Circularity lessons learned from DGTL festival

DGTL festival grounds filled with people at NDSM

DGTL festival prides itself in the fact that it is very rapidly on its way to become the world’s first circularity festival in 2020. It kicks off the festival season on Easter weekend at the NDSM wharf in Amsterdam. This festival boasts an extensive lineup and an artsy-industrial design, bringing in hundreds of devout techno fans each year.

Just like citizens of a city, festival goers need drinks, food, electricity, sanitary facilities and shelter, and also dispose of a fair bit of garbage. This makes the DGTL festival grounds the perfect ‘living laboratory’ to test out innovative new circular models and technologies. Each year they test out new ways to close material loops, eliminate CO2 emissions, and increase environmental awareness.

Here are four lessons we can learn about circularity from one of the world’s leading pioneers of the circular economy.

Lesson 1: To make a change, you first need to know where you stand

The first – and often overlooked – step in becoming a circular company, country, or festival, is to first take a base line measurement: make an inventory of what you take from the environment, and what you put back into it.

In 2017 DGTL conducted a Material Flow Analysis, in which they identified and calculated all the resource flows of materials, energy, and water that enter and exit the festival. This provided the festival’s sustainability managers with a ‘clear snapshot of the event’s metabolism,’ as they called it, off of which they were able to base future changes to their input-output model. It is only after knowing where you initially stand can you start to measure your change.

 “Chasing change without having a clear overview of the event’s impacts is highly inefficient.” – DGTL

DGTL's Material Flow Analysis
DGTL’s Material Flow Analysis. Image courtesy of DGTL.

Lesson 2: Waste is a resource

A key principle of the circularity is that no waste should ever drop out of the system. But to many that seems like quite a tall order – it is impossible for nothing to go to waste in our economy, as everything we do in life creates waste. DGTL festival flips this notion upside-down by showing that a waste-free, or at least a waste-reduced, economy is certainly possible, if we just shift our perspective from seeing waste as waste to seeing waste as a resource.

So instead of using traditional garbage bins at the festival, DGTL constructed a ‘Resource Street’ where visitors could drop off their waste to be separated, recycled, and picked up later on for further use. The recycling hub at this Resource Street also featured a new technique called pyrolysis, which turned the deposited bottle caps into oil that could then be used to make new plastic. That way, the bottles used at the festival do not end up polluting our oceans, but instead can come full circle.

One subtle season that DGTL installed this Resource Street at the centre of the festival was not only to make it clear to visitors where they could throw their waste, but also to take a learning-by-doing approach to teaching people how to value their waste and treat it like a resource.

Lesson 3: Eat what you have, not what you want

Food is one of the most wasted resources in the world, with around 1/3 – or 1.3 billion tonnes – of food produced going to waste each year. DGTL is fighting against these waste statistics by shaping their ‘Circular Foodcourt 3.0’ not around what the festival visitors want to eat, but instead around what surplus food waste is available.

DGTL will close local food loops by collecting from local food suppliers all the ‘imperfect food’ that has been left over or that would have otherwise been thrown away, which will then be pieced together by their chefs to create delicious ‘circular’ dishes. These meals, while they may not be what the festival visitors originally expected, will prove that eating what you have and not only what you want can be just as delightful.

Dishes made from leftover food at DGTL's Circular Foodcourt
Dishes made from leftover food at DGTL’s Circular Foodcourt. Image courtesy of DGTL.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid of the nitty gritty

Thirsty? How about a nice glass of fresh urine?

It sounds repulsive, but it can actually be lifesaving. The Semilla Sanitation Hub, a 40ft shipping container, fit in with its surroundings quite well at the NDSM docks where it was installed for DGTL circularity festival 2018. Inside the container was urine, graciously deposited thousands of thirsty festival goers, where it was converted back into drinking water to be consumed and then expelled again by those very same thirsty fellows in a perfectly circular fashion.

This innovative technology could be a lifesaver in crisis situations or countries with low water resources. In fact, if made to scale, it could even become a two-in-one method for wastewater treatment and sourcing potable water for entire municipalities – if people can get over the ick factor, that is.

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