A new breed of innovators, who are inspired by nature, is growing across the globe to deal with the mounting waste problem created by present day hyper-consumerism, says Rishi Rathod
There is an idea that can improve our lives and save our planet. And the idea is not new; it is as ancient as our mother earth or human history. It is that, in naturefrom the microcosm to the macrocosm, everything is connected and circular. It is not linear. The seasons are circular. The course of water over the earth is circular. It evaporates from the sea, condenses to form clouds, then falls from the skies, circulates through the world, nourishing life, and then goes back into the sea. The plant kingdom absorbs CO2 (carbon dioxide) and releases oxygen, which helps sustain animal and human life. And this cycle of creation, sustenance, and destruction (decomposition) continues. It is this incredible intermingling of the same elements (earth, wind, fire, water, and ether) over and over again that creates everything on earth.
This circularity is prevalent all over the planet and has super-intelligence built into it, which creates zero waste in the end. Take pond water that has so many living organisms. The living organisms creates an ecosystem where plants, algae, and photoautotrophic bacteria turn the carbon dioxide present in the water into a usable form. This carbon is then passed from one organism to another during predation. Fish excrete nitrogen, which helps the aquatic plants survive, and in return, the fish get weeds, algae, and plants for their survival. Likewise, bacteria and algae in ponds and soil are responsible for changing nitrogen gas into ammonia, which is used by plants to survive. The ecosystem generates oxygen, promotes the carbon and nitrogen cycle, and releases nutrients that, otherwise, would be locked up in nature. It’s a system that creates everything it needs and doesn’t waste anything. It’s an amazing systemic miracle when you think about it. The ecosystem is a complex mechanism which self-regulates to create life-favouring circumstances. And it’s been doing it remarkably well for over three billion years. We must, as humanity, realise that the whole earth is actually one cohesive system where everything is interrelated and self-balancing. Sadly, we humans are disturbing the balance.
In our daily lives, we never question exponential economic growth or how the economy works. For most of us, money equals wealth, and wealth equals power. But it’s time for a paradigm shift towards newer ideas that have implications for the economy, finance, and everyday living as well.
Even though we are in the 21st century, we have yet to evolve and mature as humanity. The world works in a linear fashion. We think of the economy as a machine in which we push natural and human resources and which throws out products that, after consumption, end up in landfills. It works marvellously well when the economy is relatively small. It works to go into the forest and chop down a tree once every three years to fuel your fire, but if you continue to cut nonstop, eventually, you won’t have any trees left. So, scale matters. We, at the moment, are at a time in history where the scale is pushing against the limits of the finite planet. And we'll either reset, or cause irreparable damage to ourselves and the planet. We must remember that we are part of a bigger system—something that we used to know but have forgotten in our quest for modernity.
We have created a system which uses resources to produce items, consumes them, and discards the remains, which is purely a capitalistic way of living. But the changing times are compelling us to re-evaluate this production and consumption model.
What is a circular economy?
The current system that we follow is a linear economy. This means we make something, sell something, use something, and throw away something. We take, we consume, we dispose of. But in a circular or circularity economy, we try to keep everything in the loop. We don’t throw anything away; there’s no waste. And so, we can reuse the resources for a long time. In this model, we are trying to mimic nature, where there is no waste. In nature, the circulation and reuse of resources are endless. Is it possible that we can do the same with our technical resources?
Himanshu Barola (41), who runs a company called Everything Recycles, believes that the idea of using everything to avoid waste is not new. It has been around the human society and civilization for a long time. Everything was recycled and refurbished; and nothing ever went to waste. As we urbanised and the population increased dramatically, single-use became a huge problem. He says, “In our society, a single piece of cloth that was created would be used till the end. From wiping the body to cleaning the surfaces, and in many cases filling the cracks of the walls that cloth would be used.”
But the invention of plastic has changed many things in our society. Only nine per cent of plastic is recycled worldwide: OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).
(https://www.deccanherald.com/international/only-9-of-plastic-recycled-worldwide-oecd-1084068.html). We and future generations will have to deal with it in the coming times.
He says, “Our system of design, economy, and consumption has to become zero waste for us to save this planet. We create 2000 new chemicals every year whereas over half the natural world is made of just two chemical compounds.” We need to understand that all those single-use materials that we throw away, do not vanish from earth; in reality, there is no such thing as ‘away.’ He further adds, “It's all Western trash; containers are actually filled with trash material labelled as 'recycled', material. Most of our developed countries just ship the trash directly into Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.. Polluting China, Malaysia, and India is the same as polluting Europe. It eventually gets there.”
