need more than that for a sustainable economy.

Do you consider Lavazza to be part of the blue economy?

I don’t think so. Entrepreneurship plays quite a significant part in this. Let’s go back to the example of paper made of stones: after 20 years of research, Chinese company Lung Meng developed a technique that creates paper from stone dust mixed with polyethylene. This process doesn’t use water or cellulose, and the resulting paper can be recycled forever! It’s an extraordinary advance. Considering that billions of tonnes of stones come out of Chinese mines every year, you don’t have to be a successful businessman to understand that this is a very financially viable concept. Last year, Lung Meng produced one billion tonnes of paper. Of course, traditional paper producers around the world will lobby against it, saying that it’s not really paper so that the product doesn’t destroy their market... So as you can see, politics isn’t the right way to counter these tactics. Instead, the right approach is for companies to find a way to break into the market.

Can you give an example?

In terms of the stone paper, China is a clear prospect for Lung Meng, since the country has very little water. The Chinese government has taken advantage of the opportunity, declaring that every school in the country will use this paper starting next year. By 2038, all paper used in China will be produced this way.

So is China a leading example of the right thing to do?

Need and crisis situations often give rise to innovation. China has little water and a lot of pollution. Currently, the Chinese political class is very much aware of the efforts being made. Did you know that the budget for environmental education in China quadrupled last year?

How are things in Europe and the United States?

Since there are thousands of lobbyists in Brussels and Washington, it’s tough to overhaul the current systems. Europe and the United States are falling behind when it comes to the blue economy.