Week 10: Alumni Profile Bao Yen: an airline host with a mission to end plastic waste


Bao Yen is a Hong Kong-based flight attendant who is on a mission to help make the aviation industry more sustainable.

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We first met Bao when she attended our Regenerative Systems Design workshop with Leyla Acaroglu and Laura Storm last Summer on the CO Project Farm. She inspired many people with her story of working to end plastic waste in the airline industry and shared more of her passion for this through her UnSchool Alumni Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) session.

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

Bao’s change-making story begins with a whale — you probably can guess where this is going, given the condition of our oceans and plastic pollution. One day while she was on a break from flying, a coworker showed her a picture of a dead whale found in Norway that had 30 plastic bags in its stomach. This powerful image stuck with her, and after going back to her hotel room and searching for stories about how this came to be, it catalyzed a huge transformation within Bao. The impacts of single-use plastic and the catastrophic outcomes of all the disposable stuff that the airline industry perpetuated on each flight suddenly struck her as being a significant area of change, one that she had some power and agency over influencing. In that moment, the heart of Bao’s mission started: to make positive environmental change through her sphere of influence  — the airline industry.

What is amazing is that just recently, the Australian airline Qantas did the world's first zero waste flight, and many airlines have started to ban plastic straws and drink stirrers. There are small changes in a massive issue, but one that is coming back out because people are demanding changes. There is so much power in one person standing up and asking for something different, and that is what is so inspiring about Bao’s story.

Bao started out by questioning how she interacted with customers and how this impacted their use of single-use plastics. By offering or not offering the plastic stirrer, she found that many people didn't want it (although it is usually just given without asking). She watched to see how her colleagues recycled and was shocked to discover that many were not. So, all of this initial reflective observation research resulted in her initiating a program within her airline to raise awareness around the importance of the cabin crew pre-sorting materials for recycling. She explains that even those items in the recycling bin often end up in landfills because they are contaminated with other non-recyclable waste.

Since beginning this initiative to raise awareness and train the cabin crews on proper recycling practices, the airline has seen steady improvements in recycling and other sustainability matters.

Bao also had advice for everyday travelers who can take actions to reduce their waste impacts while flying. Just remember the 4 R’s:

Reduce: Bring your own reusables on the flight so that you don’t use any single-use plastic.

Reuse: Use the same pieces of plastic throughout the duration of the flight.

Recycle: Ensure that your plastic is clean and placed in the proper recycling bin.

Reach out: Talk to the airline directly. Use your consumer power to demand action on single-use plastic.

The project Bao has helped to activate

The project Bao has helped to activate

We recently checked in with Bao to see how things are going and hear more about how she’s using what she learned from her time with the UnSchool. Read our short Q&A below!

How do you describe yourself?

“I used to think I was quite insignificant. I didn’t know my life purpose and I was very unhappy with my job. The dead whale led me to an unbelievably beautiful journey full of opportunities and endless possibilities. It gave me a strong purpose to live and resolve the challenges. I now live by the motto that I AM the change I want to see in the world. Every challenge brings an opportunity. If we have a positive growth mindset and align ourselves with mother nature, we will thrive with the environment and live a truly fulfilled life.”

What made you come to the UnSchool?

“I firstly heard about Dr. Leyla Acaroglu through an entrepreneurial friend. He founded a reusable coffee cup brand called Pokito, and his mission is to save billions of paper cups. He told me he was inspired by Dr. Leyla’s Ted Talk, Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.  I watched that talk and it completely changed how I looked at sustainability. I then followed her page and got further inspired by her Co Project Farm, so I decided to do a workshop and creative retreat there. Turns out it was one of the most amazing and mind-nurturing trips I ever had!

 Tell us more about your initiative and how it is going?

“I started with raising awareness on our internal digital platform. When I saw something that needed to be changed, I would write an article and tag people who are in charge of that area. For example, our laundry company used to cover the washed uniforms with plastic bags. After I posted a discussion and had my colleagues’ involvement, the company removed the practice and millions of plastic bags will be saved.

Another example is that on rainy days, we used to provide one-off plastic bags for wet umbrellas in the office buildings. After I raised the concern and worked with relevant parties, the headquarter now has a reusable umbrella drying facility. Not long ago we stopped giving single used plastic bags, cutleries, and containers in our canteen. There is a big cultural and awareness shift in my airline since I started three years ago. Our voice is very powerful, and I encourage everyone to raise their voice in a respectful and helpful manner in their platforms.”

How did the UnSchool help you start/evolve it?

“Systems mapping and thinking* are so helpful in approaching the environmental challenges. They enable me to see the bigger picture, find the pain point, and come up with an effective solution. I also learnt from the workshop that waste is essentially a design problem and thus, we can resolve the challenge by changing the design. I used that principle to approach the in-flight waste challenge, and it has been so helpful. Staying on the Co Farm and being with inspirational people, close to nature and animals, learning that everything is interconnected really opened up my mind and heart. I loved the creative retreat so much!”

*To discover more about systems thinking, check out this course at UnSchool Online. or read any of Leyla’s articles on the topic here  

How can people engage with, support, or follow your work?

“If you have creative solutions or sources for resolving the aviation waste challenge, you can reach me via my email. Also, please write to the airlines you fly with and tell them how much you want them to run sustainably. Constructive feedback and useful solutions offered by passengers are always welcomed!”

Thank you, Bao, for activating your agency and being a positive contributor to creative problem solving in the sky!


Week 9: Unlocking the Power of Systems Thinking


By Leyla Acaroglu

I have long been a fan of showing how problem solving desperately needs systems thinking. If you are familiar with my work, you may have already seen the series I wrote on Systems Thinking, but let me share the personal experience in how I came to uncover the power of thinking in systems,  the insights that I gleaned from seeing the world through a series of interconnected systems at play, and some reflections on how this has helped me make more positive change through my creative work. 

I first encountered systems thinking as a practice around 8 years ago just as I started my PhD, and it completely blew my mind. I was going a bit mad at the time, as researching a PhD tends to result in some strange deep dives into all sorts of tangential aspects of your professional practice. At that time, I was exploring many of the adjacent fields to my actual area of study — sustainable design. This could otherwise be called procrastination, but I like to call it productive distraction. Days would start with looking into some more sustainable material processes and then I would end up looking into fractals, Newtonian physics, reductionisum, Lakoff’s work on metaphors... and then somehow in one of these Internet binges, I ended up in the world of systems and the fascinating transition from the mechanical worldview (thanks in part to Newton) through to the evolution of biology as a field of science which helped to form the foundations of understanding the interconnected systems that make life possible, which in turn helped to form the field of systems dynamics.

I then realized just how mechanistic my own thinking was, and in turn how this dominate worldview, that the world operates like a well-oiled machine, was supporting many of the reductive and damaging practices that sustainability was trying to resolve. So doing something about that became a new priority, and still is to this day.


Everything is interconnected

I remember spending one particular weekend locked in my apartment, watching every single documentary I could find about fractals, self-similarity, and the science of interconnectedness and basically nerding out on the relationships between everything. I found this beautiful introduction by Kauffman, and it was like a Disney movie in my mind where all the pieces of a puzzle magically came together in a Gestalt-esque moment of interconnectedness. I had been existentially  grappling with how to rationalize the randomness of so many of the problems/issues that I was wanting to be apart of changing, and then it all just slotted into a place as I started to see that everything as part of interconnected, interdependent systems, and that we are all affected by, and in turn, influencing them. 

