The 2023 Visionary Awards Disruptor of the Year: Joost Bakker

The Melbourne-based florist-turned-zero-waste-activist wants to save the world. His work asks the public to help him do it.

Article by Anthony Ham

Joost Bakker_1Joost Bakker is surrounded by bales of recycled denim sourced from clothing waste. He says: “I believe our clothing can be — and should be — circular.” Photography by Nic Walker.

I’ve been speaking with Joost Bakker for hours when I ask him: “What’s the worst thing anyone could say to you?” His face breaks into a broad smile. “That something can’t be done,” he replies.

Joost (pronounced “yost”, as in “toast”) defies easy classification. When people ask him what he does for a living, he tells them he is a florist or an artist, which he is. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Over the past two decades, Bakker has opened the world’s first zero-waste restaurant, built a house that grows its own food — which goes to the heart of a philosophy he describes as “future food systems” — and has simultaneously advised and sought a revolution within industries as diverse as construction, agriculture, hospitality and energy. He is currently in talks with Ye (formerly Kanye West) to retrofit a home in Malibu to be entirely self-sustaining.

He has also proved to be a master of the media stunt. Once, he filled a Melbourne tram with 60,000 takeaway coffee cups (which is the number of cups Melburnian coffee drinkers throw away every half-hour). Another time, he worked with the brand Kathmandu to create a walk-through installation in the city’s Federation Square that contained three tonnes of textile waste (the volume of clothing discarded in Australia every five minutes). Before that, in 2018, without permission from Melbourne City Council, he filled Hosier Lane with 35,000 tulips to highlight the dangers that unregulated imports pose to local industries; it was such a hit with the public that the council asked him to do it again.

Perhaps it is easier to say this: Bakker wants to save the world and his work asks the public to help him do it.

His desire for change began early. Bakker was born in Holland where, he remembers, “If you fell in the canals as a kid, you’d be straight to the doctor or the hospital. That’s how toxic it was.” His family immigrated to Australia when he was nine, and at 12 he was already dreaming of building an entirely sustainable home. (Some 40 years after his family left Holland, he returned to find children swimming in those waterways, something that “really gives me hope for the future”, he says.)

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The media stuntman gets to work at a friend’s factory, where he’s been experimenting with converting plastic waste into crude oil and ethanol. Photography by Nic Walker.

In 1993, at age 20, Bakker established a cut-flower business that would become his entry point to the world of hospitality. One of his first collaborations was with a mushroom importer. “He was obsessed with mushrooms; I was obsessed with flowers,” he says. “We used to hold meetings on the dance floor at the Chevron.”

Waste was another obsession. Not content with just selling flowers, Bakker created art installations in restaurants across Melbourne. Built with flowers, natural matter and recycled “waste”, they showcased the raw materials of the Joostian manifesto. On a trip to the races in the early aughts, he became both fascinated and appalled — in equal measure — at the conspicuous consumption and astonishing amount of waste created for just a few days of revelry. It inspired a mission that he’s still tweaking.

In 2008, he decided to open a restaurant without a rubbish bin. When he mentioned the idea in a media interview, the journalist dared to suggest that such a thing couldn’t exist. Bakker was aghast. “What do you mean ‘can’t exist’? Of course it can exist!

It exists in nature. Why can’t we be like nature?” In the years that followed, Bakker fine-tuned the idea and, in 2012, he launched Silo (later called Brothl), the world’s first zero-waste restaurant.

The inner-city Melbourne restaurant survived until 2015, when a dispute with the council over the compost bin led to its closure. But Bakker was already growing restless and, having proved zero waste was possible, he was looking for the next challenge. Today, such restaurants are popping up all over the world but, as ever, things are moving too slowly for Bakker’s liking. “It frustrates me that zero waste has not yet become mainstream,” he says.

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The environmentalist is photographed in the Yarra Ranges at the former Monbulk jam factory, which will soon open to the public as Circular World. Photography by Nic Walker.

When I first met Bakker, in 2021, it was in his Greenhouse beside Federation Square. Equal parts residence, culinary adventure and display home of the future, Greenhouse had no foundations, but stayed in place thanks to the weight of the soil used to grow 300 different kinds of plants, from foods to bug repellents. The house was not connected to the grid: it generated its own electricity. It was, in fact, a little like exploring the inside of Bakker’s brain with its whirl of self- sustaining ideas, from the naturally functioning ecosystem by the stairs to the aquaculture, aquaponics and closed-loop recycling of waste that produced the methane used for cooking. Some 24 species of mushroom grew on one wall. Countless strawberries were on another. There were barramundi and yabbies and freshwater mussels. Recycled World War II-era batteries helped keep the lights on. And every building material was naturally sourced, even the glue that held together the dining table.

Two years later, I eat lunch with Bakker on the terrace of his Monbulk home, in Melbourne’s outer east. Beyond the rosemary and crabapples and pistachios — “I’ve planted this place so that every week of the year, I’ve got something different to pick,” he says — the view sweeps across a valley to the eucalypt forests on the slopes of Mount Dandenong.

It can be difficult to keep up with Bakker. When we talk, his mind heads off in one direction, then he remembers a book he’s just read, before showing me a video of something that caught his attention. Then he does what he calls a “deep dive” into an idea that inspires him. “I have this debate going on in my mind,” he often says, like it wasn’t already obvious to whoever happens to be listening in.

