Environmental Possibility and The Blue Economy with Gunter Pauli – Ep 9, Season 1

In our final episode for Season 1, we are talking about what the world urgently needs for positive environmental progress and happy human health. The future of entrepreneurship, the need for common good and encouraging creativity in an economic world that is sometimes cautious to change. 

To help me with this topic is the wonderful Gunter Pauli, the entrepreneur, global speaker and author of The Blue Economy whose activities span business, culture, science, politics and the environment. 

Gunter is also the founder of ZERI, the Zeri Emissions Research and Initiatives at the United Nations University in Tokyo and also established the global ZERI network as a foundation where they redesign production and consumption into clusters of industries inspired by natural systems which are designed to be zero waste.

In today’s episode, Gunter reminds us of possibility and we discuss the current climate and some of his projects including full circle coffee production to removing and repurposing mining dust. 

Gunter has delivered time and time again for the environment, his imagination and action continue to demonstrate what can be done and needs to be done urgently. I hope you enjoy the episode.


Angela: Welcome to Episode 9 of PROTECT. Thank you for joining me for what is the last episode of Season 1. I want to talk to you for a minute on the state of the world. I’m in Melbourne, Australia and I’m speaking to you in December of 2020 following a global pandemic. From a health perspective, Australia has been fortunate that we haven’t been as heavily hit by COVID-19 like many other countries however worldwide it’s been a tough year of heartbreaking loss, social isolation and government orders that have not only haltered our lives and the economy but for some there is a pause button on our aspirations, on environmental progress and on pushing forward when every day depends on it.

So today I’ve reached out to someone who is a big inspiration to me and my view on sustainability particularly after meeting him seven years ago and reading his book, “The Blue Economy”. I’m of course speaking of the wonderful Gunter Pauli, the entrepreneur, global speaker and author whose activities span business, culture, science, politics and the environment. 

Gunter is also the founder of ZERI, the Zeri Emissions Research and Initiatives at the United Nations University in Tokyo and also established the global ZERI network as a foundation where they redesign production and consumption into clusters of industries inspired by natural systems which are designed to be zero waste.

He has 200 projects on the go at the moment. Gunter has also written 20 books which have been printed in over 30 languages and written over 365 fables bringing science and emotion to children.

In today’s episode, Gunter reminds us of possibility and we discuss the current climate and some of his projects including full circle coffee production to removing and repurposing mining dust. 

Gunter has delivered time and time again for the environment, his imagination and action continue to demonstrate what can be done and needs to be done urgently. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Gunter thank you so much for joining me on the PROTECT Podcast today. 

Gunter: Pleasure.

Angela: I wanted to start off with introducing The Blue Economy to the listeners who might not know about it and perhaps if you can define it vs. The Green Economy and why in your opinion blue is the way forward.

Gunter: You know, the green economy is what I’ve been fighting for for more than 30 years. I mean the green economy was my dream, it’s what we wanted but the hard reality is that the green economy today – everything that is good for you, everything that is great for the environment is expensive. I mean, c’mon, the green economy is for the rich. This is not what I intended to have. I wanted to have a green economy that was for everyone. So I asked myself the question, what’s wrong? Why aren’t we succeeding? And of course, I was told, “Well these products are produced small scale and local, they are not at all having the economical scale that permits us to reach the low price.”

So I said, “If we only want to compete on the basis of a low price against China, Bangladesh, Brazil, I mean, I wish you good luck.” You’re never going to be the cheapest in the case that you are producing organic, take care of nature, want to have a good social tissue, you’re always going to be expensive unless you’re cutting corners which means you’re cheating.” I said, no, no, that’s not the way we’re going to go forward. We’re going to have to redesign the economic system. Of course, people laughed at me, “Who are you to pretend you’re going to design an economic system?”

I said, “Well, I’m not pretending that I’m going to change the world’s economic system but I am indeed not only pretending but changing the reality for farmers, for small manufacturers, for community leaders, for associations, for NGO’s because we can change the model and the model is very simple. 

You use what you have. 

