Free bike, anyone?
Living for free: a community thriving by recycling other people's waste
'Recycling' has become something of an empty phrase these days, with much of what we discard being 'down-cycled' rather than properly re-used or re-purposed. So it's very refreshing to hear about a community that not only meets its own needs through recycling, but even gives away surplus from their activities to the surrounding community...
We are now a month into our epic global family film journey documenting active and replicable solutions in all areas of permaculture design. Our recent trip to the Plukrijp community made a strong impression on us. Situated in Schriek, Belgium, this small farm has developed into a thriving community hub over the last few years and offers solutions in various aspects of Permaculture design. Most notable, however, is the way this community lives at virtually no cost. Around 4000 people pass through here a year in addition to a 15 strong community, and the running costs have been reduced to gas for cooking and water rates!
Frank Rumen has farmed organic vegetables for over 30 years on this site, and his experience working in wholesale organic food alongside his vegetable box scheme has been key to creating the Plukrijp model. The site is 2 ha and has four 60m polytunnels and a larger greenhouse for salad and vegetable production, strip planted forest gardens and another field across the road with wheat, pumpkin, potato and orchard trees.
Frank has worked the tunnels long enough with mixed polycultures that the tunnels now self seed spontaneously, and with a quick glance I can see 15 varieties of salad in a single square meter. The business side of production ceased as the unique community model arose and the need for ultra intensive cropping disappeared, yet the farm still produces far more food than the Plukrijp inhabitants require for themselves.
The chickens and geese are kept in netted pens joined by hundreds of meters of netted tunnels that run the entire perimeter of the fields. Frank has designed this in to ensure weeds do not encroach from the neighboring land and has overplanted the tunnels with Jerusalem artichoke, berries and other fodder, creating a multifunctional system producing fodder and yielding crops whilst keeping edges of the field clean and allowing the birds much greater freedom. Good design!
On the land, Frank is also experimenting with sowing wheat as single plants at wide spacing. We look at his test plots, using 1/10th of the seed of conventional plantings, and his single plants seem much healthier and vibrant than the conventionally sown wheat right alongside. Still in its experimental phase, it reminds me of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) that is spreading over SE Asia and which produces hardier, higher yielding and better quality rice grains with 1/10th the seed and only a fraction of the water (flooded just at the right time of year for weed disturbance) so I can imagine this to be a useful strategy. Frank says that by allowing an individual plant full self expression it can produce up to 40 seed heads. And, because it is photosynthesizing right down to the base the plant, it become mroe vigorous and resilient than a conventionally sown plant.
The land based enterprise aside, the most lasting impression that Plukrijp made on us was the way that Frank and the community have developed resilience and beneficial connections with surrounding communities through conventional waste streams. Over more than 30 years Frank has cultivated his connections in the organic wholesale sector, and applied this in all areas of his life, to create an incredibly abundant, minimal cost lifestyle for all that live at and visit Plukrijp.
Any wholesale food within a 50km radius that has passed its sell-by-date or that is too close to ripening is brought here and are either stored, processed or given away. The morning we arrive Frank picks up 25kg of asparagus, 60kg of onions, 60kg of potatoes and several crates of tomatoes, cauliflower and bananas. It is all certified organic, top quality produce and everything is as you would expect on sale at a farmers market, save a few softening tomatoes. And this happens every week! We are shown around the store, where an array of huge chest freezers preserve all manner of breads, vegetables and meats along with food that has been cooked or processed if too close to ripening for immediate consumption due to the sheer volume. Several fridges are full of dairy items and refrigerated goods. The array of fridges and freezers are all powered by their solar set up; storage space appears to be the only limiting factor!
Designing at scale
From a design perspective, Frank has successfully 'scaled' his solution. By going to the 'middle men' in the organic sector, Frank has cultivated contacts and links to the point where nearly all the community's needs are met without cost, at little effort and to stunning proportions. To me it feels a bit like the difference between shopping organic in a health food shop and organizing our own bulk organic food orders with friends: by going to the larger source you can tap into a different level of abundance, then share the surplus with whoever needs it.
On vast racking around the freezers there is 200l of olive oil (a year out of date), jars of pickles and preserves made from the farms crops, as well as all manner of organic wholefoods, the oldest of which are 20 years out of date! And yet still safely consumed by the Plukrijp inhabitants.
Turning waste into wealth
Frank has applied his philosophy to all areas of the public waste stream over the years. For him it's all about cultivating relationships, communicating needs and spreading awareness both of what they are doing and why they are doing it. One morning we help move clay: 40 tons in bags picked up as waste from well digging, now destined to make a great slip around multiple ponds on this highly sandy soil. Frank explains that he stops whenever he sees anything that someone is disposing of and explains what he does. Sometimes people do not want to rid themselves of their scrap, perceiving some inherent value, and so he returns later - sometimes a year later - often to find that it is still there. He's been doing it so long most people actually come to him now, glad that someone can take their 'refuse' away.
There is a free 'shop' here too: hundreds of boxes of clothes, implements and odds and ends, in addition to two barns packed full of 'scrap' - discarded working appliances, dozens of bikes, steel, tools, furniture, glazing and endless lengths of timber. Its all free, and people come here from all over to find whatever they need for projects.
Except for the original house, all of the community buildings incorporate materials gleaned from demolition sites and scrap yards. The main community space houses a rocket stove that heats a 20 ton thermal mass, a rocket stove sauna and passive glazed solar heating on the south side. Despite being three stories high this building was constructed at a a much lower cost than a conventional structure of this magnitude. Parts of supermarkets, industrial units and greenhouses have all been adapted into thoughtful and creative architecture!
Knowledge for all
We stack a couple of pallets of free fresh organic produce in the community library - every other space is now full - and peruse the thousands of books collected from garbage. It's what makes this place unique for me. There are deliveries to other groups and communities and 'give away' markets in nearby cities for people to just take free, fresh and high quality organic produce when there is excess.
Applying Plukrijp elsewhere
Obviously this model can only be replicated to a certain degree, but there are still millions of tons of food around the world that end up in landfill every year. It is so refreshing to us to experience this example, especially as we sit down to a dinner of fresh salad picked an hour earlier, soup from vegetables gleaned from the waste stream, and huge loaves of beautiful bread from a delicatessen organic bakery in Brussels. Frank's mother is 96 and the youngest at the table is just one year old, yet all are listened to and supported. Meals here are always community affairs, with laughter, conversation and exchanges followed by group song ringing around the room until bedtime.
We leave amazed at the potential to engage with surrounding communities in this multifunctional and beneficial way. This is certainly the most organized and shining example of valuing the marginal in this regard I have heard about or experienced, and I depart grateful for the possibilities Plukrijp represents.
Richard Perkins is a highly regarded permaculture teacher and designer in the UK and abroad, and Director of Integralpermanence.org Design Services. Currently on a global family film adventure experiencing and documenting Permaculture solutions around the globe, you can follow their adventures through film and blog at http://www.impermanencefilm.org