Dave Hakkens On Tackling The World's Plastic Waste Problem & Creating Initiatives That Change The World
Dave Hakkens is a 28 year old designer from the Netherlands. he lives and work in a place called Helmond.
Although he is trained as a industrial designer he also loves to build machinery and videos.
His goal is simple: "try to make the world better by making things". Whether it's an inspirational video, machines to recycle plastic or a phone concept, it doesn’t really matter. As long as it might push the world in a better direction he is interested.
Dave talks about his journey so far with Precious Plastic, as well as sharing his insights on the internet as a tool for creating positive social impact and how best to turn ideas into outcomes that change the world for the better.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Rachel Stevens] - To kick things off, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you down the path of social entrepreneurship? [1:43]
[Dave Hakkens] - All right, so I studied at the design academy in Eindhoven which is a school about design. I honestly had never really thought of doing something socially, like social entrepreneurship, but I guess at that school I started thinking, 'you design stuff, so you make things, but what makes sense to make?' I think the social elements just made more sense to me.
Not just designing super fancy products, but more, stuff that might tackle problems.
For our listeners who maybe don't know about the work you're doing, could you tell us a bit more about what Precious Plastic is? [2:22]
Precious Plastic is a set of machines to recycle plastic so you can trap the plastic, melt it and create something new. I guess the interesting part about it is that we share all the blueprints, open source, online for free, so everyone can download them and watch instructional videos of how to build the machine. That way they can really build it themselves locally and start to clean up the plastic in the environment because the plastic problem is all over the world. So you need people all over the world to work on it.
It's one thing of course to have an idea, but it's another thing to actually be able to commit to it. This all began as a graduation project, how and what made you decide to continue on with Precious Plastic? [3:00]
Well, I think if you had of told me back then that I would work four years on plastic, I probably wouldn't have done it. It is still interesting to me though, but it started as a graduation project, just making some machines to recycle plastic. Then some people over the world built them as well because I shared the drawings but it was only two people. I figured it's not really enough. I mean the plastic problem is everywhere. So I made a new version about a year later with better machines, better instruction manuals, better blueprints and then we saw more people getting started. It was around about 100 but still not enough, I mean plastic is really everywhere! So I figured that maybe we need to build another version. We released that about half a year ago, version 3 and we've seen way more people getting started again. So I think I just keep on going every time because I sort of hope it's finished or has tackled the problem, but it's not. So then you just do the next step. I would say it's still interesting for me because on the one hand, you get to build machines, but you also really work in an online community, building that place and making videos, so it's very diverse and it has lots of different elements. So that all keeps me excited about it!
That's really exciting to have seen so much growth between the first, second and third versions. The internet has obviously been a huge key to your ability to spread your work on such a global scale. Your Phonebloks concept spread like wildfire, gaining massive attention internationally. Google picked it up (and put it down again). But on top of that, it's been an incredible facilitator of this online community that you're building, so that Precious Plastic can continue to grow and evolve even without your help.
What advice would you have for others who want to use the internet as a similar kind of a tool or platform in the way that you have? [4:39]
I think that's one of the things I noticed when I studied design. Often you make something and you publish it online, a lot of people get excited and then you have to tell them it doesn't exist yet or is it just an idea.
On the other hand though you've harvested a lot of energy from people that want to do something about it.
If you don't really have a platform in place though, you can't really do anything with it. It's more like you've got a lot of emails, but that's it.
I really noticed this with Phonebloks as well. So for Precious Plastic, we really want to enable people that want to do something, to really give them the tools so they can do it themselves. That means we needed to set up infrastructure like setting up online forums for instance. This way people talk to each other instead of you getting a lot of emails! Another option is an online marketplace where people can buy and sell stuff. I think that's one of the main things we actually tried to do; it's trying to get people's energy so that they can actually use it to facilitate that process, and the internet is a super powerful tool to do that, to connect everyone together.
