The ultimate in iceberg lettuce: Sustainable living company building Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse

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In the unfortunate event locals feel the need to raid seeds from the Doomsday Vault, at least now there’s someplace to plant them.

In the meantime, a group of green thumbs are hoping to sprout some “locally sourced” cuisine with the help of traditionally discarded materials such used cooking oil, dog poop and beer sludge.

The growing project is, uh, growing as Polar Permaculture Solutions is planning to move its basement garden into Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse. The greenhouse, which organizers hope will provide local produce and herbs for local restaurants, is part of a larger effort to increase sustainable practices in the community.

“I’ve worked in all of the hotels and restaurants, I’ve seen how we handle the waste, and I’ve always thought we could do a better job,” said Benjamin Vidmar, a Longyearbyen resident for the past seven years who is leading the project. “So I’ve been experimenting to see what kind of things can be worked out. I never thought it would turn into something like this.”

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Kevin Mascarenhas, left, and Benjamin Vidmar discuss the goals for Polar Permaculture, which hopes to provide locally grown food and waste recycling options for businesses, during an introductory meeting Monday at A Taste of Thai. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

His comments were made during a get-acquainted meeting Monday at A Taste of Thai, where about 20 residents gathered to discuss ways the city could improve sustainability in businesses, energy production, tourism and elsewhere. While many expressed enthusiasm for the soon-to-be ten-by-ten meter greenhouse, Vidmar said that’s merely the start of the intended journey.

“It won’t be enough to feed the whole city but we’re hoping to make it a demonstration of what’s possible,” he said. “We would love to see greenhouses like this all over the city.”

Funding for the greenhouse is coming from a 150,000-kroner grant from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund. Vidmar said there were numerous bureaucratic hoops to jump through – such as getting permission to collect used coffee grounds to feed to worms (which he also needed permission for) used for composting – and they only have permission to use the designated site in Nybyen for two years.

The challenges will continue as Polar Permaculture organizers and volunteers try to reclaim other resources for growing purposes, such as getting locals to use biodegradable detergents so grey water can be used in the greenhouse, and collecting dog poop from local kennels to grow mushrooms.

“What we’re trying to do is form a group that can be a voice for Svalbard,” said Kevin Mascarenhas, a permaculture student in the U.K. who has participated in projects in Belize and Australia. “That way we can represent you when we’re speaking to the mayor, the wider community and even in Norway.”

One change that might aid in growing the mushrooms would be using the biomass from leftover grains at Svalbard Bryggeri, which is scheduled to begin selling Longyearbyen’s first locally-produced beer this summer, Mascarenhas said. Robert Johansen, head of the brewery, said he is considering asking authorities for permission to burn the biomass instead of sending it as waste to the mainland, but Mascarenhas said the organic approach is much more practical.

“The reason you wouldn’t burn it is it’s too valuable,” he said.

The greenhouse won’t be the first or most ambitious in Svalbard. Ny-Ålesund, Barentsburg and Pyramiden had greenhouses providing limited amounts of fresh food for residents during the peak mining days of those communities, but Mascarenhas said a visit to the latter was of little practical use due to the age of the structure.

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