All posts by Erin Danford

SOG Environmental Finance Ctr

Recycling: A Social Service

How Plastic Recycling Can Improve a Community

One of the most interesting businesses we visited in the Netherlands was Mosaico, a recycling non-profit with a dual purpose. What makes this program unique is its intelligent method of meeting the triple bottom line— people, planet, and profit. Mosaico is a public-private partnership that employs mentally and physically handicapped people to make bags and totes out of recycled plastic bags and film strips. In this way, the organization creates a community and support system for a group of people who would otherwise be marginalized, while improving the environment. The bags are stylish, functional, and cheap enough to be sold in supermarkets. I even bought one myself.

An example of a bag made by a Mosaico resident. Each bag is hand-labeled and signed by the weaver to give it a personal touch.

In the United States, environmental regulations are viewed as hurting business. This is the justification many Republicans use when voting against environmental reform. However, a non-profit like Mosaico is a clear example of how a green business can not only function without hurting business, but also improve society. It’s easy to criticize the EPA for imposing strong restrictions or “wasting” taxpayer money, but there is no clear downside to a program like Mosaico. This is the kind of environmental movement that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans in the United States. Not only does Mosaico reduce plastic waste in landfills, it provides employment and even makes a small profit.

An employee explains how plastic bags from grocery stores and simple strips of film are woven into beautiful bags.

There are a few programs like this in the United States, such as Grid Alternatives, which provides solar panels for low-income homes to reduce their energy burden. Go Meals is another example; they collect leftover food from Greek life functions and deliver it to the local homeless shelter. These are the types of environmental programs that have the potential to become popular in the U.S. and win over multiple parties. After visiting Mosaico, it is clear to me that the best way to frame the green movement in the United States is to market it as a tool to rebuild less-fortunate communities.

Here you can see the black strips – which are pieces of film woven into the bag. Each bag is hand-woven and takes up to a full day to create.

One of the key factors in marketing these social innovation startups is funding. If these programs are to be widely implemented in the U.S., they will need to be autonomous, like Mosaico. Although the program originally received government funding in the form of a free workspace, the sale of the bags now provides enough income to keep the facility running. Non-profits that do not rely on donations or grants have the best chance of surviving and fulfilling their purpose of improving both society and the environment. In North Carolina, there would be much more opposition to a social venture that required continuous funding from local or federal government. However, it is difficult to find a negative thing to say about Mosaico. The program is self-sufficient, well-intentioned, and provides necessary services. If we implement programs like this in the United States, many more conservative North Carolinians may join the environmental movement.

-Erin Danford

The Future of Energy

A Lecture at Heinrich Böll Stiftung About the German Energiewende

The day began with a visit to Heinrich Böll Stiftung for a lecture about the Energiewende (German energy transition). Heinrich Böll is a political foundation that supports the Green Party in Germany. The four pillars of the Green Party are ecology, democracy, social justice, and pacifism, which includes an aversion to nuclear energy. Similar to other institutions we visited, the foundation’s funding comes from the German government, and the amount that a political foundation receives depends heavily upon how well the party does in the current election. Our presenter explained that contrary to American politics, foundations with political affiliations in Germany avoid publishing propaganda. There is a focus on political education, including networking, operating as a think tank, and releasing publications.

The logo at Heinrich Böll Stiftung, our first presentation of the day.

Students were very interested in our presenter’s experience with the Energiewende. One of the key differences with the United States is that energy is significantly more expensive in Germany. In North Carolina, energy costs about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Germany, it’s about 28 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, if you produce your energy with solar panels, it’s only about half the price. Incentives such as this have greatly increased the share of renewable energy in Germany. More than 50% of the energy produced is from citizens, through initiatives such as cooperatives.

Students listen to the presentation, taking notes and thinking of thought-provoking questions.

The Heinrich Böll representative also gave us her opinion on the future of the energy transition. Now that the feed-in tariff is phasing out, putting the “true price” on energy is becoming more important than ever. In her eyes, politicians cannot use phrases such as “carbon tax,” but rather should say, “making renewable energy more affordable” or “decreasing fossil fuel subsidies.”

In her words, “Individual freedom ends where the freedom of future generations is threatened.” Citizens want change, but in a convenient way. We discussed the phrase, “Wash my hair, but don’t make me wet.” However, most German citizens are supportive of the Energiewende. They see the need for cleaner air in cities and the potential to move away from nuclear energy by increasing the share of renewables. As the speaker explained, Germans were surrounded by nuclear power on both sides during the Cold War, and are not fond of the energy source.

