A conversation with Ineke Van Nieuwenhove

Girlboss, daredevil and yoga teacher. Cool combo, right? Ineke has done things that are out of the ordinary, like dancing dry water ballet (don’t ask), managing the cult band Kenji Minogue or running Poëziebordeel, the Benelux chapter of The Poetry Brothel. But she also holds a very important place in her heart for our planet. She believes disposable packaging does not belong in a beautiful world like ours. That is why in 2018 she created the citizen campaign Mei Plasticvrij to help people reduce their consumption of single use plastics. In 2019 she co-founded the start-up Billie Cup, a reusable coffee cup system with a 1 euro deposit, which can be found and returned in all participating horeca locations in Belgium (and Holland soon). Ineke’s motto: “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.”

First of all, how did you survive the lockdown?

Survive? Weird question. I ate, drank water, breathed air and slept ;-). Joking. Honestly: I enjoyed it to the max. Chilling, cooking a lot, taking walks in a silent, calm world. Aaah. The silence. It was heaven. I will never forget that. And whenever my children complained, I said: ‘Stop whining. No bombs are being dropped. All you need to do, is stay at home.

I know you as a creative spirit and curious mind. Did the lockdown inspire you? Where there new ideas, insights that came to you during this period of isolation?
It made me think even more about how our society, and the world, is created and miss managed, about how many flaws are in our growth economy on a planetary level, both with the industry and consumers. Although my initial goal was to take up reading novels again (I love reading), I spent a lot of time watching in depth documentaries and reading non-fiction books on a variety of subjects: economics, media, climate change, etc. Glad I had the time to dig deeper. Health was also a thing: how it is really undermined on so many levels, with processed foods, toxic packaging, air, soil and water pollution. It motivated me even more to continue to help people to take health into their own hands instead of relying on what society tells you, and to gear your consumer behaviour towards a more eco friendly approach.

On a personal level I finally had the time to implement some extra zero waste tricks into my household, to go to the zero waste shop more often, make more stuff myself, etc. Very happy about that!

You have 2 young adults in the house. What effect do you think the lockdown has had on them and, by extension, their generation?
They were fine. We made sure our home time was agreeable, by doing more together than ever: we tried a lot of new yummie dinner recipes, we did the spring cleaning together, we went on walks and bike tours and had long chats. What was not to like (from my point as a mum, haha). They did miss friends and social life, which I understand for their generation. My son captured it perfectly: ‘Mom, I am not making any memories…’ Memories as in: parties, festivals, get-togethers with his friends. It was hard for them that days kinda all became the same. No interruption from their routine through activities with friends. Then again, my daughter found the lockdown relaxing, too: ‘Finally, no FOMO.’ I think it was a good practice for them to understand the value of their friends, value of simplifying life, for appreciating their freedom, their education, etc.

How do you experience the crisis on a professional level? 

Billie Cup came to a stand still, obviously, as all horeca and school and business cafeterias were closed. For me it was a well-needed break. I was also curious to see if the world would still want to go for sustainability, in these economically difficult times, and I am happy to be able to say: yes. We’re getting orders again from our clients, and even some new clients. I assume too much was already in motion before corona, so it’s not going to stop. For Billie Cup, it means we just need to sharpen our strategies in order to stay ‘alive’ as a business, and scale and create more impact.

When you look at the numbers the lockdown was “good” for the environment. This especially because the cars did not do the same Km’s as usual. But was it really?

On CO2 levels: definitely. On plastic and medical waste: no. On littering: no. But I consider even the problematic stuff a good thing. The more extremes are seen and felt in daily life (better air, more littering), the more awareness around these issues arises.

Anyone can notice the amount of individual packaging in the grocery stores. How did Mei Platicvrij do during Covid 19? Does this effect your approach on the initiative for next year?
We did great, against all expectations. Less press coverage, but our online following grew exponentially, especially on Instagram. People told us that, not in spite of but because of the lockdown, (no ‘entertainment/social life’) they had more time than other years to incorporate our tips & tricks into their daily lives. The extra plastic packaging and waste during the lockdown was a motivator for our participants: they were appalled by it and this furthered their determination to tackle the problem at home. We felt people are really eager and WANT tips, tricks AND solutions. So we strongly recommend the industry to take notice: people want sustainable alternatives, but sometimes cannot find them.