You generate value. 

You respond to the needs of people. 

You are not obsessed with efficiency of low cost but you are committed to resilience in your community, you’re committed to actually making people happy. 

Because if you can generate more value, you can generate more jobs. If there is no waste and no jobless people, you have a happy community and that for me, is the real way forward. Now, after 25 years I have more than 200 projects implemented, I have five communities where we have full employment. In one of these communities, we even succeeded in closing down the hospital for lack of patients. I mean, isn’t this what we want? Happy and healthy?

Angela: That’s incredible. So what is maybe one of your projects, perhaps a leader in the industry to showcase this? 

Gunter: Well we have quite a few. So some of them are very small and some of them are very big. So maybe I give you two quick ones. A small one and big one. 

A small one is the coffee. I mean, don’t we love our coffee in the morning? I mean and I’ll tell you if you drink tea this is also possible. But we love our coffee in the morning but there is a lot of waste. What many people don’t realise is these bags of 60kg of coffee around the world, ones in plastic, are generating a lot of waste because in order to have our drink we only have 0.2% in our body. The rest is waste.

We realised already 30 years ago, through studies with the Chinese that you can take the waste, turn it into a substrate for mushrooms. Oh, so I can have my coffee and I can have a great mushroom and after you have harvested the mushrooms you can generate something – wonderful feed for a chicken. So, I can have an egg, a chicken, I can have a mushroom and my coffee. It sounds like we’re really in business and more than 5,000 people have already created a company doing exactly that so it’s local, it’s generating value with what you have, it’s generating jobs, it makes you having happy and healthy food. 

Second case which may be very relevant for the Australian complex which is mining. There is nothing we can do about it. The world is hooked on a lot of minerals and we need to mine and as anyone in the business is telling us they’re doing the best they can to mitigate the negative. One of the worst things that is endangering people’s health is the dust particles. You have trillions of little dust particles emitted into the air and for many years we wondered what can you do with it. It’s a problem, it’s a cost, it’s too expensive to take it out of the air. You would price your product out of the market. You may have been green but your minerals would never be sold because the price would be too high. 

So we asked the question, “What can you do with this rock dust?” Well, today fast forward we have five factories around the world where we’re talking the dust, the small fine particles from the mining not rich in minerals, it really is the rock dust and we can convert the rock dust into paper. Yes, paper. So this is called rock paper and the rock paper is 80% dust from the air, 20% polymers, and yes these polymers are from petrochemical origin but you can use them forever so finally we’re having a petroleum where you can make a thin sheet of paper which you can print on, write on, paint on, you can even write on it in the water and it will not be affected and that paper can be recycled forever.

It’s made without a drop of water. It’s made without cutting a tree and it’s permitting you to re-use it forever cutting energy consumption by 68%. So, these are two projects out of the 200 plus we have done.

Angela: That sounds incredible. So we’re removing polluting particles and creating a forever lifecycle product. Very clever. So beyond cost is it a lack of creativity that’s stopping us from implementing these kinds of projects?

Gunter: You know, I think the biggest problem we have is called the MBA’s. The Masters of Business Administration. Because the poor guys – and I’m one of them – because I got my MBA from INSEAD Fontainebleau in France. The poor guys and girls we have learned how to focus on a core business. How to build on a core competence, how to do supply chain management, squeeze all the costs out of everything and everywhere so we can be the cheapest in the world. Well, if that is the logic you’re pursuing there is no way you can do this. 

So, it’s the entrepreneur in all of us that can make the difference for all of us. We are in need of a new generation of entrepreneurs that are able to transit from this old business model where cheap is good to this new business model where generating value is great. And by the way, you may have heard, that’s what we’re trying to do for shareholders in companies. Generate value for the shareholder but how can we really generate the value for a shareholder when the only thing you do is be cheap, destroy the environment and don’t build any community. 

Angela: Yes, 100 percent. So you’re an entrepreneur yourself. And for a long time the term has been linked to – it has been linked to innovation but it’s also been linked to monetary success and publicity. So how can they change their mindset on what the future entrepreneur is going to look like and aspire to be, I guess, someone like yourself?