Which is the biggest industry causing landfills? The answer: the fashion industry. Most people don’t bat an eyelid while buying anything, as many cheap fabrics are available across Asia, thanks to the mass production of synthetic materials and fibres. Structural engineer and architect, Arthur Huang, who runs a company that deals with post-consumer recycling technology, says, “Fashion is one of the biggest polluters and has a huge amount of carbon footprint. It is one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world. And we are all contributors to this major problem.”
According to him, we have to rethink how we create materials in the first place. Most of the fashion industry fabrics or fibre are made from two sources: one is a natural source, a farm source like cotton and wool; the other is synthetic material, like polyesters, nylon, polypropylene, or acrylics. One piece of cloth can have a combination of rayon, cotton, satin, and polyester fibres. It’s impossible to separate these materials. One only needs a tiny bit of different material in the mix and it makes recycling impossible. Because of this, the whole thing will probably end up in landfills. Fifty per cent of all the fabric ever made is now in landfills.
But there is a piece of good news too. Though the scale is small at the moment, the technology has arrived. It is only a matter of time before it picks up. In fashion, one place is iconic for doing things differently. Fifteen per cent of the clothes recycled in the world are recycled in Prato, Italy. A family-owned firm from this Italian city has perfected a way to process used material—even with mixed fibres. They’re not just creating new material but new beauty. Fabric from Prato is some of the most treasured in the fashion industry.
With smart design, we could avoid creating landfills, and unrecyclable fabric is the first place to start with.
According to Arthur Huang, a circular solution for one of the most mass-produced fabrics has arrived. A Dutch fashion company, C&A, has launched the ‘world’s most sustainable jeans.’ They have designed denim to be fully recyclable, to preserve resources and reduce waste. And they never cause a problem such as landfills because they can dissolve in the ground, in under two weeks, even on a compost heap at home. Thirty million pairs of jeans are sold every day. Imagine the impact it will have when we manage to manufacture all jeans using the circular solution! (https://www.greenbiz.com/article/dutch-fashion-company-ca-launches-worlds-most-sustainable-jeans)
Waste from agricultural activities, overproduced crops that are dumped to control the prices, and others that remain out of farming and harvesting, can be used to create a biofuel called ethanol, which can easily be mixed with petrol and used for running cars. The wonder of using ethanol is that it adds very little greenhouse gases like CO2 or CO (carbon monoxide) to the atmosphere. It is much cleaner than using only petrol or diesel.
Apart from this, a new technology that uses farm waste to create biodegradable packaging to replace plastic bags has surfaced. This innovation not only creates sustainable packaging; it has other applications as well, such as creating particle boards and biodegradable disposable cutlery. To incentivise farmers to not burn waste at the end of the harvesting season, the company procures leftover stubble from farms at the cost of ₹6/kg. (https://thestorywatch.com/this-company-is-solving-two-major-problems-plastic-packaging-stubble-burning-with-their-innovative-technology)
Rethink competition, rethink collaboration
Janine Benyus, a natural science writer, explains how competition works in nature. She says, “We have this entire misunderstanding of what Darwin really meant when he spoke of ‘survival of the fittest.’ ” This truly means ‘survival of the one who fits best,’ like a puzzle fitting together.”
In ocean reefs, corals share a symbiotic relationship with fish. The corals provide fish with shelter and protection from predators, and the fish help the corals thrive by eating plants such as seaweed, which can destroy corals by occupying the space and light that they require to survive. This partnership creates protected homes for about 4500 species. The natural world is generous. It is full of symbiotic relationships where the skill of one living being perfectly complements the skills and needs of another living being, and they make the most of their habitat.
Similarly, the waste of one company can turn into a resource for another. When we look deeply, they are all interrelated. A network of companies supplying waste to each other as energy resources or raw material.. That’s how we can create an ecosystem of such companies.
In this connection, Himanshu Barola says, “We don’t have to go and dig all the time for rare earth metals. For example, many electronic wastes have copper, iron, and lead in them and most recycling companies are just reusing these metals for the same or other purposes.” The fashion industry is notorious for waste production, but what if the waste could be something that the car industry pays good money for? Something that otherwise might get made from brand new materials, like insulation in car doors or seats. It’s actually about making connections; building a business partnership that creates wider benefits. For example, Holland uses batteries from electric cars as a power supply in football stadiums. Since they are charged by a solar panel during the day, the place can light up at night. It even pumps spare power back into the grid.