Our presenter, a Heinrich Böll employee who focuses on policy education.

Coal is also being phased out as part of the Energiewende. The energy transition encompasses energy, heating, and mobility. Therefore, electric cars and public transit are becoming more and more popular in Germany, and the Heinrich Böll employee expressed her own dislike for SUVs and other fossil-fuel vehicles.

Unfortunately, the transition away from the feed-in tariff means more and more small citizen initiatives will have trouble producing renewable energy. The political framework is shifting towards an auction system, where companies compete to offer the lowest bid on projects. This will favor larger corporations, in Heinrich Böll’s opinion. In the past few years, the feed-in tariff allowed cooperatives and small citizen initiatives to enter the market, guaranteeing fixed contracts for up to twenty years. Now that the policy is ending, it will be interesting how the Energiewende changes. All the students thoroughly enjoyed the presentation, and thanked the employee for her time. Then, we grabbed a coffee for the road and headed to our next appointment.

-Erin Danford

Amsterdam Smart City

How Amsterdam Fosters Innovation and Smart City Planning

The day began with a trip to Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. There, the group heard a lecture from a public-private partnership called Amsterdam Smart City (ASC). Amsterdam Smart City, representatives explained, is an innovation platform that brings supply and demand together to connect startups to other parties that can serve as resources. The goal of the platform is not to provide funding, but to connect groups with similar interests and test innovative ideas.

Cornelia Dinca speaks with Dr. Rademaker, explaining her role in Amsterdam Smart City.

Amsterdam Smart City is dedicated to using new ideas to improve the city of Amsterdam, incorporating themes such as urban planning, environmentalism, and technology. The five main focuses of the program are health, mobility, circular economy, digital connectivity, and talent for the future. A majority of the projects ASC is involved in require collaboration, and are of interest to multiple parties. For example, the city has a goal of having 850,000 solar panels installed, one for every citizen. To complete the project, Amsterdam Smart City assists in connecting businesses with universities, government, and other companies that can function as partners.

A graphic from the presentation, depicting the idea that citizens can help transform their city. This idea is employed in hackathons and other innovation competitions.

Tom van Arman, founder of a venture called T.app, explained how the city of Amsterdam engages young entrepreneurs to solve some of the city’s most challenging problems. Hackathons are a common method of connecting young programmers and app-makers, and offer a free platform for participants to utilize their skills. One of the most recent challenges was to create an app that would decrease congestion and improve crowd control at sports events. In this way, the city of Amsterdam attracts young innovators and gains fresh ideas to better manage the city and improve quality of life. Events typically have private partners, but are advertised by the city, bringing in hundreds of attendees.

Tom van Arman explains the function of the makerspace during a tour of the Amsterdam Smart City building.

Another unique aspect of ASC is the program’s website. Unlike most companies’ websites, amsterdamsmartcity.com functions as a two-way forum that allows startups to post information about their ventures. Small businesses and non-profits can post updates, event notifications, and introduce new products on the website’s project page, which is organized into themes, creating a more interactive interface.

Amsterdam Smart City also has a 3-D printing lab and workspace for those that wish to create and test new products. The purpose of the space is to create a hub for entrepreneurs and provide them with the tools to be successful, without directly supplying funding.

A student works on a design in the makerspace. 3D printers can be seen in the background, used by entrepreneurs to make prototypes.
Signs point towards the “makerversity” reception and workshops, resources for founders of startups in Amsterdam.

Throughout the presentation, it became clear that a major focus of ASC is digital connectivity and programming. Cornelia Dinca, our first presenter, is an urban planner with a chemical engineering degree. When asked about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), she confirmed that there were very few women in these fields in Amsterdam, and that she hoped to see more female involvement in the future. Currently, participants in hackathons and similar events are predominantly male.

Cornelia Dinca gives advice to a student, explaining possible internships in the Netherlands.

Overall, Amsterdam Smart City provided an interesting look at the innovative ways the city supports entrepreneurs and smart city planning in the Netherlands. Cornelia even offered several business cards to our students, urging them to contact her in the future regarding internships.

A presenter from Amsterdam Smart City explains digital infrastructure, a vital part of digital connectivity.

-Erin Danford