Gunter: The entrepreneur for the future is the entrepreneur for the common good. We want to just do good. I don’t know how you feel about it but you do it good, it feels good. 

Angela: Certainly.

Gunter: So when you’re noticing that you can take something like coffee waste, or you can take the old tea bag and you can use the tea bag as well for farming mushrooms exactly the same process you only have to worry about all the microplastics everywhere because today teabags are either in a plastic bag or they’re in a cotton bag coated by plastic. So when you’re doing that with coffee, you can do it with tea. 

You can do it with the peels of your citrus fruits. You can just take your fresh orange juice – and so many people like to have it in the morning – I see it all the time in Sydney, all these bars. They have these incredible juice bars where you have all the waste from the citrus fruits and that could be converted into extraordinary cleaner so you can disinfect and clean your juice bar by using the citrus fruits, the peels of your fruit. 

When you start getting into that, you see what I call a portfolio of opportunity. You see them cascading. 

Now here’s a little story I would like to tell from Africa. When I’m telling and I talk to the women in Africa on this farm in Zimbabwe in Chipinge that the waste in the coffee in two weeks will give them a mushroom do you think you’re going to sit down and say, “Oh, we’re going to have to write a business plan first, we have to have a strategic analysis, We’re going to have an audit to find if this is the truth.” No. If I am convincing them to do a trial and in two weeks you have mushrooms. These women stand up. They sing, they dance, they do it. Without a business plan. And I am insisting that the new generation of entrepreneurs are the doers, not the business plan writers and the doers – they will write their business plan when their first invoices are paid, when you know the business is working and then your business plan will be an absolute hit with any financier. 

Angela: You’re right there. It’s a completely different outlook on the business world and what is and isn’t possible. So, I love the common good and it’s all in the doing. We don’t necessarily need a course or skill set. If the idea is there we can just run with it.

Gunter: You know, many of these ideas are so new so no-one can pretend to have experience. Ask around you. Who has 25 years experience farming mushrooms and coffee? No one raises their hand which means everyone is at the same level of competence. If you’re asking who has experience making stone paper from the dust, from the rocks, from the mines. None of the mining companies in Australia, can say, “Oh, I’ve been doing that for many years”. They may say, “I heard about that opportunity,” but they haven’t been doing it. 

And the world of tomorrow in a society with COVID, we’ve locked down everyone. We have reduced everyone’s desire even, to take a risk. You know we’re in a zero-risk society in a lockdown mentality. Those who move are the ones that set the agenda and will change the world. 

Angela: Well said, thank you Gunter. And we need to move now. And if we talk about lockdowns and COVID-19 since we’re nearing the end of 2020 do you think the pandemic has halted environmental and health progress? 

Gunter: You know we are in a society because the very unhealthy living style we’ve been having from the way we farm the animals, from the way we genetically modify the seeds, from the way that we are imposing cure instead of prevention for medicare. You know, the way that we have been eating and sleeping and driving and stressing. 

You know, we’re going to have pandemics all the time. The problem is not the virus. The problem is us, we have been running down our immune system to the point we’re on empty. We’re driving fast and the point is on empty and we keep on going fast so now people say, “Oh we’ve got to stop and be worried about how many people are in the intensive care units in the hospitals”. No, no, I have proposed – unsuccessfully to quite a few governments – you have to give the fine to people who are not out in the sun, who are not jogging every day, who are not exercising all the time because the best way to build up your immune system is to move, be active, and keep your mind busy because when the only thing you’re doing is gains and looking at Netflix your mind is absolutely stupioed because you’re not using the innate qualities we have. 

So, we’re in need of a transition in these periods, but the transition is not lockdowns, the transition is to get people moving again, healthy again. Go back to healthy food habits and food as the Chinese have taught us is our medicine. You can’t make it the cheapest. Our medicine is very often the most necessary and the price will have to be right.

Angela: Completely agree. I’m an advocate for prevention and I think so many of our health concerns could be addressed by going back to basics, back to nature.