Next year is next year. So much can happen still. We’ll just see where the world is by then. And we’ll adapt. To give an example: year 1 we still focused on recyclability and going shopping with your own bags, refusing straws etc. Now we have shifted to promoting reduce and reuse, leaving recycling as the next to last option, and to make-your-own. People love our DIY recipes for cleaning and personal care, esp when they discover how simple our recipes are. There is also a shift with our participants, they evolve too. For the first edition, we had to explain all the basics. Now, shampoo bars are common, baking soda and vinegar for cleaning are on a big comeback. I love that.

Covid 19 forced distance working in almost every sector. Do you think it will have a lasting effect on sustainability / environmental policy of companies and politics?
Yes. I sincerely hope we will transition to a work week where 2-3 days people will work from home, and the rest of the week at the work place, at least in the sectors where this is possible. This will have a lot more side effects, next to less traffic on the road: people using bikes for short distances around their homes, less need for ‘work clothing attire’, less take-out in urban office neighbourhoods. There will be more online shopping for sure, and more take-out / online delivery for food & beverages, but there’s a huge opportunity there to create business models using reusables like Loop in the US, Pieter Pot in Holland, ReturnR for Deliveroo etc. Working from home + the aftermath of corona might have another effect: more local products. I think the awareness has grown: shop locally, support local products & businesses, stop ordering from Chinese sites like AliBaba and sites like Amazon. I think there has been a shift in awareness when people saw how certain big corporations like Amazon just tripled their profits or fashion chains massively cancelled their orders in producer countries like Bangladesh. There starts to be more awareness around the entire supply chains, and the injustice or unsustainability of it all.

What would you do/change/introduce if tomorrow you were appointed minister of environment?
– Tax on single use packaging & financial/fiscal stimulation of reusables
– Implementation of a national Deposit Return System (statiegeld) for all bottles, cans AND plastic containers of eg cleaning products
– Stimulation of sustainable agriculture
– More trees, food forests & urban farming in the cities
– Funding of zero waste education projects for citizens
– Obligatory installation of rain wells + water collection basins for neighbourhoods which could also be used to collect the water used by construction sites
– Give each citizen AND company a certain amount of tap water at a normal tariff, and triple the price after that amount
– Tax on short distance flights (e.g. within Europe) + reduction of train tariffs
That is just what comes up in this moment. I am sure there is more haha.

How do you see the future for sustainability initiatives like Billiecup and Mei plasticvrij? Have any other plans in that area?
We are the pioneers, meaning we are doing the hard battle. Similar initiatives in five years will have it so much easier. But it cannot be stopped. I am in contact with reuse initiatives from Singapore and Canada to France and Spain. They are sprouting everywhere. It will become the new normal. Mark my words. Mei Plasticvrij will go on until we feel society/consumer behavior has changed enough to reach the tipping point of the masses.

Any tips or inspiring words for our readers on how to (keep on) be(ing) sustainable post lockdown?
Consume less. That is the bottom line. Our planet cannot hold today’s mass consumption, in terms of use of resources, energy, water and waste. Consuming less is the best favour you can do the planet. So think before you purchase: do I need this? Really need this? Use your stuff longer and repair. Reuse where possible. Support share initiatives: share a car (Partago, Cambio, Battmobil), a bike, tools (Gereedschapsbibliotheken), or buy second hand. Don’t think your actions don’t count. Not buying / sharing / buying local is sending a signal to the industry! Buying is voting! For more practical tips I can recommend everyone to visit our website or browse through our Instagram. It is loaded with easy peasy tips!

Check out Mei Plasticvrij on Instagram. Follow Billie Cup on Instagram.