If we want to thrive on this planet, the only system that will work is a circular system of production and consumption. But, unfortunately, the current system is still old-school and tonnes of waste is being generated on daily basis. It is scary to digest the fact that the majority of goods are created only for single use. But many new enterprises are coming up with innovative solutions for end-of-cycle or used products, which completely transform them into new products having larger life cycles. New generation entrepreneurs and innovators are now starting to look at the problem differently owing to the danger it causes to the future generation.
Every year, around a billion scrap tyres reach the end of their useful lives globally. Many of these end up clogging landfills, providing breeding grounds for pests and becoming a threat to the environment and sea life. With the help of the latest equipment, tyre shredders, and innovative recycling methods, thrown-away tyres can be turned around into new usable materials. Author Eric Lawson says, “Instead of dumping scrap tyres in landfills or incinerating them, it’s time to start looking at them as a resource. Not only are they ideal for construction applications but also provide an affordable fuel source for a variety of industries. Substituting virgin raw material with recycled tyres offers both economic and environmental benefits.”
Another large heap of waste is caused by sanitary pads. India, where not even 50 per cent of women use disposable sanitary napkins, annually generates around 3.37 lakh tonnes of waste from sanitary napkins and baby diapers. (https://www.wionews.com/india/india-annually-generates-over-3-lakh-tonnes-of-waste-from-sanitary-napkins-and-baby-diapers-report-484389). Himanshu Barola says, “Sanitary pads are typically disposed of in two ways: they are either buried in landfills, which takes 500–800 years for them to decompose or are burnt in incinerators that release toxic fumes like dioxins and other carcinogenic compounds into the atmosphere.”
A new start-up has come to the fore to deal with this. An innovator, Ajinkya Dhariya, a mechanical engineer, has created an ATM-size machine that shreds pads into pieces, which then undergo disinfection, decolourisation, and deodorisation before they are finally deactivated. After more processing, they are broken down and separated into cellulose and plastic pellets. Cellulose can be used to make paper, and plastic pellets can be used to manufacture packaging material or construction material. The blood and other bodily fluids are also broken down in the same process and removed through a separate outlet as sewage.
Time to rethink design
In moments of crisis, we look for inspiration and mentors who would lead us out of the mess. Our current situation around the world is somewhat like a crisis. The biggest corporations, the biggest governments, and their handful of billionaires make capital investment decisions that determine the fate of this planet. Clearly, they have failed us. Now the time has come for us to take inspiration from nature. The lion sleeps most of the day and eats only when hungry, and this keeps the ecosystem in balance. If the lion goes on a killing spree of all the deer and antelopes, there would be no food left for the future.
Well, what better model to use to rebuild the world than the model of living systems and how they behave? These are the only systems that we know of that have sustained themselves for long periods. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. The fact that they are sustainable is validated by their very existence.
Janine Benyus, a big-time advocate of circular economy, talks about how we can take inspiration from nature in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. It means to understand first how, in the natural world, what one is trying to resolve has already been solved and then embark upon redesigning the solution.
Janine explains, “You can imagine a solar manufacturer sitting down with a botanist who knows how photosynthesis works. Someone who wants to make sustainable fibre can collaborate with someone who knows how a spider spins its web. You can imagine a shipbuilder wanting to sit with somebody who knows about fishes—tuna or shark—to know how to reduce drag in the shape of a hull.” She further explains her point: “When you look at fireflies, there is bioluminescence. It’s a chemical light, but what’s really interesting is the abdomen of the firefly. If you look very closely, they have these tiled structures. When you put those tiled structures on the bulb of an LED, you get 55 per cent more light out of a single LED bulb. Life is always giving us amazing ways to make what we already have even better.”