Gunter: Let’s start with our homes. When we have homes that have pursued what is called energy efficiency by closing the rooms to the point that your room doesn’t breathe anymore and you’re just breathing yourself and the cold air pumping down from an aircon. I mean, welcome to the world of COVID. 

We have to open the windows, we have to operate like you said, nature does. We have to operate like the termites do. The termites always have the same temperature and humidity in their nest where they’re farming the mushrooms and why aren’t we able to do it? Why do we need mass material, energy to actually not consume energy? That’s a contradiction. 

We have to open up, have open systems. Open up and function like forests do, like forests do, like ecosystems do and that doesn’t mean we have to go back and live in the boonies. That means we have to be conscious that good water, air, good food, exercise and keep your mind active with great dreams and passions and things that you can do for yourself and the world then there will be no pandemic to come, that’s for sure. 

Angela: I actually agree with you. And less screens I have to say.

Gunter: I always ask my friends and my audiences. What was the first thing you did this morning? Was the first thing you did this? (Holds up phone). How many likes extra did I have, how many people responded to my tweets? Is that what you’re doing? Then you will have a rotten day. I guarantee you. You will have a rotten day. What we’re needing to do is open the curtains, open the windows, breathe the air, look at the horizon, try to find the sun. If you don’t see the sun, look for the top of the tree. We have to open up those eyes. Those pupils have to be massaged by seeing far away and what we’re doing is looking here. And of course, if what you’re doing is looking here then those of us who are teaching us to live in fear and have a command and a control will win. 

Angela: Yes. 

Gunter: If we look at the sky for a few minutes every morning and then I’m always suggesting if that is how you can start your day then you end your day by telling someone a great story. Something that inspired you, something that made a real difference for you. Now, if you started today by looking at the sky and you end the day by telling a great positive story, I tell you this is the way you’re going to change the world. Very rapidly. Because all the time in between those five minutes in the morning, those three minutes in the evening, that’s going to be our time to change the world. 

Angela: And have one wonderful day after the next.

Gunter: Of course. There is one great lesson to keep from any – from what some people call a failure. I don’t believe in failures. Failure is an indication that you’ve got something to learn. This is not that you’ve failed but you’re ready to learn and if you have failed in your mindset at least learn the lessons so you don’t fail again and to me, this is key. Sometimes we say, “Oh this is hard and it’s difficult because it’s new”. So when it’s new we have to discover it. But the key in life we have to realise is when someone else says it is impossible, well then you tell yourself, okay, that means it will take a little bit more time.

Angela: Yep, that’s an encouraging mindset. So speaking of, how can those of us who live in an urban setting surrounded by concrete and shadows adopt pricincles from The Blue Economy?

Gunter: Well, you start as always, with what you have. So if I look at someone who lives in a 25 metre square little room as in Japan, where I live, this is very normal. A lot of people. What do you do when you have a little room? Well first of all, you bring life into your room. And life in the room means plants, means mushrooms, means kombucha, means spirulina. All those tiny little things that are great for our health, you can actually farm them right there where you are. 

We have had mushroom little experiment farms in the tiny bathrooms giving us five kilograms of mushrooms a month, fresh mushrooms growing on the local waste we;ve been able to collect. And you know, you can put plants not on the floor, not on this level, you put plants above your head. And when you make a little platform above your head, and you put the plants there then you will have a wonderful opportunity to have the oxygen coming down at you and the CO2 floating above you all the time. This is how we start redesigning from the bottom up. 

And if you choose the plants, of course you choose the plants that are giving you great herbs. Great little fresh leaves to put into your egg in the morning or whatever you want to eat. So I think first you change your little environment around you and start bringing life back. Do you know kombucha?

Angela: Yes, yes, it’s big here too. 

Gunter: Anyone can do kombucha at home. It’s in the spirulina. If you have some good waste water from original residual food etc. you can grow your spirulina and you can have a new kind of little solar cell that has a little thin film that will make the water turn around so it makes sure your spirulina gets oxygenated all the time. I mean I am always saying if you have spirulina, kombucha and a bit of mushroom farming in your farm and you have some plants around you in 25 square metres you actually are using the top 25 cubic metres. 