To say my brain fell in love is an understatement. 

Hungry for more, I went on a knowledge scavenger hunt finding Russell Ackoff’s videos on YouTube (I consider him the best speaker on systems thinking. Ever.) and reading Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, and anyone else who had written on the topic in the last 25 years (quick side note, biologist von Bertalanffy, is credited as coming up with general systems theory, however did not uncover his work much later on).

All this cemented the realization that everything was interconnected and that in order to leverage creativity while working in sustainability — actually, in order to do just about anything — one needs to know how to see, identify, and think in systems. It also made me acutely aware of the diversity of explanations and approaches to systems thinking. Some are super obtuse and hard to penetrate, leaning more towards the engineering side of things, whereas other theorists are more lenient on their readers, prioritizing clarity rather than complexity (even though complexity is a critical part of systems thinking!). Take Meadows, for example — a fantastic systems thinker, but the entire first chapter of her book focuses on bathtubs as an analogy for systems dynamics. It might just be me, but it really did take some time for my brain to get what she was saying! And now? Well I can’t get in a tub without thinking about stocks and flows!

So started my love affair with this practice and my desire to figure out how to bring it into the design world. I developed a class for the university I was teaching at called ‘Systems Thinking for Designers’, and my students and I looked at how systems thinking could positively impact the design process.

Then, through my PhD, I began exploring nodal transfers as a theory of change and overlaying this new holistic worldview with my training as a sociologist. Years earlier, I had started to work in the extrapolated version of life cycle assessment, life cycle thinking, so adding the systems element to the understanding of how things impact each other in the linear supply chain was really empowering. Suddenly, the everyday impacts of how material flows were intersecting with the cultural layers of social interactions, the power plays, and the systems dynamics all become more accessible as the transition to focusing on relationships and non-obvious elements in a system become more prominent for me. I really could see how the multi-layers of social, industrial, and ecological activities intersect, impact, and, ultimately, change one another.  

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Fast forward a few years, I had finished my PhD (thank gosh) and founded the UnSchool of Disruptive Design in NYC. I now had the big challenge of distilling all these years of research,  into engaging, shareable, and practical tools that would support others in picking up the systems mindset. I started to develop all sorts of systems mapping activities for workshops and refined the ones we now share — cluster mapping and the adapted interconnected circles maps. I advanced my life cycle thinking activities, as well as added X-maps into the mix,  and now we have a suite of tools at UnSchool Online that thousands of people around the world use to help them learn to love a problem, see the relationships before trying to solve said problem, and identify the areas where they can intervene within their agency and resources.

For me though, the most powerful thing is the moment when your brain just starts to see systems rather than the obvious things that we are trained to see. Sounds cheesy but it is really a superpower that anyone can access with a bit of training and overcoming the reductive mindsets that we were all taught in our linear education systems.

In order to overcome the global issues we are challenged with,  we need to change the linear, reductionist, status quo abiding thinking that reinforces breaking the world down into manageable chunks that can be controlled, where issues are attempted to be dealt with in isolation. What we need is to shift from a linear and reductionist dominant mindset to dynamic circular systems thinking

unschool systems mapping

Why Systems Thinking is So Powerful?

Right now, there is no shortage of big complex messy social, political, and environmental problems that need to be addressed, from climate change to the rise in racism, homelessness, child exploitation, global politics and climate change. Taking a systems approach allows for a dynamic and intimate understanding of the elements and agents at play within the problem arena, enabling anyone to identify opportunities for intervention.

These tools are critical to overcoming the reductive mindset we were all taught in school — a mindset that teaches us to break the world down into individual and manageable parts, rather than see the complex, interconnected whole. But here’s the thing: problems never exist in isolation, they are always surrounded by other problems. The more you can comprehend the granulation and context of a problem, the greater your chances are of finding a truly effective solution that is within your capacity to enact. Problems are just unaddressed opportunities waiting for a creative mind/s to tackle them. 

The good news is that undoing linear and rigid thinking is pretty easy because, thankfully, humans naturally have a curious and intuitive understanding of complex, dynamic, and interconnected systems that make up the world around us. So, it’s really not that hard to rewire the thinking codes from linear to expanded, from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional thinking. It’s one of the reasons I developed the Disruptive Design Method, which is a three-part approach to learning to love problems and dive under the obvious to explore the dynamics of an issue before attempting to build a solution to address it. 

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

Leadership and Systems Thinking 

Without a doubt, the best leaders and problem solvers are systems thinkers, as they are naturally seeking out how parts fit within a complex whole and looking for the interconnectedness of issues and elements within a system. Understanding that the health of a system is defined by its diversity means that we avoid designing homogeneous systems, and instead we see flourishing complex robust systems. Furthermore, leaders who possess a systems mindset are more flexible and divergent in their solutionizing around issues that they face; they embrace curiosity and ask questions before trying to provide answers. As a result, outcomes are less likely to lead to unintended consequences or transference the issue to somewhere else in the system (shifting the burden). When solutions are systemic in nature they address the root cause instead of the obvious symptoms of a problem set. Critically, they know that the smallest part of the system has the power to make the most change, the challenge is finding that sweet intervention spot. 

In short, systems thinking helps unlock creativity and provide a fertile breeding ground for completely flipping your mind upside down and inside out, in the best possible way. Embracing this systems approach will help you evolve problems into effective, sustainable solutions and empower your agency to affect positive change.  

Future Thinking

I truly believe that thinking in systems  is the one core skill needed for being a leader in this next century. There is a strong  relationship between the reductive linear economy that is causing so much of the ecological and social exploitation and the reductive thinking that currently dominate our companies and governments. I see the failures of GDP and the non-inclusion of environmental services in our economic system. I can see how recycling validates waste, and that laying blame outside of our jurisdictions helps us all avoid making change. 


No matter how big the problem, the complex problem-loving mindset that systems thinking has given me is like a secret weapon of hope and possibility against all the negativity and merchants of doom that increasingly dominate the media landscape. When there is no blame, there is so much space for exploration, curiosity, and creativity. Personally, I think one of our biggest challenges of our time is the collective hope deficit, and embracing systems thinking helps to overcome that.  

The tools included in the Disruptive Design Method help me rise above the despair (right after I have had a good cathartic complaint session first), but the possibility for change is just as real as the catastrophic predictions, because everything is interconnected, the future is undefined, and the possibilities for creative change are endless —  if you just know how to see, value, and work within the systems that sustain us all. 

My hope for the future is that we, as societies, start to embrace more complex understanding of the world we have the pleasure of living in, that we see systems instead of silos, and adopt changes to education universally that teach the tools for the future, not the past and that we find ways of being a regenerative force on this beautiful magical planet we all share.

I’ll leave you with 6 insights that I have gleaned from embracing a systems mindset that hopefully will pique your curiosity and help you to fall in love with systems thinking like I did: 

  1. Everything is interconnected. There is no blame because everything is connected to everything else

  2. Today’s problems are often a result of yesterday’s solutions

  3. You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused it

  4. Easy solutions can lead to negative impacts elsewhere

  5. The easy way out often leads back in 

  6. Systems are dynamic and constantly changing, and therefore we can all change them too!


Where to get started? I have written a short 11 Key Principles of Systems Thinking. You can also take our Systems Thinking course online and then continue to leverage that knowledge in learning to design systems interventions in this course.