Janine says that human health is deeply connected to controlling bacteria, and we can use the solution that is already being used by seaweed or algae. There are thousands of different species of algae or seaweed that live in oceans all over the world, and you would expect them to be covered by bacteria; but, in reality, they are not. They, in fact, produce a chemical that keeps bacteria from communicating with each other, which is what they need to do if they are going to colonise the surface. When bacteria can’t communicate, they simply don’t land. We can make that chemical and use it as a cleaning liquid spray that will prevent bacteria from settling. It’s not killing bacteria; it’s just stopping them from colonising a surface. They don’t develop an immunity to it, and that’s why it’s worked in nature for millions of years. It’s a whole new way of dealing with bacteria. (Interview in https://curiositystream.com/video/4002)
Our ancestors understood the qualities of bacteria and how they can be used to support a healthy life. They developed sandhana kalpana (biomedical fermentation) mentioned in ayurveda, Shushrut Samhita, Ashtanga Hridaya, and other literature as well. In earlier times, this was used to support human health, but of late, it is going through a lot of research. Currently, fermented bacteria are generally known as bio-enzymes. Based on the ingredients they use, enzymes are prepared for food and beverages, FMCG products, cosmetics, agriculture, and other activities as well. Using bio-enzymes for cleaning toilets does not harm our sewage system; rather, it prevents water and land pollution. But today, for the cleaning of surfaces and utensils, most of humanity is using acids, which are propagating harmful bacteria, viruses, and bad odour. And the easiest targets are vulnerable young children. Similarly, bio-enzymes are beneficial in agricultural activities, improving the quality and quantity of the harvest.
According to Janine, circularity is the only hope. This is the only way we can survive. Because that’s the closest that we can mimic how nature operates.
Another lesson nature teaches us is how to make material for various purposes. In the natural world, even though there are 10 million organisms, they share a unity in their biochemistry. It’s this incredible juggling act of the same materials over and over again. How can our economy upcycle and circulate material in the same way that an ecosystem does? Since the industrial revolution, we have been very busy producing hundreds of materials and tens of thousands of chemicals which the world has never seen before. We create 2000 new chemicals every year. Every time we want to create something, we do a different kind of material. Whereas nature says let’s use the same materials and change its design. Over half the natural world is made up of just 2 chemical compounds.
Time for a paradigm shift
We have designed our society around an economic system which values money. More money is good; less money is bad. There’s no place for love, beauty, or goodness in any economic model. We live as though we are separate from the planet as well as each other. So it’s really the mindset which needs to be blamed. It’s the way we think and see the world that is at the heart of the matter. But, with the changing times, we must shift our focus from mass-producing to fulfil humanity’s endless desires, to harmonising the process of production, consumption, and recycling.
We buy many things because our senses are bombarded with sensual, emotional, and exciting advertisements all the time. We may or may not need them, but we still buy them because the ads create a desire to own or consume them. The demand for recycled and reused goods is small because we have not yet started creating a desire in that area. It’s about time we consider this. Himanshu Barola says, “At present, the global economy is less than 10 per cent circular, which only means that tonnes of invaluable resources are wasted. But if just 17 per cent of businesses were circular, greenhouse gas emissions would fall to around 40 per cent. That’s huge!”
One of the best transformations a business can make is to reconsider its stand and what it is truly selling. An MRI scanner is one of the most important, expensive machines in medicine. It can look right inside the human body. It is complicated and involves rare and valuable materials. It is expensive and difficult to replace when it gets outdated. So Philips, which makes MRI systems and solutions, has changed how it does business. They supply, maintain, and upgrade the machine so that it can be used for longer. When that’s no more an option, they take it back and refurbish it to give it a second life. It is zero-waste. Every part or material is reused and recycled. The business aims to flourish without making and selling more and more machines because the customer simply wants the best scan for its patients.
We can now easily imagine a future where we never have to buy another fridge, washing machine, TV, or mobile phone. Instead, we can take out a contract to have one that’ll always work. The company will maintain it, update it, and when we don’t want it anymore, they’ll come to take it back. And then they’ll reuse everything it’s made of. This business model could work for lots of things. Less raw materials will be used, machines will last longer, and businesses will enhance their reputation because they’ll be providing services that we need. In a circular economy, we get to be customers without having to be consumers.
Arthur Huang, one of the foremost proponents of the circular economy, has created a full-fledged hospital in Taiwan using waste material. The hospital is built in such a way that it is going to last for a few decades easily. According to him, it’s not just about being one of the small projects of recycling and reusing. He wanted to show the world that scaling on reuse and recycling is possible when we sit down to think and reinvent.
Looking at the global scenario, I anticipate things will turn around in the coming years. I am sure the MNCs are observing these changing trends. It might challenge their exponential-growth-for-profit mindset. Yet, I think, soon, people are going to evolve and that the demand for the products these MNCs are currently selling us is going to go away. It’s already happening. And then companies will have to do what they have always done: the best ones will adapt, and they will innovate and find ways to solve the real problems facing humanity in the 21st century.
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