I wrote a book a couple of years ago that is called, The 3D Revolution. I mean, we are always thinking of 25 square metres but don’t forget that you have two metre twenty or two metre thirty above you so that means your upper metre is a metre that you’re not using. Use what you have and I think this is what we have to teach people. There is so much available but we’ve been told to use a coupon and rush to the supermarket in order to get a great buy. I mean, that’s not the way we’re going to change the world. That’s the way we’re going to get stuck with what we have.

Angela: Yes, definitely. So if we can lean into as adults if we can set that example for our children, what can we do as adults and parents to prepare them for the world?

Gunter: The key for us is to inspire young people. I mean, is there nothing worse to listen to when our great aunt in Sweden, says, “Oh I don’t know, I have no idea how to do it.” But let’s realise, parents, grandparents, we messed it up. We didn’t do it. So what we’re in need of is inspiring your people to imagine things that we as parents could never have imagined. Let’s be clear, every child when it is just growing up, as a little baby and as a little toddler, it’s full of discovery. Baby is always jumping from ideas to ideas making connections in a real free-filled world and what are we doing to them? We’re putting them in schools, in front of a Zoom screen? I mean, we’ve just reduced the amount of brain power we need from a 3D environment to a 2D environment and on a Zoom screen. I mean, forget about it. This is not the way we are going to inspire young people.

So how do we inspire people? By telling extraordinary stories that are so obvious we wonder how come our parents didn’t know. For example, how did the apple get up in the tree? How did the apple get up in the tree against the law of gravity and why are we only teaching kids how the apple comes down? I mean, kids will say, “Hey, come on, before the apple comes down it has to get up. How did it get up? How did the apple defy the law of gravity?”

Now, like this I’ve written 365 stories and every time it’s a question or an implicit question where the kids will immediately say then how come my dad does not know how the whale is pumping 1000 litres with the heart and is only using 6 volts direct current. My dad is an electric engineer, he has no clue how the whale is pumping 1000 litres and when I tell my dad, my dad says, “That’s not possible. There are no pumps like that.” And of course what does the baby say, what does the child say, “There are a million whale in the ocean, don’t tell me it can’t be done!” 

I think this kind of inspiration dialogue, inspiration questions, inspirational observations of what is around us, that will make a difference and create a new generation of entrepreneurs for the common good who will be inpiored by questions our parents didn’t even ask. 

Angela: Oh that’s beautiful. I’ll definitely bring the apple story to my girls tonight I think. 

Gunter: Please do. 

Angela: I will, I will. Okay so I also wanted to talk to you about ZERI which is your Zero Emissions Research Initiative organisation. So could you tell us a little bit about that? Is that the arm that’s running the 200 or so projects you’re working on?

Gunter: So, we are what I call a non organisation. Don’t come to Japan and look for an office. Actually in Japan we do have an office. We have had an office since 2016 in Japan. We want to be known as a network organisation. It was 25 years ago that I wanted to start this non organisation because I was asking myself why do we need to have all these overheads when at the end of the day I want things to change on the ground. I don’t want to have a top down system, I don’t want to house the organic grams where you can see who’s responsible where, I want to know where the action is? I want to know where it is. So wherever we have projects, we create a structure to do things. 

And to do things means to do education, to do initiatives that change realities on the ground and for me this is the foundation of the bottom. The foundation of our activities is in the first place you have a dedication of education, to learning and inspiration and that means you have to reach out to schools, and to children and the government system which we have successfully done in quite a few countries and then you need to have very concrete initiatives on the ground so when people learn about the principles they’re immediately face-to-face with the reality. So, this double whammy as we call it in America – this double whammy allows us to have this on both levels. 