You can also explore the Circular Classroom, which is a free, multilingual educational resource accessible to anyone but designed specifically for students and teachers alike to integrate circular thinking into high school and upper secondary classrooms, all packaged up in a fun, beautiful format. It offers the opportunity to think differently about how we design products, how the economy works, how we meet our needs as humans, and how to support the development of more creative professional roles that help to design a future that is about social, economic, and environmental benefits — and of course, this all begins with a systems mindset. 

Apply to join our 7-day adventure into systems thinking, sustainability and design as tools for activating positive change with our fellowship program happening this November in Kuching, Malaysia. 


Week 8: Why Care About Deforestation?

deforestation unschool

By Leyla Acaroglu

There is this painful, old-school mental image of a ‘treehugger’ — an almost derogatory term used to describe someone who cares about the environment so much that they just hug trees. I usually make jokes when I do talks about how I love the planet but I don’t hug trees, as they have spiders and could ruin my clothes. But silly jokes of my spider fears aside, my perspective on trees has changed a lot over the last couple of years, as I took on an abandoned olive farm, which is now the CO Project and started to regenerate it. The farm has some 150 established trees (and a couple hundred new babies we have planted), all of which I am now a custodian of. As a result, my appreciation of and fascination with trees has grown immensely. I still have not hugged a tree per se, but I certainly do talk to them!

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees


The magic of trees

Firstly let me tell you how trees really are magical. Some of my several hundred year old olive trees have no insides, just a bark shell, and yet they burst into life every spring and drop a bounty of olives every year, despite looking as though they have no heart. Each autumn, when the weather cools, they become homes to all sorts of moss and animals and morph into these grandparent-like figures for all the life that needs shelter. The same goes with the fruit trees — they drop their leaves every year at the end of summer and appear to go to sleep. But, I have noticed that they are actually using all their energy to make tiny baby apples, apricots, or plums, and then, come summer, they burst with delicious delights that nourish and sustain our bodies. 

Trees and humans have a very intrinsic relationship. We obviously eat their fruits, use their wood, and rely on them to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and purify our air. To top it all off, they regulate the climate, keep soils from eroding, provide habitat to other animals, and if all that is not enough, they also apparently ‘talk’ to each other via secret underground networks!  

So, when we decided to host out 10th Emerging Leaders UnSchool Fellowship program this upcoming November in Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia — a very rainforested area of the world — I wanted to discover more about how deforestation is affecting systems. You may have already heard of the issues with palm oil and the clear-felling that occurs to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for cheap oils (that end up in cookies, soaps, and many industrial processes), so in this week’s journal article, I wanted to explore the impact that deforestation has on all of us and find out more in preparation for our Fellowship.  

the magic of tress

What Causes Deforestation? 

Globally, we have cut down 3 trillion trees since industrialization, and it is assumed there are 3 trillion still standing.  Since humans started using forest products, over 46% of trees have been cut down, adding to the climate crisis since, as we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we also cut down the things that absorb and convert it

Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of the world’s deforestation. The main drivers, however, for the destruction of the hyper-diverse Malaysain rainforest (home to the delightful orangutans) is paper pulp logging and palm oil, the latter being a cash crop that creates one of the cheapest forms of lubricants on the global market. There is also a significant amount of illegal logging for hardwoods that then end up making their way into furniture and outdoor decking. There are some international policies to attempt to curb this trend, but poverty  and economic needs often drive people to find ways of still exploiting the forests. 

The immediate impacts of this, such as biodiversity loss and wildfires which often affect monocultures rather than natural ecosystems, are increasing in intensity and further increase the loss of trees. Around the world we have seen many intense and deadly forest fires such as in California where over 100 million trees were lost in the 2018 fires.  These kinds of extreme fires will only increase with the threat of climate change. Sadly, there are claims that fires are lit intentionally and even articles about firefighters starting fires so that they could get paid to put them out!

Overgrazing of native animals can also cause tree loss, but nature seems to have some smart resistance, such as the case of Acacias in Africa that developed a toxin in their leaves to kill off the over populated Antelope. Incidentally, the reduction in shepherds’ animals munching through the undergrowth has been attributed to the severity of the fires. However, the grazing of farm animals, such as goats (who I can confirm will eat anything, as we have 4 on the farm and if they had it their way, they would eat every leaf they could get their teeth on!) is part of some fire prevention strategies.


The Systems Impacts of Deforestation

Trees are a keystone species in our shared planetary ecosystem, so cutting them down and destroying their systems is a detrimental blow to any ecosystem — specifically, us.  From climate impacts to desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases, and loss of home lands for indigenous people, there is a whole slew of systemic impacts related to deforestation.

Not only is deforestation directly impacting us humans, but the destruction of natural habitats for plants and animals is another systemic effect that must be addressed. 80 percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and right now scientists say we are going through the sixth great extinction on Earth, mainly due to the activities of humans (like deforestation) and overconsumption. Consider what happens to the soil when the trees are cut down. Tree canopies are a little bit like the hair on your head, which protects your skin from the sun and helps to keep you cool. Without dense tree coverage, the soil is exposed to the more sun which changes the types of things that can grow. If you have ever been in a forest, you would know that the temperature is completely different; we seek shade under trees when having picnics because they do a brilliant job of protecting what's underneath them. The loss of these tree canopies has been detrimental, with, in the last 40 years, roughly 40-50% of species going extinct and the greatest losses being in Asia and Australia (where I’m from). Biodiversity is what makes Earth, Earth. Without diversity, we have weak systems that are susceptible to disease — which then breeds a new onslaught of system impacts.

Something else happens with the loss of these tree canopies, too — all of the carbon dioxide that the trees were storing as they grew is released back into the atmosphere when the trees are burned. And this is no minor source of climate problems — the current deforestation rate is outpacing the sum of all the world’s cars and trucks on the road to add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than automobiles do. Additionally, it’s striking to  consider how beneficial trees are to carbon mitigation. One estimate states that tropical tree cover can provide 23% of the climate mitigation needed to reach the Paris Climate Goals by 2030. But with the current profitability connected to the consumption habits of us 7.6 billion humans here on Earth, it’s going to take a true systemic effort to preserve our forests as long-term investments into sustainability versus the current short-term profits connected to extracting forest-related resources for goods. 

How We Can Change our Destructive Habits? 

Yes, it is complicated. The drivers of clear felling, forest fires, and land clearing are many, from paper production, through to grain production for the livestock industry (many drivers for the clearing of Brazilian rainforest), wood products, the need for cash crops, or even the increase in the world’s desire for coffee and chocolate. These are all directly linked to consumption, which offers some scope for individual choice preferencing, so needless to say, the issues are multilayered.

Forests cover 30% of the world's surface (in contrast oceans cover 71%), so there is much scope for reversing the destructive nature of deforestation. India and China, two of the world's most populated countries, have made huge efforts to reforest, a solution that can have many benefits, like purifying drinking water, reducing carbon in the atmosphere, cleaning the air from pollutants, and providing economic opportunities for current and future generations. 

On a personal level, you can protect the trees you have some sort of custodianship over. Buy land and allow it to rewild — take inspiration from the famed children’s book author Beatrix Potter, who purchased 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres of land in England. This kind of foresight can help to protect vulnerable land from development and support your own kind of carbon sink. If you can’t buy land (it's surprising how cheap abandoned farmland can be!), you can certainly help by planting trees in your community or supporting organizations like this one that are replanting forests impacted by deforestation.

