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Circular Innovators: A Chat with Steven Keulemans, Fungi Factory

By Tess Holmgren

How we produce food and handle waste are important topics of today, and Utrecht-based enterprise Fungi Factory is tackling both issues by using spent coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms.

Fungi Factory co-founder Steven Keulemans will lead a workshop at the Green Student Bootcamp Challenge’s session in Utrecht on Friday 17 May, where participants will learn about mycelium and Fungi Factory’s circular solutions for growing mushrooms with waste.

In advance of this session, I connected with Steven to find out what students can expect from his workshop and what he feels is important to have a healthy life in the city.

Please tell us about your organisation, its inspiration and goals.

We were originally inspired by the book ‘The Blue Economy’ by Gunter Pauli, who really inspired people to look at things differently by showing how we can learn from the natural world’s clever ways of handling challenges. One thing he mentions is using coffee waste to grow oyster mushrooms and after chatting to my co-founders Martijn and Erik, we thought that Utrecht needed an initiative like this. So that’s how we started growing oyster mushrooms on coffee waste. Our goal is to use as much coffee waste and grow as many oyster mushrooms as possible. We want to inspire people and companies to look differently at waste, and for waste in Utrecht to be used to make new products.

Without revealing too much about what’s in store, what can we expect from your participation in this year’s Green Student Bootcamp Challenge?

We will be talking a bit about the role of mycelium in nature and how we use mycelium in our business model. We also want to explain how our business model is inspired by the interactions we see in nature, and we want to show everyone how to grow their own oyster mushrooms at home, which is easier than it sounds!

What do you hope participating students will take away from the experience?

We want to inspire students that a lot of good things are happening in businesses at the moment, not only in theory but also in practice – that there are things actually being done that make a difference. We hope to inspire students to see that they can really implement the things they learn during their studies, hopefully some of them will do so by starting their own sustainable business around something they like. Which will inspire others, and themselves, to start making a difference in the world.

How do you see our relationship with nature and with our environment?

That’s a broad question. If by ‘our’ you mean mankind’s then I think we are fitting in less and less. One of the main problems for the way humans look at nature at the moment is that we think we can control nature. We think of nature as our commodity which we can do with as we please, and we are also not looking at the long-term relationship with nature because most of us want to make a short-term profit. There could be a reason for this, for instance to make money to raise our children well but still, even in this situation we are only talking about one generation. In short, I think we are being short-sighted in how we make use of the natural world.

Has your work and/or research changed the way you lead your life? If so, how?

Actually, the way I look at the world and lead my life is the reason I changed my job.  After 12 years working in a bank, I thought I wanted to do something different and I am now a mushroom farmer! It was a slow process and there were a few moments during my twelve-year career where I thought I needed a change and it didn’t happen for one reason or another. After a reshuffling at work I thought it was a good opportunity to force myself to make the change.

What does healthy urban living mean to you?

I think healthy urban living means to be respectful to nature. By that I mean not to look at it as a commodity with which we can do as we please and to recognise that everything in nature serves a purpose. It’s especially important to do so in an urban environment because it isn’t inherently a healthy place. If we take care to this by, for instance, not using too much water, being wise in our energy consumption, or eating healthy I think we can contribute to a liveable city. To me it also means to inspire others and the next generation to take care of themselves and their environment by giving a good example.

Green Educators: A Chat with Karin van Toor, IVN & Tiny Forest

By Tess Holmgren

On Friday 17 May the Green Student Bootcamp Challenge takes place at Utrecht University in collaboration with Green Office Utrecht. This session takes us into the forest where we will explore the interconnected world of trees and mycelium with IVN & Fungi Factory.

IVN is a national Dutch nature education organisation that works to connect all generations to the wonder and joy of the natural world. Students will learn from Karin van Toor from IVN how they to make a Tiny Forest‘ in their own back garden, on campus or in their neighbourhood. Karin is the first person in the Netherlands to plant a Tiny Forest in her back garden. She is passionate about the concept of Tiny Forests and the opportunities they create for healthier urban environments. In advance of our session at Utrecht University, I spoke with Karin and learned what students can expect from a Tiny Forest workshop…

Please tell us about your organisation, its inspiration and goals. 

I volunteer with IVN which stands for In Voor Natuur, and our goal is to get people into nature so they can fully experience nature. Essentially, we want to bring nature closer to home. A tiny forest is a manmade forest about the size of a tennis court, densely planted with trees and plants indigenous to the area. The idea of a Tiny Forest was first inspired by Japanese tree expert Akira Miyawaki who devised a successful method of restoring indigenous forests and prevent land degradation. This idea was then translated by Shubhendu Sharma from India into an urban context. Daan Bleichrodt introduced the concept to the Netherlands, so children living in cities can experience nature more easily. Our hope is that Tiny Forests will bring people together. For this to be successful it is important for us to know when we plant a Tiny Forest that, firstly, it is wanted by the local community and secondly that there is a neighbourhood and/or school attached to it because this encourages a sense of custodianship. When people feel connected and responsible the space is used and cared for and so becomes a great place for people to connect to each other as well: it becomes an extension of their home, a starting point for a run, a place to have coffee, a place for children to learn and play.

Without revealing too much about what’s in store, what can we expect from your participation in this year’s Green Student Bootcamp Challenge?

A message about the ways in which we can all contribute to creating positive change. How we can all contribute something small for the better. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about climate change, for instance, but I am hoping to show that small actions from many can amount to significant change.

What do you hope participating students will take away from the experience?

Hope. And also a sense that everybody can contribute something, that together we can do a lot when we come together.

How do you see our relationship with nature and with our environment?

We are nature – the grass and the flowers and the trees are our cousins, nephews and nieces. Also, I think we often forget that nature can survive without us but we cannot survive without nature, which is important and humbling to remember.

Has your work and/or research changed the way you lead your life? If so, how?

I was the first private person in the Netherlands to create a Tiny Forest in my back garden. When I first moved into my house there were only non-indigenous trees and not a lot of fauna. I wanted it to be biodiverse and more alive so when I was introduced to the idea of a Tiny Forest I was inspired and thought this seemed a simple way to make a big change. Now a few years later it’s full of life- there are surely 60 or more kinds of birds there. I wouldn’t necessarily say that volunteering for the IVN has changed my path per se, but it has inspired me to stay and continue on the same path I was already on.

What does healthy urban living mean to you?

Well firstly I do not live in the city, but I think in order to live healthily in the city we need to feel more. By that I mean we should live less in our heads and live more in our feelings, our sensations. If we really pay attention to how we feel we would quickly notice how bad it feels the take a breath after a diesel car passes and how much cooler the city is on a hot day because of the shade of the trees. If we were really in touch with these feelings, I think we would make healthier choices.

For information on the Green Student Bootcamp Challenge and how to join the Utrecht session, please see:

http://greenlivinglab.org/2019/04/11/announcing-the-programme-for-the-green-student-bootcamp-challenge-netherlands-tour/

More information on Tiny forests can be found on IVN’s website at https://www.ivn.nl/tinyforest