In 2012, Metabolic and partners began renovating a derelict shipyard in Amsterdam’s Buiksloterham neighborhood, upcycling 17 old houseboats into office buildings, installing solar panels and sowing soil-cleaning plants.

In a natural ecosystem, such as a forest, nothing goes to waste. Every material that a living thing excretes or discards, and everything that dies or decomposes, becomes food or shelter for other organisms, allowing the cycles of life to continue.

A photo of Eva Gladek

Eva Gladek ’05

Major: Biology

Her company works toward an
economy that is waste-free and
regenerative by design.

Eva Gladek ’05 believes human cities and industries should work the same way. Metabolic, the business she founded in the Netherlands in 2012, promotes innovation toward a circular economy, “broadly defined as an economy that is waste-free and regenerative by design,” she says.

Take just one of Metabolic’s many ventures: De Ceuvel, an experimental Amsterdam office park that was featured on PBS NewsHour in May. Built on the site of a polluted and derelict shipyard, De Ceuvel now features office spaces made from retrofitted houseboats. Solar panels power the structures, and fish waste and human urine are collected and processed into fertilizer to grow herbs for the site’s café, whose popularity with tourists has surprised even the people who designed it; Gladek calls it a “hipster heaven” that, in the summer, attracts more than 1,000 visitors per day.

Metabolic has worked on some 400 other projects to date, consulting with businesses—including the Duracell battery company and Alpro almond drink producers—on how to become more efficient, sustainable and circular. And they do the same for cities. In 2017, they partnered with a delegation from Charlotte, N.C., to strategize ways in which thousands of tons of garbage that the city sends to landfills could be rerouted to create economic value and job opportunities—concrete and glass from demolition sites, for instance, can be recycled into new building materials. Gladek says there’s now an “Innovation Barn” under construction in Charlotte to showcase these ideas and provide training in circular entrepreneurship.

The resulting “circular living lab,” De Ceuvel, includes the offices of 30 companies, an aquaponics greenhouse and a café. The site attracts more than 35,000 visitors a year.

Today, Metabolic includes a nonprofit foundation to promote community-driven development of impoverished urban areas; a venture called Spectral, focused on the global transition to 100 percent renewable energy; and an arm called Systemic, which develops software to support sustainable design. The business she founded, Gladek says, has rapidly grown into more than just one company: “Now it’s really an ecosystem of companies.”

Both this ecosystem metaphor and the name Metabolic are nods to Gladek’s academic background. She began working in science labs as a teenager in New York City and concentrated on molecular genetics in college. But an Amherst course called “Extinction,” co-taught by now-emeritus environmental studies professor Jan Dizard and biology professor Patrick Williamson, broadened her perspective. “In the process of learning more about the crisis-level situation that humans have created on the planet, I got more and more concerned about those types of issues,” she says. “I just felt that I had to refine my skills in a different way to address a lot of these societal challenges.”

So, after graduation and a brief research stint at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Gladek took a turn into science communications, writing news pieces for NBC, ABC and the Discovery network. Her articles on climate change and mass extinction, though, didn’t gain as much media attention or spur as big a response as she hoped. She realized, “I can’t just tell people about these issues. I have to actually get in on the action.”

Above: Metabolic helped develop the sustainability plan for Schoonschip, a neighborhood that floats on a canal in Amsterdam North, featur-ing solar power, rooftop gardens and wastewater recycling.

This led her to a master’s in industrial ecology from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, then to the Netherlands to co-found a sustainability consultancy called Except. Metabolic took root a few years later.

Marian Chertow, one of Gladek’s professors in graduate school, is now director of Yale’s Center for Industrial Ecology. She visited Metabolic headquarters in May and compares it favorably to many other endeavors in the field, which blends environmental science with engineering, social science and management. “The combination of innovative ideas, the mix of designers, engineers, and industrial ecologists, and the knowledge and enthusiasm they bring, place Eva and Metabolic at the leading edge,” she says.

As part of a project called Prospecting the Urban Mines of Amsterdam, Metabolic helped to map out the metal content of some of the city’s buildings and estimate its value for future recovery and reuse.

At the end of the NewsHour segment, which presents several Dutch businesses’ nascent efforts to usher in a circular economy, Gladek acknowledges the global stakes for society: “I guess you can think it’s a utopian pipe dream, but if we don’t make certain drastic changes to how we’re operating, we’re really going to run into some serious existential problems,” she says. “And I think striving for a utopia is a really great thing to do with your life.”

Duke is Amherst magazine’s assistant editor.

Photos: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Courtesy of Metabolic