Of course, making informed choices when it comes to consumption is an important everyday micro-action that you can begin taking immediately. Opt for plant-based proteins instead of meat (meat production is a big driver of deforestation), go paperless as much as possible, skip products that contain palm oil (unless you have concrete proof it’s been sustainably sourced), advocate for the rights of indigenous people, burn firewood responsibly, and continue staying connected to a community of like-minded changemakers who give a shit about protecting the world’s resources so that we have a future that works better for us all! If you really want to level up, learn more about this issue and get connected to people making change, then join me this November in Malaysia at our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program.

unschool kuching fellowship 2019

Applications are now open for our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program. Get yours in today to learn more about this issue and to discover the tools for making a positive impact by design. Applications due by July 12. Apply here >

Week 7: What happened in Cape Town?

unschool cape town fellowship

By Emma Segal

I had the pleasure of being the lead educator on the 9th UnSchool Emerging Leaders Fellowship program when we took it to the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2018. You may remember that this was right around the time that some of the city water supply was about to be shut off, due in part to lack of rain and subsequent reservoir shortages, along with a host of other issues. It was a bit of a stressful time, but at the UnSchool, we seem to have an unintended habit of running programs in extreme scenarios. For example, our Christchurch fellowship happened right after a major earthquake, and we’ve had cars stolen and venues flooded — so we are no strangers to a  rapid reorientation due to unforeseen circumstances!

cape town fellowship group

Our on-the-ground local co-producers in Cape Town consulted with their government contacts, and we were encouraged to go ahead with the fellowship, but with strict water conservation policies in place. The Cape Town program had 10 local and 7 international fellows join us, along with an inspiring array of mentors, for an incredible 7-day adventure in this fascinating and complex city in which we explored the dynamics of systems change, sustainability, and how to make a positive impact.

I’t’s been a year, so I caught up with a few of our very busy fellows last week to find out what they have been up to this past year and see how the fellowship has impacted them. I’ll share their updates along with what we got up to that week, as it was quite an adventure!

But first, check out the incredible video that highlights everything we packed into the 7 days!

We kicked off the week with local team members Thessa and Wisaal giving us a walking tour history lesson of the city as we made our way to District Six Museum, a community co-creation storytelling project about the aparthaid effects in this area. We then evoked our UnSchool tradition of discovering more about our own stories and history through mini-pecha kucha style rapid 3 min personal storytelling, after which I led our first knowledge session on sustainability (we dive in quick!), followed by a much-needed brain-refueling, delicious, plant-based dinner, served family style at a local Ethiopian restaurant.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

Pecha Kuchas

Pecha Kuchas

Day two had us run through a teleconference session with UnSchool founder Leyla Acaroglu (calling in from our other on-going and newly launched project, CO Project), and a lively and engaging systems thinking and mapping session. These types of skills have since come in use for fellow Tim, who says that since the fellowship, “In all projects that I tackle now, I look forward to researching the problem, really getting stuck with the problem, and utilizing the systems thinking concepts to form more nuanced and, hopefully, effective solutions from the process.”

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

After one of our by now famous plant-based lunch feasts, we headed off to learn from Emile YX who works with youth through hip hop and dance, providing a place to grow and explore identity and career opportunities through the arts. This active session was followed by a beautiful communal dinner offered to us by Zaayan and her family in their home, where we made traditional snacks together while learning about Ramadan and Zaayan’s activism work in food gathering and the way it connects us to each other and the planet.

Emile YX

Emile YX

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together



Story sharing has been important in fellow Neha’s work as well, as she finds that, “This past year has been life changing. Post-Unschool, I have been more involved with sharing my knowledge with individuals at school, colleges, and at peer-group level”.  Her work in India has been focused lately on hemp, while her previous project used soot as a design material (and was showcased on the UnSchool DIF sessions last year!). This project sees her working with industrial hemp to make products using sustainable agriculture and artisan empowerment. Neha describes her work, saying, “I look after the fabric department called Hemp Fabric Lab. My job here is to enable the makers and creators to adopt this sustainable material — hemp. I have been able to apply my learnings to research, marketing, product development, sales, education etc.; in short, my role is multifaceted.”

Day three was a full brain activation day with a mentor session from Naadiya Moosaje on women in engineering, alternative forms of capital, and a rapid group prototyping session to find solutions based on issues presented in daily newspapers.

Naadiya talking to the group

Naadiya talking to the group

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Following this, we had our afternoon packed with thoughtful conversation on the water issues in Cape Town, led by Bernelle Verster, a bioprocess engineer with a focus on dry toilets and human waste systems (everybody poops!). To really dive into the subject, we had a high energy verbal fight club group debate on dry vs wet toilets, trying on different roles and perspectives to form a variety of arguments.

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

This type of perspective shifting has continued to benefit Tim, who says that his experience during the fellowship “reframed my world view considerably. I feel I'm better at removing myself or my 'ego' from projects and facilitating/coaxing solutions to emerge from others involved in the project… I'm a lot more conscientious with including more voices in the Gippslandia newspaper that I edit.”

Day four saw us take another field trip, this time to visit Quirky30, led by Sihle Tshabalala to address the 52% youth unemployment issue through coding and tech education to meet the demand for these types of skills, while simultaneously reducing poverty-driven crime. We then dove into a collaborative ideation challenge with their students and our fellows, and had an amazing lunch together, prepared by a local community caterer (food is a big thing for us!).

Sihle Tshabalala

Sihle Tshabalala

The two groups in a lively ideation session

The two groups in a lively ideation session

We hopped back on our bus and headed into the center of the city to meet social change architect Mokena Makeka, who introduced us to the ways he has been making positive social change through his building designs. He led us on a tour to check it out in person.

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

These types of experiential and deep dive sessions are unique experiences not only for the fellows, but for team members on the fellowship as well. Previous fellow from Mumbai and co-host for Cape Town, Camila, found that, “The UnSchool has set a high standard of what is sustainability, and how it ought to be taught. Through UnSchool, I understood the importance of design as a social scripter, not knowing anything really about design before. Learning the importance of how people will interact with what you try to communicate and has also given me the vocabulary and the hard facts on personal agency.”

Volunteering or working on a Fellowship is a great way to gain community points towards certification and get a behind-the-scenes look at how we put together our unique programs. While Camila is finishing up her Masters degree this spring, she will be returning to the UnSchool for “the types of skills and professional development, which again even after my Masters, I don’t see that type of learning in any other place.”

Day five was launched by Vuyisa Quabaka and the practical aspects of building, running, and succeeding in social change entrepreneurship. His extensive knowledge helped kick off a group ideation and investability session. Often put to the side when doing social or environmental work, being able to have a financially and ethically sustainable business model is critical to being able to keep doing good work and getting positive shit done!

Vuyisa Quabaka:  “I work with inspired people”

Vuyisa Quabaka: “I work with inspired people”


Alumni Zoe is putting her skills to work as she starts two new projects. She has been appointed to help facilitate and design interventions for the UCT Futures Think Tank to explore how the way they do their work, and how it should change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world within the South African context, as well as being involved with Open Design Afrika who has launched a number of projects with the aim of building capacity and creating systemic change and social cohesion in Africa with creativity. She highlights that she finds, “Both of these experiences are helping to fill in that feeling of 'more' I was looking for after the fellowship.”

