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#Gamechangers by ABN AMRO: Jalila Essaïdi

16 October 2019

Sewage sludge. Sounds anything but appetising! It’s pretty disgusting stuff – the sludge of fats and oils from food and cosmetics which we wash down the drain every single day. Although filthy, it’s the main ingredient in a product recently designed by artist and entrepreneur Jalila Essaïdi. Indeed, at ABN AMRO’s Game Changers Experience, she’s presenting the world’s very first candles made from sewage sludge. Not only do they look lovely on a dining room table, but they also provide a solution to a pressing problem. Water authorities are having an increasingly difficult time processing sewage sludge. And the candles give this waste a new use.

A romantic dinner for two by sludge candlelight

Making candles out of sewage sludge – it sounds rather unlikely, doesn’t it?

“Yes, I’ll admit it’s not exactly obvious. In fact, I came up with the idea when two separate stakeholders came knocking on my door one right after the other. De Dommel water authority had asked me to participate in a discussion they were having about waste stream processing. After waste water is purified, a thick layer of sludge is left behind – a mixture of muck and bacteria. On top of that, there’s a thick layer of fats and oils. At the moment, all this is just incinerated in waste processors, which is expensive and adds no value at all. The water authority was interested to find out if they could put all that sludge to better use. A little later, I was in touch with a candle manufacturer who was on the lookout for alternative raw materials. So it was basically just a matter of putting the two together.”

Yes, but how in the world do you turn such a stinking mess into a cosy living room candle?

“There really is nothing more disgusting than human sewage. It smells awful, and it’s got all sorts of things floating around in it. First, the water authority gave me a load of sludge. My team and I then had to sift out all the mess. Luckily, we had just the right equipment because we’d extracted raw materials from cow manure for clothing in the past. We then used a chemical and mechanical process to separate the fats and oils and used the oils to produce the oil candle that’s now on display at ABN AMRO’s Game Changers Experience. And – just for the record – it’s completely odourless.”

Wow… Clothing made from cow manure, candles from sewage sludge – what reactions do you get from people when they hear about your products?

“They’re usually repulsed at first. But not after they actually see with their own eyes the materials we’ve managed to extract. In fact, all we’re doing is reclaiming valuable raw materials so that they can be reused. Sewage sludge and cow manure are seen as dirty, while pure vegetable oils and cellulose for textiles aren’t. Plus more and more people are starting to realise just how out of balance our current system really is. I mean, today the situation is such that all the most valuable materials are extracted so we can wear them on our faces for a single day, only to wash them straight down the drain. I guess when you look at it that way, maybe candles made from sewage sludge aren’t so strange after all.”

What role do you see designers and artists playing in the transition to sustainability?

“I think our strength lies in the connections we’re able to make. By definition, water authorities and candle manufacturers operate in completely different worlds. Rarely, if ever, do they have any contact with each other. But when you bring them together, new perspectives and solutions suddenly emerge. I think it also means that as designers we have to look beyond our own disciplines. After all, we’re currently in the transition from the Anthropocene, the age of humans, to the Symbiocene, in which humans, nature and technology will work together in harmony. Confining yourself to one narrow field won’t help us in this process, but crossing over into other areas will.”

ABN AMRO has named you a game changer at Dutch Design Week (DDW19). How do you feel about that?

“Obviously, I’m pleased that the candle has been given a platform, but I think it’s more important for ABN AMRO to call attention to sustainable design. The Game Changers Experience is all about an urgent problem: our system is at breaking point, and we have to look at production and consumption in a different way. Awareness is growing. Five years ago, sustainability was not the theme it is today at Dutch Design Week. Fortunately, so many designers are now focusing on recycling and bio-based materials. There’s also a growing interest among consumers about where their products come from. That said, we still have a long way to go, particularly when it comes to upscaling. Maybe it’s time for a business accelerator for bio-design, like the ones we see so often in the tech sector.”

What does your own Dutch Design Week look like?

“Busy! In addition to being a game changer, I’m a DDW19 ambassador, so I’ll be attending the opening, leading discussions, giving a keynote speech and making a TV appearance. Plus BioArt Laboratories, which I founded, will be presenting a much larger exhibition and a related event called the Symbiocene Forest. But I do hope to get a chance to stop by the Game Changers Experience as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to the sewage candle.”