You have a short, quick start on initiatives that can really be implemented on the ground and then you have the long term influence whereby you’re transforming the child’s mindset from a mindset of parents who want to protect us, who want to teach us what they know, who want to be safe and sure, who will give you all the medicine, so you will not get sick when you have that transformation having. So the children will wake up saying, “Dad I don’t need this. Dad, even the monkeys eat these leaves for a bad tummy. I mean if the monkeys eat these leaves why aren’t we doing that?”

So natural medicine comes in not as a homeopathy that has been imposed by commercial interests, it has come in as something that children have learned from the animals that we share this extraordinary planet. 

So our organisations are independent. I’m not on the board of any of these organisations. I’m not a founder of any of these organsiations. I want people to start picking up the ball and run and what we do is we run, and we score and this is what the mentality we want to put out. And it’s very difficult for some people because they’ve been trained to be in a structure, they’ve been trained to see the organisation and the president of the organisation and the board members, no no, let’s’ not go there. The only way we will speak is to speak with projects that have been implemented and I always get these reactions, “That’s not possible. I don’t believe this. I don’t think this is possible. Oh maybe there is a little project here and there. 

No, no, my response is don’t debate it with me. Go to where it has been done and when you’re face to face from where it has been done then let’s talk again. 

Angela: 100%. You of all of people demonstrate possibility Gunter. So can people get involved directly with ZERI and yourself?

Gunter: With our concerts, our teams, yes! If people say people, oh gosh, these mushrooms, I want to farm the mushrooms then I will put you in touch with the people who have done it so one can move on with someone who has done it. If people say, gosh, it’;s about time we in Australia stop farming eucalyptus and using a lot of water to make paper. If we can make paper from waste in the minds and stop using the water which we don’t have a lot of in Australia, let’s just do that and I will put you in touch with the people that have done it. 

So my role, very often is just pushing people into the directions so they meet the guys and the girls who have done things and to me that is the real intermediary, no commissions paid, no necessity to thank me afterwards, the only thing that I want is to have the little message to say, oh we’re doing it and then I’m happy again, at least for the rest of the day. 

Angela: Well excellent, well that’s good to know for the listeners. So I just wanted to finish off with the word sustainable. I’m not sure if you would agree that it’s perhaps overused and I wanted to know what it does it mean to be sustainable for those of us that aspire to be?

Gunter: You know, I think sustainability is so many different things. People have used it, misused it and abused it so sustainability at the end of the day, I would say, let’s keep it simple. Sustainability is use what you have, respond to your basic needs, generate value and make people happy. Build a resilience, don’t be obsessed with efficiency, be obsessed with your health, be obsessed with being happy and of course focus on other people being happy because when you make other people happy it’s like a smile. I smile at you, you smile at me, it’s contagious. 

This is the best contagious form of changing society is putting up a great smile and making certain that people appreciate what is being done and sustainability for me is also commons and open source. I mean we have to share. But there is a little bit more, we have to be happy that we’re copied. This is something difficult in our modern society because this is mine and we don’t want to share. No, no, no, let’s share and be happy when even without being asked we’re copied because if you’re doing good and the good is being copied, I mean, we know that no one wants to copy a bad example, everyone wants to copy the best example. So when we copy, we say thank you for being recognised for being the best.

Angela: And in turn is the common good, right?

Gunter: Exactly. The common good and the rebuilding of the community.

Angela: Yes, absolutely. And Gunter are you hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction?

Gunter: No, we’re moving in the wrong direction. I mean c’mon, there is a blindness, there is an attack on our democracy, I mean there is a top-down decision by a neurologist to force you to have a test if you have a virus even if you’re not sick. I mean we are in a situation that is ridiculous. Let’s be facing it. We need to change direction urgently. And changing direction is not debating. And changing direction is not arguing in favour of against. Changing direction is finding what is much better, for you, for your family, for your community and do it. 

Angela: Today.

Gunter: Yeah, well now. Yes. 

Angela: Well Gunter this was such an informative and thought-provoking conversation. I’m so appreciative of your time today.

Gunter: I’m happy I was able to do it. Keep up your great work. 

Angela: Thank you so much.  

Pin It on Pinterest