I then led the afternoon session on life cycle thinking, and sustainable design considerations when putting new things into the world, or engaging with those that exist. This is different than life cycle analysis (LCA), and provides anyone the tools to deeply understand how things are made and handled throughout their life. Alyssa remarked at the time that, “today’s Unschool Life Cycle thinking workshop is blowing my mind right now. How many things go into manufacturing a pair of shoes for instance? We have an end of life bias where we tend to focus on the landfill, reusing and recycling in terms of sustainability. But what about how our products are made, and all the parts of the system that contribute to the last product you bought? There is no code of ethics for designers and the potential destructive impact they can have with their designs.” She continued to explore this issue through an MBA in Design Strategy over the past year, having just finished up with a thesis project focusing on reducing single use packaging in grocery stores.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

We worked as a group on investigating some of these common objects to get a deeper understanding of the systems that surround us. Alumni Saleemah also mentioned this session when caught up, reflecting that, “The thing that really stuck with me from the Unschool Fellowship is life cycle thinking. I'm working with a global educational NPO, and I use this approach for all projects, initiatives, and operations — it's been life-changing”.

The afternoon was capped off with another teleconference with Leyla on cognitive biases and an overview of the Disruptive Design Method. Neha has found the week to resonate with her professionally, noting that, “After UnSchool, the Disruptive Design Method have become ingrained in my design processes. I feel my method and approach of problem solving irrespective of the magnitude of the problem has changed towards a more holistic approach.” After the week’s download, a much- needed quiet writing and reflection time gave us all a moment to synthesize and digest our experiences thus far. Before everyone left for the day, briefs for the challenge were handed out, and everyone got excited to get started with their groups the next day.

getting ready for the next day

Day six was full of excitement as the teams arrived to dig into their positive future-framed challenge. They each ran through the Disruptive Design Method to identify and mine the issues they were working on in their teams, fueled by the tools they’d learned through the week and a steady stream of snacks and brain-friendly food.

The UnSchool team of Thessa, Wisaal, Vanessa, Andy, and I circulated through each of the teams to provide feedback, additional perspectives, idea prodding, local context from our Cape Town producers for those not from South Africa, and a late night sundae bar for extra energy. This real world application practice came in handy for Zoe later in the year when, “After the fellowship, I spent many months trying to work out how I could apply what I learnt to my big corporate world. I was optimistic about the change I could make and saw an opportunity to focus on sustainability as my angle (leveraging off the companies’ interest in design).”

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

The day wrapped up late, and everyone arrived early the next day for early morning practice presentations in front of the team including Leyla dialing in from the farm, curious to see what everyone had come up with. The afternoon saw each of the teams have time to present their ideas, with a community feedback session and group voting for the top choice based on viability, change potential, and community. Tim pointed out that this type of group collab “really stoked a passion for collaborating in cross-cultural and multidisciplinary groups too, something that is key to our thr34d5.org strategic design studio”.

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

All the fellows are now part of a wider UnSchool alumni community that offers the opportunity to connect with each other, a key benefit to all the Fellowships. Tim says that it was a “mega bonus that I got to meet Zoe, and she's a legend. We now get to shoot the breeze on lots of cool initiatives that we are exposed to, and she inspires the shit outta me.” Last month, Zoe was asked to go back to her old high school to serve as their Designer in Residence. Over two days, she taught eight grade 9-11 classes an intro to systems thinking (with a shout out to the UnSchool!). She shared that the aim was to show them “a bit of the world of design beyond what they're learning — architecture, graphic/ fashion/ product design, etc.” and she mentioned she got Tim “to co-facilitate with me which was really fun, and I'm glad we've remained such good friends since the fellowship!

Neha also has felt the momentum of the wider community, sharing, “Change makers from different walks of life have really inspired me in multiple ways. I feel nothing is impossible. I can make a difference in my own way and that one should not be restricted by an idea but should explore methods to expand the application.

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Alyssa also reflected on her decision to come to Cape Town on her Instagram at the time, saying “It’s been such an epic week! Our 24 hr design challenge was fun and mind bending as we tried out the systems mapping and Disruptive Design skills to find a solution of our own design to a systemic problem we identify…. I’m so glad I signed up and traveled so far for this experience. It’s really been mind altering and eye opening, and the incredibly smart and diverse group of people I met have touched me deeply. It may be the end of our week together, but this is just the beginning!”

The fellowship week ended with a birthday celebration and group reflection on the experience. If you would like to read more (yes there is even MORE!) about this fellowship or any of our past 9 editions, then check out each day in detail on the blog!

High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!

High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!


Join our next fellowship!

Do you want to join our always growing and active community of social and environmental creative change-makers? We have just announced our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program, happening November 17th-23rd in Kuching, Malaysia! If you want to be one of the 20 people selected to join us on a 7-day intensive adventure into all things sustainability and systems change, then get your application in today! Applications open now until July 12 > 

Week 6: The rise of sustainable living


By Leyla Acaroglu

Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Politicians, innovators, and activists gathered to discuss the future of global sustainable production and consumption, looking at what the next stages are for creating systems of sustainability and circularity and how to unlock the consumption paradox.  

Despite the meeting not obtaining the desired resolutions to help bring about the significant global restructuring needed for a healthy and sustainable planet, the uplifting thing was that finally, after many years, the discussions centered on the roles of design and consumption for how to achieve global social and environmental sustainability. I, like everyone else, have my moments of disillusion, where the hope gets drained out of you by the fatigue of complaints, problems, and inaction. So allow me to focus on the flip side to that: the changes I see rising from the slightly nerdy world of sustainable production and consumption.

Not too long ago, terms like “zero waste” were boring policy directives thrown around by government departments with long-term strategies like “zero waste by 2020”. But in the last few years, ‘going zero waste’ and sustainable living in general have taken on an entirely cooler persona as a lifestyle trend of young, hip Instagrammers and savvy YouTubers are all helping to make this a movement and trend that now anyone can get involved in.

Yes, there are like any movements critiques of the gender politics and the validity of the claims of those who are promoting this lifestyle trend. Years ago, there was a claim that there was a growing trend called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, and that people would actually start to make economic decisions based on the issues that matter to them. So for me, the Zero Wasters are the living incarnation of this marketing prophecy. And even more so, it demonstrates that the actions of a small group of people can have big impacts on the economy.


A zero waste lifestyler is someone who actively reduces their waste consumption by designing their life to combat acquiring things that are wasteful or will end up as trash, especially avoiding all disposable and non-recyclable products and packaging. Someone embracing a zero waste life usually plans meals in advance to avoid convenience packaging, and ensures they always have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, straw, and bags on hand to actively refuse disposable items. This names just a few and varied everyday actions these lifestylers take to avoid contributing to the global waste pandemic.

These types of actions aren’t really new; they were well-practiced as normal before the lifestyle of hyper-convenience encouraged runaway disposability, beginning in the 1960s. So, the challenge hasn’t been finding alternatives as much as it has been rebelling against the current status quo.

Many of the heroes of the zero waste lifestyle movement share incredible stories of only making one small jar of actual ‘trash’ a year, often shared on social media through active lifestyle design and adopting simple everyday changes. Composting organic waste from their homes, proactively purchasing reusable products, or even making essentials like toothpaste at home are all part of their day-to-day practices.