One minute he’s making bold predictions. There will, he assures me, be no supermarkets in 2030, because so many people will be growing their own food. Our cities will, he says, become some of the most biodiverse places on the planet, with gardens on rooftops and second skins on the outside of skyscrapers where food will grow and water will be recycled, and internal heating will become unnecessary.

The next minute, he’s expounding on another big idea: the smartphone is “the best and most sustainable invention in human history”, he says, then wonders why Apple hasn’t produced a fully recycled phone. He tells me about an app that can read the nutrient value in food, which, he says, will be “the biggest game changer of all”. Then he comes out with a carefully honed phrase that captures the essence of his thinking in a media-friendly soundbite: “Why plant a house when you can build an ecosystem? I just see our houses as having this incredible potential to be energy producers, food producers, water harvesters. Nothing should be unimaginable.”

I wonder out loud how someone like him, who knows so much, can stay so relentlessly positive in the face of one bad news cycle after another. Surely there are moments when despair seems far more reasonable than optimism. “The more you know, the harder it is to not despair,” he admits. But “there are a lot of people who rely on me to be positive, especially people who are close to me and with whom I work.”

More than that, even amid the gloom, he sees signs everywhere that things are changing for the better. He has heard, for example, that Nestlé is looking at holistic systems and promising that 50 per cent (14 million tonnes) of its key ingredients will come from regenerative agriculture by 2030.

Then there’s the shift to solar power. “When we built this house 17 years ago, there were only 64,000 houses doing this with solar,” says Bakker. “Now there’s three million in Australia. We’re going to be at five million before you know it. Three million people didn’t put in solar because they thought they were saving the planet. I did. But people will do it because it’s now viable, because solar panels are cheap and they last a long time, and ultimately their bills will be cheaper.”

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The 2023 Disruptor of the Year Joost Bakker. Photography by Nic Walker.

All well and good, but given humankind’s propensity to make the same mistakes over and again, what makes him believe we’ll continue with these good habits? “I think in 2040 we’ll look back at 2020 as the year when the Titanic shifted [course, averting disaster],” he says. “It was already happening before Covid, with the kids protesting in the streets. Social media had a hand in that, because you can share information much more easily. It used to be that you were relying on a journalist to get the story out there. Now, you just do a post and it gets shared.”

As much as he believes in the power of social media, Bakker believes in the next generation even more. He takes his particular brand of inspiration into schools, where he finds the greatest concern coming from students in the upper high school years. “They blame us for screwing it up,” he says. “I’m trying to tap into that sense of rebellion and I want to inspire them to think that the solution lies with them. I say to kids, ‘Don’t protest. There’s no point in protesting because politicians don’t force change. You force change.’ Politicians will never do anything until they know that the people want it.”

With so many projects happening at once, where does Bakker find the time and energy? “I work efficiently. I’m zero waste in time as well,” he says. Then, turning the question around, he adds: “I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to do something that you hate. I just love the creative process and I don’t do any project without pushing myself creatively. If someone comes to me, a commercial company, for example, and says they want me to do this, I’ll go away and think about what I want to push creatively, to do something that I haven’t done before. I crave that.”

Hard as it is to believe, Bakker can’t understand why the world sees him as a disruptor. “A disruptor is some dude who invented a new technology,” he says. “All I do is harp on about ideas that are often quite old. I read things that were written 150 years ago and discover that it’s what I’m into right now.”

It is a theme he returns to often. “We know all the answers,” he says. “There are plenty of solutions. They’re all there. And none of this stuff is my idea. I’ve just brought a whole bunch of stuff together. Some of these ideas were created 2,000 years ago. Sometimes I just stumble on it from a different point of view and ask, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ ”

It turns out that Joost Bakker may be human after all, or so he says. At the end of last year, he reached a level of exhaustion that prompted him to step back a little and promise to take things easier in 2023. As you might expect, Bakker’s idea of relaxing is anything but relaxing. This year, he will, for example, reimagine and refit the Greenhouse and install it on the Mornington Peninsula where he hopes 50,000 schoolchildren will visit it each year. And he plans to build many more homes. “For the first time, I want to do something commercial: a flat-pack house,” he says. “I really want to have the world’s first certified-organic housing system, so that you know you’re in a non-toxic home where the air’s clean.”

He’s also been asked by Geelong Grammar School to prepare a sustainable master plan for its iconic Timbertop campus at the foothills of the Victorian Alps and to build five classrooms for Woodleigh School, south of Melbourne. At Woodleigh, Bakker plans to add a complete future-food, water-positive system using aquaponics and all-natural building materials, all while aiming for energy and food self-sufficiency.

Between all this, he plans to again reimagine the David Jones flower show, continue to visit schools, take on a sustainability project in London and maybe even redesign Ye’s home. Oh, and in his spare time he will remodel his mother’s home, grow flowers and create larger-than-life art installations, with enough time left over to challenge us all to be our best selves and keep pushing alternative ideas until they become mainstream.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible,” he says. “Melbourne or Sydney could be dripping with food if we just looked at all the potential surfaces, catchments and the amount of people who are under-utilised. We can create such amazing places.”

He thinks for a moment. “I believe in utopia, I really do.”