We've already spoken a little bit about Precious Plastic, but can you tell us a little more about what the Phonebloks concept was as well? [6:13]
So Phonebloks was basically an idea for a modular phone. Nowadays if you have a phone after two years it gets old or something breaks, you throw it away and it causes a lot of waste. I figured maybe it makes sense to look into the topic. So I created this modular phone, but while doing that I realised it's super complex to make a phone. How do you even make a phone? I mean it's a multi-million dollar business and I was studying back then, I was just one guy. So I put it online hoping that other companies would make it or that if people supported the idea that companies realised maybe there is a market and we should make a phone like this. People got excited and Google was one of the companies to work on that, with project Ara as they call their phone. But they quit; well they stopped making a few other projects like Google Glasses as well. But you also saw other companies making more modular phones too. LG released a modular phone. Fairphone is modular. I think that was sort of the goal behind that project. By having an idea for an alternative kind of phone I was trying to inspire a new industry to make it. So it's nice to see people or companies taking it on and making their version of a modular phone.
It's another really nice example of how you've used the internet as that platform to spread the idea and to spread that excitement around the work too... [7:41]
Yeah. The only downside there for me was that you would still rely on companies to build it. Like Google, if they would say, 'we are stopping making it' then you're like, 'alright, damn it, I can't do anything about it.'
Whereas Precious Plastic is really about the people, everyday people in society that build it, so it can't really stop.
I mean if one person stops that's ok because there are a lot of other people continuing, which I think takes longer to set up, but it's much stronger as a foundation for community.
Yeah. You had a really interesting journey with Phonebloks and you've also had a fascinating journey financing, Precious Plastic. How have you made it all work and what's been the biggest learning curve for you both financially and from a partnership perspective? [8:22]
I haven't really figured out the business part of my project because everything I do, I share open source online for free. I like it when stuff is accessible. A guy in the middle of Africa can download the blueprints to build this recycling machine for free, because if you need to pay even one euro he probably wouldn't do it. So we always rely on people funding it, on the one end through donations, but I also have a Patrion so people can really support monthly, which is quite a steady income. But for instance, from version 3 of Precious Plastic we had a lot of things and a plan we want to execute and it was a lot of work. We had limited budget and also a limited team. I mean it's just a few of us doing this so we needed more. We just put the entire plan online about what we wanted to do and asked people to help out. It was quite a shitty offer because we asked them to come to the Netherlands to my workspace. They had to pay their own ticket, find a place to sleep and work and we couldn't pay them anything because we didn't have anything. But even that people did! We had people from Mexico, Iceland, Poland, Spain, they just came to help out. I like to explore that as well, that it's not necessarily about making money or hiring people, but really like 'what if you build it with this community?' So you give a lot but people also give stuff back, which means the team was super motivated because they made a lot of effort to come here. So I didn't really have to do anything, I just said this is the plan and everyone would just full on work on it. I really liked that, that way of working. So it's kind of a weird way of doing business I guess but so far it's been nice.
I'm sure that would attract a really excited and passionate team as well, which would be nice to work with. [10:27]
Exactly! Every morning they were up earlier than me and they would stay longer. I mean it's just a matter of needing to guide everyone a little bit so that they go to the same direction and so what they're doing all makes sense but the motivation is insane.
So what have been some of the key challenges that you've come up against in the project until now? [10:47]
I think overall, growth has just been a difficult one because on the one hand you work with global problems and the world is pretty big. But like I said, with two people running Precious Plastic, it's not a lot so we sort of need to streamline everything. But the more people that want to do something and download stuff and connect with each other, you need to make sure you can manage that. I think that gets more intense with every version. So the more people get excited and get started, the more they rely on communication tools for instance, or a place to sell and buy their stuff. So that's always been challenging I would say.
You launched version 3, at Dutch Design Week in October last year. Have you got any plans for version 4 for yet or is it too soon? [11:34]
I like the process. So you put everything online and then you just wait to see what the community does. It always takes a few weeks before they get it all and you see people start building. Then you also get feedback and we're now in that time and so we draft it out like a lot of things, use feedback, suggestions and tips for the new version. So yeah we have been mapping out what version 4 for would look like but so far looking at it, it's going to be a big one. We have a lot of things and like I said, it gets bigger every time so it gets more complex every time as well, which is fun, but it also requires much more people to make it, much more money, much more material. We're now looking into what will be solid thing for us that we can actually achieve, because that's always the challenge.