While there are aspirational leaders in the movement who are very much tied to the brand of zero waste, the key takeaway is that a person who actively seeks to reduce consumption impacts through conscious micro-actions across several different areas of their lives is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Not just because it helps bring about a new normal around reusability in society, but because it helps change the economy. When many micro-actions are being replicated, it has impacts on the goods and services that end up being made available to all of us.

This can all be seen in the rise of products and services to meet the needs of the zero waste community. Putting aside the questionable environmental credentials from a life cycle perspective of many of the products, and just looking at the shifts in the economy, we can see change — positive change toward a new type of normal, whereby people are activating their agency to help solve the global waste crises.

There are now dedicated zero waste stores in many major cities around the globe (not just in obvious hipster strongholds like New York!). Modern plant-based restaurants, and even entire shopping centers that have sprung up to accommodate this growing trend of plastic-free, package-free, and zero waste consumers who are interested in sustainable consumption options.

As a result of many different interventions, companies have also started to embrace the global trend toward sustainability. We are seeing leaders emerge in the circular economy in some sectors, such as apparel, consumer goods, and furniture. The Loop circular delivery service was just launched this year, and the biggest IPO in two decades was Beyond Meat. Ikea recently announced that they would be 100% circular by 2030, and Lego is working on a plastic-free brick. These examples show a growing demand and substantial shift towards the normalization of products and services that go beyond recycling and start to move us into position where further positive disruptions can occur.

I know, there is still a shit ton of work to do to solve the complex social and environmental problems that occur as a result of the global supply chain marketed to quickly meet every immediate desire of the human needs. Walk down the aisles in any supermarket around the world, and it's obvious that the vast majority of product providers are yet to catch on to this massive cultural shift underway, where consumers are conscious of their impacts and want to avoid investing in wasteful plastic-laden unsustainable products and services. But, the shifts we are seeing are encouraging and should be highlighted.


Waste is the dark side of consumption, and despite two solid decades of zero waste policies, and many different approaches from cleaner production to eco-design and sustainable consumption, and now the circular economy, we are still seeing a global increase in waste generation. And not just in plastics clogging the oceans, but in high-tech trash, textile, and food waste.

The issues with waste is that no matter how much recycling or waste management is put in place, more waste is generated than can be dealt with. Many emerging economies have limited or minimal waste management systems, and many big Western countries have absconded their responsibility to manage their own waste efficiently, just exporting it to an emerging economy. Like the case of the Canadian trash that the Philippians refused to take on, or as evidenced by the collapse of the recycling industry after China refused to take the world’s plastic trash any longer.

There continues to be a significant trend in converting reusable products to disposable ones, combined with the painful reality of planned obsolescence in high-value goods, so many aspects of our daily lives are now marked by single or low-value use products. Thus, going zero waste is one defiant act that anyone can do to take a stand against this. The reality is that what we spend our money on impacts the economy. Just like investing in renewable energy increases the value of that industry, the same is said for every product or service. We get more of what we invest in.

And let’s not forget that all of this comes down to design. The World Bank estimates that at the current rate of increase, we will see 70% increase in waste generation by 2050. This is all by design. Waste, whether it be in trash or recycling, is a design flaw, so even with the rise of waste rejection, we have a significant trend to contend with. Products are designed to break, and systems are designed to increase disposability as they cut costs and respond to customer concerns of health and safety. A significant part of the entire waste/pollution/unsustainability problem is that we have designed a system that incentivizes waste, and that is why we need to design for a post disposable future.

Design is also an incredibly powerful part of the solution. We can design for a future that meets our needs in sustainable and regenerative ways, and it's no wonder that the waste backlash is coming at a time when people are more able to design their own lives and share these behavioral and cultural shifts online to audiences of others willing to buck the status quo. This new generation of active consumers, be it zero wasters or minimalists, they are exerting their personal interests on the economy. This is helping to challenge the dominant culture of hyper-consumption and instead showing ways of living a more intentional and purposeful life.


I have spent years researching ways of effecting change, and the one thing I know to be true is that change is constant, but it also takes time. Many people are not willing to even try something new because they think that it won’t serve them well, but when they do actually enact a habit disruption and discover that there was not a negative outcome, they often then adopt the new change and share it with others. Change is socially contagious, in both directions on the positive/negative scale.

Change is often hard to see whilst you are in the middle of it, and it is even harder when it’s a resistance to the status quo. The global changes toward a sustainable, regenerative, and circular economy require multiple different actors shifting their behaviors and patterns in diverse ways. In the case of zero waste living, it's all about agency and having ownership of your own impact. More so, it is contagious, as the power of social influence kicks in and people see the positive outcomes that making these types of changes can have.

When enough people validate the new actions, it’s a free pathway to the new outcome! To be sure, there are many challenges ahead of us when it comes to sustainability, and major corporations are still far behind in the trend of adopting the significance of the changes needed to adapt to a circular economy. But the progress is real and transformative. The question is not if, but when will we see the tipping point of change where we, as a collective species, start to design goods and services to be a positive influence on the planet?

It's never too late to start swapping unsustainable daily decisions to more considered ones, and in fact, there are five simple actions we can all can start anytime.

Five everyday actions to start RIGHT now

  1. Swap out some meat for plant-based proteins

  2. Ditch everyday disposables such as cups, plates, bags, and take-out containers

  3. Invest in the things you want to see in the world by buying repairable and long-lasting stuff (and make sure to repair it when it needs to be fixed!)

  4. Opt for low-carbon mobility options like biking, mass transit, or ride-sharing

  5. Move money from high-impact industries to renewables through swapping energy providers, banks, and investment portfolios

Week 5: Alumni Laura Francois Tackles Sustainability Through Incredibly Creative Interventions

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

During the past 4+ years that the UnSchool of Disruptive Design has been helping people make positive social and environmental change, and on the journey we’ve met some seriously incredible humans that are dedicating their lives and careers to creative problem solving for a better future.

We’re excited to share some of their stories here in our Journal to show you how they’re applying the Disruptive Design Method and all the different kinds of positive impacts they’re creating.

Today, we’re showcasing Laura Francois, a Canadian community engager, storyteller and impact strategist focused on the social impact space in Canada, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore.

Her UnSchool Story

We first met Laura when she attended an advanced training in Circular Systems Design at UnSchool Online. She had been working intensively with textile artisans from low socio-economic backgrounds, exploring methods of economic opportunity and environmental sustainability by connecting them with the wider fashion industry. Then she decided to get more focused and level up her change-making and so she signed up for our Online Advanced Circular Design Training program in January 2018.

“THE UnSchool continually reminds me to question what I think I know. So much of my work is about awareness building, and starting conversations around sustainability with industries and sectors that all speak a very different language from one another. My experience with THE UnSchool built the groundwork for me to experiment with these conversations, thinking about speedy growth and vitality as a false sense of change. Slow, steady and always questioning wins the race”

Laura was already doing inspiring things, having been highly focused on the sustainability in the fashion industry for many years leading the Fashion Revolution movement in Malaysia and Singapore. But Laura felt a disconnect between the general views of sustainability and what the individuals working along the fashion supply chain were witnessing and experiencing.

Frustrated with the status quo of conversations around sustainability, Laura was looking to break the cycle of greenwashing and gain perspective on the industry she was navigating.  She decided to join UnSchool program to gain a new perspective on the same old problem, and she explains how she walked away from the training with new habits and ideas that she continues to exercise every day. Laura told us, “Regardless of the type of project, learning to take on the more detailed, systemic, and multidimensional perspectives of how things work (or don’t work!) inspired me to keep creativity and design at the forefront of my social and environmental impact projects”.

Creative Projects and Interventions

Laura experienced a turning point in her work when she discovered an abandoned garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that had recently gone bankrupt. She stumbled upon hundreds of thousands of tons of textiles still in the factory that had no plan for their end of life. Listen to her share this story and more in our 2018 DIF showcase. This experience inspired her to begin her project Clothing the Loop, a collaboration with Von Wong, who is an internationally renowned photographer that is “notorious for documenting his intrepid adventures” — and who wears the same clothes every single day!

Laura Francois waterfall

In a series of three art installations, the team created three giant structures that honor the natural resources most greatly affected by fashion: the air, the water, and the trees. There in the abandoned factory, they created three installations: a tornado, a waterfall, and a tree, using basic household materials and the clothes that they’d found. Their goal was to give life to 2,500 kilos of textiles — which is the amount of clothing that the average person wears in a lifetime — while showing the world the impact of our everyday fashion choices. Though the installations were eventually taken down, the project inspired Laura to work with the new building owners to infuse the history of the factory within the space and to make a statement about textile waste by building functional co-working spaces out of the leftover fabric.

Following the same idea as Clothing the Loop, Laura and Von collaborated again to create “The Tallest Closet in the World,” a 9 meter tall immersive installation at the Mall of Arabia in Cairo, Egypt, that showcased 3,000 garments as a visual representation of how much clothing each one of us, on average, uses in our lifetime. The clothing donations also support refugees in Cairo.

“In 2009, the Tak Fak garment factory in Cambodia closed due to bankruptcy leaving hundreds without compensation. According to local reports, some 130 Cambodian garment factories closed that year, leaving more than 30,000 workers jobless and an additional 30,000 temporarily out of work. That wasn't all. The Tak Fak factory closed leaving thousands of bags of unfinished clothing behind it's doors. For almost a decade, the clothing just sat there. That is, until October 2017 when we walked in for the first time.”

Laura Francois

Tackling Plastic Waste

Laura has recently expanded her work to include awareness about the global impact of plastic waste. Plastikphobia is a brand new exhibit by Von Wong and Joshua Goh that Laura co-produced. The goal of this project was to answer one question: What percent of single-use plastic cups do we Take-Out vs. Eat-In?

The incredible art exhibition was open to the public at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery at the Marina Barrage from the 7th of March to the 18th of April, 2019.

“Plastikophobia is an immersive art installation made from 18,000 plastic cups collected from local food centers across Singapore to raise awareness for single-use plastic pollution.”

So many of the UnSchool Alumni do incredible things and we love to share their ideas and interventions to help inspier others to do more creative change-making work. If you are passionate about making change then come to an UnSchool program or sign up for one of our online classes.

Laura Francois

We are so proud of the work that Laura is doing and happy that we could support her at the UnSchool! You can follow her work at www.laurafrancois.com or @laurafrancois_ on Instagram.

Week 4: Will Global Plastic Bans Work?


By Leyla Acaroglu

The lightweight and easy-to-produce nature of plastic has made it globally ubiquitous in a bazillion forms. As we are all becoming too aware, these cheap conveniences have negative impacts on the natural world and there is a growing trend in public policy actions to ban certain plastic products. Whilst there are complexities in implementing bans, there is an interesting conversation to be had on how different countries around the world are taking legislative action to discourage the use of some types of disposable plastics (like bags, cutlery, and styrofoam containers), and how impactful this is for activating change and moving toward a circular economy.

The Issue

Today, the average North American or European person consumes 100 KGs of plastic each year, and half of the world’s plastic has been produced in the last 12-15 years. The statistics on just how many disposable plastics are used and end up polluting the environment are staggering. With four trillion single-use plastic bags being used around the world each year, we are drowning in plastic waste. With a collapsing recycling industry, there is clearly a strong need for a systems change to support the functional delivery that plastic products bring us, but without all the disposable consequences.

As you can imagine, things aren't always as simple as they seem on face value. Banning bags and straws can help in some ways to curb the tsunami of plastic waste, but bans alone will not address the real underlying issue: the global normalization of disposability and expectation of convenience that has become a central aspect of our fast-paced, hyper-consumption-fueled lives. Furthermore there is the important question, of what replaces the plastic products, and what impact these alternatives have?

Just some of the bans include: European Union, Mexico City, New York, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Costa Rica to name just a few. The World Economic Forum counts 127 countries with active bag regulations in place.


15 single-use plastic issues

  1. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled (source)

  2. Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (source)

  3. It costs retailers in the US alone $4 billion to give away “free” bags (source)

  4. 12 million barrels of oil are required each year to make plastic bags for the U.S (source)

  5. There is more micro-plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way (source)

  6. 8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year (source)

  7. As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches (source)

  8. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds

  9. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year (source)

  10. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean on average (source)

  11. 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021 (source)

  12. The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year (source)

  13. The top three contributors of micro plastic waste in the oceans are car tires, fibres from wash cloths, and small plastic beads from body care products (source)

  14. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills (source)

  15. Scientists have found plastic in human poop (source)

The thing that makes plastic so incredible as an ‘everything-material’ is the same reason it's a nightmare for the natural environment —  it's lightweight and indestructible. The lightweightness means that bags and bottles blow out of trash cans, and float on the ocean surface until they land on beaches. The indestructible part means that the stuff stays around for a very long time. The actual number of years it takes for plastic to break down is unknown, as all plastic in the world has only been around since the 1960’s when we started to mass produce it for everything.

The Changes

We are in the middle of not just a backlash to disposable plastics, but a significant cultural shift and transition to a circular economy that even has the Queen of England on board with the need to detox from disposable plastic.  She recently announced that Buckingham Palace will go plastic free after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series! 18 months ago, China introduced a ban on all imported plastic waste, which has sent the global plastic recycling market into a tailspin. To get a full rundown on this, listen to this fantastic podcast on 99% invisible that explains the history of plastic straws and the public health concerns that fuelled their mass appeal in the U.S.

The mounting issues are encouraging countries and companies around the world to respond to consumer outcry about not just waste washing up on beaches, but on enforced disposable culture that we are now entrenched in. There are many reasons why we need systems change for a post disposable future and a circular economy.  

The Bans

The European Union just banned a list of 10 everyday disposable plastic products (interesting they avoided bags!?), and there are hundreds of various types of bans in place around the world, ranging from microbeads to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to single-use plastic bags, straws, cups, and utensils.

There are many different ways countries are legislating disposable plastics. Some have a total ban, which basically says if you are caught with these items you are in deep doo doo. Kenya, for example, has the highest with a $38,000 fine if you are caught with a plastic bag (which incidentally has created a fascinating black market for bags).

Taxation is also used to disincentivize product use; often referred to as a “bag tax”, countries like Australia, Sweden, the UK, and many more are using this approach. This is a bit of an easy way out - in a user-pays system, many people with the means will continue to pay the small inconvenience tax (often around 5 or 10 cents), whilst people who are less economically mobile will be burdened with the cost. Then there are also partial bans where certain regions within a country have imposed bans.For example, in the US there is not a total ban of plastic bags, but there are cities that have total bans (like San Francisco). This also applies, in some countries, to plastic bans in religious, historic, or natural sites, as in the states of Goa and Gujarat in India.