You could have a brilliant idea but if you don't have the resources to execute it, nothing happens.
So we always tried to find that balance and what can we actually do and what's the best thing we should do.
So in version 2 you guys went to Kenya and for version 3 you set up a Precious Plastic pilot in Chile. Will they update to version 4 when it gets to that stage or will they continue on with the versions that you guys were able to establish there? [12:51]
Usually people can just download everything; open source and online for free and then build it. We don't usually get involved. However, every now and then we do a few pilot projects around the world where we actually set it up ourselves. So we're on the ground, we experience what its like to set it up in that environment, what kind of tools do they use, what kind of materials are available, just for us to really learn. If we want to provide blueprints for people, we want to make sure that everyone in the world can actually use them. We haven't been everywhere, but we've tried to map out a few tactical places and so on the one hand we went to Kenya in Africa, we went to Chile in South America and now we're going to do one more in Bangladesh probably and one more in the Maldives, which is on the islands and are super remote. So we tried to find places that have completely different environments and tools and materials and people just to learn a lot from that. So that's why we do these pilot projects.
It's a very diverse group of places for you guys to set up all the pilots. I'm sure they each come with a really different set of challenges. [14:09]
Well that's what we hope. So the moment we set up one in Kenya, we got another request from someone else in Tanzania, but then we're not really that interested because we've kind of seen that environment. We know the challenges there, so we'd rather do a completely different spot.
How do you think design education could change to help give students a stronger understanding of the social and environmental issues we face as well as forming designers, which don't just understand them but designed to counteract them? [14:34]
I think for me, what helped was to really go out there. You can learn a lot and read it in books and the teacher's going to tell you these things, but the moment you set foot in a slum in India, it changes your perspective.
You really experience stuff that you could see in a book, but it's different if you really see it with your own eyes. I think that's also when you really, (as a designer at least), start seeing solutions super quickly, in a way that other people might not see it. You can instantly apply your creative mind to the challenges you see. That always helped a lot for me, to really just go out and experience the real world and not in the internet world or the book world.
Go and see what people do in their daily life and how they behave and what could be improved.
Do you have any other advice for students listening who might want to use their careers to make positive social or environmental impact in the world? [15:40]
Don't get too scared about making money, earning a living or making sure you have retirement funds, because I think there are a lot of reasons to not do something, but I think the world is getting easier. People understand it more if you want to do something for the environment. It might have been weird 15 years ago, but it gets more and more that people understand that.
I think we need to stick with that and just go for it, because in the end that gives you good energy and gets you out of bed every morning. I think that's much more important than having a decent salary or buying a fancy car. So I would say always do the thing that motivates you.
Are there any inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across recently which you think are creating some exciting, positive change? [16:39]
I would say there are quite a lot. I haven't already gotten one on the top of my mind to be honest, but I think it's this global consciousness that you see more and more people working toward, which is hopeful. It's not always about the biggest project or the one you see most in the media, but sometimes it's just people on the street that you see doing something nice or picking up some trash. You just see people getting more aware everywhere around the world so I think that that's a hopeful thing.
To finish off, could you please recommend a few great reads for our audience? [17:21]
I rarely read books. Rarely. I think the last book I read was The Story of Stuff and that was about eight years ago. I would still highly recommend that book, although they also have a movie so I would recommend that even more. Usually I get knowledge from on the one hand just being on the spot or watching documentaries.
In that case, do you have any documentaries you'd recommend? [17:49]
I actually made a list in our online community in our forum, because I often get this question. I always forget them so I've mapped them out there and categorised them for food, for fashion, for waste, for all these topics that I'm interested in. So if you really want to see my recommendations, they are all listed there and I also ask people to share their documentaries, because sometimes I just don't find them either if I'm busy with other stuff. So I like it when people are giving me tips as well.