Do Bans Work?

Banning plastic cuts off the problem at the source, so at face value, and according to statistics, these bans present an effective and sustainable solution. For example, some widely shared figures tout that Ireland’s bag tax that was imposed in 2002 has led to a 85% reduction in plastic bag litter there. And, according to reports from San Jose, California, their 2011 ban has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

While these numbers seem promising, things start to get a little more complex when you examine them through a systems mindset. Bans can misdirect the perception of what the problem is; in the case of bags, it vilifies plastic, but many of the alternatives put in place do not fit into a circular economy and are equally as problematic from a whole systems perspective. Paper bags are not as strong, so they are often double bagged. When you look at all the processes that go into making them (such as growing trees, cutting them, bleaching and processing them, and then manufacturing the bag), you start to see that there are ecological impacts at other parts of the system.

Additionally, we’re beginning to see plastic sales increase in other areas as an unintended consequence of bag bans; in California, for example, plastic garbage bag sales increased 120%! This is due to consumers needing bags for things they previously reused their plastic grocery bags for, like collecting household waste and picking up pet waste.

The issue with all of these products being banned is the disposability of them. Paper straws or wooden chopsticks may conjure up more eco-friendly sentiments, but they still cause significant issues when they are designed for single-use outcomes. Banning one product breeds a market for a new one, and then the question is in whether the new one will end up being better than the last disposable item. That is the sustainability question that needs to be answered from the start as we move toward circular design solutions that fit into a circular economy.

Even with items that are designed to be reused, like cotton tote bags, we have to be mindful of the life cycle impacts here too. The Danish Government recently published a LCA of grocery bags, in which they found that you’d have to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag in order for it to be better for the environment due to cotton manufacturing impacts like water use, damage to ecosystems, air pollution, and more.

Bans are also interesting to consider from a behavioral perspective. On one hand, they create a new type of normal for people and allow society to shift perspectives on certain things — like the fact that hyper-disposable products are not good for any of us. Bans also force innovation, as people will have to find new ways of meeting their needs. But on the other hand, when something becomes harder to get, it makes it more valuable, which leads to a rise in workarounds to getting the thing that is no longer readily available. What is even more interesting is the physiology of bans — people get really irate when they have something taken away from them. In both Singapore and Australia, for instance, there was a big controversy when the supermarkets tried to ban bags, and a small percentage of very vocal people claimed this was a violation of their rights.

Dissecting the issues with plastic bans here at a high level reinforces the need to examine problems and proposed interventions through a systems lens and a life-cycle perspective in order to avoid creating more problems. While the destruction imposed by plastic makes us all want to jump to a quick-fix-solution, we need to suspend the need to solve and reframe the conversation by emphasizing the real issue of disposability.  

Only time will tell if bans help ensure the disruptive shifts we need to get to a better future, but in the meantime, we can all examine how we contribute to disposability in our lives and implement micro-actions to support a sustainable future. As for bags, the best answer for now is simply to reuse the bags you have, no matter what type, over and over and over again. For some ideas on getting started with a post disposable lifestyle that fits into the future circular economy, download our free Post Disposable Activation Kit at UnSchool Online. or take our class on sustainability that covers life cycle thinking.


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Week 3: Can We Eat our Way to a More Sustainable Planet?


By The UnSchool Team

We can all agree that there are fundamental failures in the global food system, with over a third of all food produced being wasted and millions of people being affected by food deserts. What systems changes could be introduced to create solutions in different ways?

From extreme hunger to under-nourishment, to food waste and how we grow, process, transport, and consume food, being of significance to every human (as we all need to eat!), there are many opportunities for improvement throughout the many sub-systems of the global food system. In this UnSchool Journal article, we’ll take a detailed look at the EAT-Lancet's recent report that explored whether we could feed a healthy diet for a future population of 10 billion people, while remaining within planetary boundaries. We’ll also take a high-level look into the burning question about how you can swap up your food choices to contribute more equitable, sustainable food systems change around the world.

What is the EAT-Lancet Commission — and why does this report matter?

The EAT-Lancet report is the first time, we have had scientific targets for both healthy human diets and sustainable food production, based on a rigorous, comprehensive review of the most recent scientific literature. The team behind this report is the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is a part of EAT, “a non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption, and novel partnerships.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission is a team of 37 multi-disciplinary scientists from 16 countries who set out to tackle the systems issues of hunger, obesity, and environmental degradation by discovering how people should eat to solve all of these issues — keeping in mind that we are projected to rise to 9.8 billion humans on Earth by 2050. The result of their efforts shares an important micro-action that we can adopt as individuals to work toward a better collective whole via systems change: the “planetary health diet.”


How does the “planetary health diet” work?

Visualize a plate that is halfway filled with fruits and vegetables. Now, on the other half, imagine whole grains, plant proteins like lentils and beans, and unsaturated plant oils. Note that while being plant-based, it’s also a flexible plan, and it does allow for modest amounts of meat and dairy (as well as a little added sugar) — although being vegan and vegetarian are both options for healthy individuals and a healthy planet.


The most important focus for planetary health lies in the reduction of red meat consumption, due to the major environmental impacts associated with livestock farming. As reported by WEF: “According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from global livestock account for 14.5% of anthropogenic (from human activity) greenhouse gases, while the World Bank chart above shows that, in 2014, 70% of freshwater withdrawal was used for agriculture - projected to rise by a further 15% by 2050.” Of course, minimizing red meat consumption is also optimal for human health, given that eating high amounts of red meat is associated with higher risk for type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

While loads of research was conducted in order to arrive at these new guidelines, the gist of the planetary health diet as a means to create food systems change remains pretty simplistic: increase consumption of nutritious plant-based foods (fruits, veg, nuts, legumes, and whole grains), and decrease consumption of red meat, sugar, and refined grains.

This doesn’t seem too radical to us, as we have already adopted a vegetable centric food philosophy at all UnSchool events! Our recent collaboration with the UNEP shows the five areas of everyday action you can take to reduce your footprint and contribute to a more sustainable life.

10 everyday actions you can take to reduce your food footprint

  1. Diversify your diet to include more plant-based products, and cook more at home

  2. Increase your intake of plant-based foods and explore the joys of non animal protein rich options like beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas (they are delicious!)

  3. Embrace a flexitarian, reducetarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet

  4. Shop for local seasonal food that is produced sustainably, such as your local farmers’ market or package-free store

  5. Buy sustainably produced foods. They may cost a bit more, but if you invest in quality over quantity, you are offering a better impact to your health and the planet

  6. Buy only what you can finish, save, or cook in bulk to freeze, in order to avoid food waste and avoid adding methane into the atmosphere

  7. Avoid excessive packaging by buying fresh and taking your own reusable packaging and bags to stores. Re-use any packaging as long as possible if you are not able to avoid it in certain cases

  8. Ask for healthy and and sustainable food options from your the people you buy food and other products from

  9. Grow some food yourself by starting or joining an urban garden, community garden, school garden, or kitchen garden

  10. Support organizations, policies, and programs that promote sustainable food systems - speak up about them, ask questions, and get involved

To read the full report Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Walter Willett et al.), visit here. To discover how to reframe sustainability and think critically about everyday impacts, check out this course at UnSchool Online.