A 'Circular Economy': Why the Next Packaging Will Be Grown, Not Manufactured

We need to design a circular economy where materials are truly, completely recycled.

Infinite economic growth is at odds with our finite planet, and this obsession with endless growth is driving us towards ecological catastrophe. I’ve just returned from the annual World Economic Forum meeting, and this reality has never been so clear to me. The forum brings together economists, but also activists, business leaders, humanitarians and technologists.

As the co-founder of Ecovative, an unorthodox green material science company, I tend to frame our economic and ecological challenges around materials, and the stuff, that makes up everything we use.
Lots of exciting technologies get discussed at the World Economic Forum meeting, but I’ve never heard of a technological method of recycling materials that uses no energy and generates no waste. We live in a world where far less than half of all recyclable materials are actually recycled.
When they are recycled, this process takes a large amount of energy, and generally yields lower and lower grade materials. To borrow a term from Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle, these recycling systems are generally “downcycling”. So, that plastic soda bottle you toss into the recycling bin is likely to be part of a park bench rather than another food grade bottle.
Now, that’s not to say we should give up and stop recycling. It’s still a positive and worthwhile thing to do. But what if we could live in a society where everything—and I mean everything—was recycled using a system that requires no electricity and runs forever?
Rather than pouring decades of human effort into bumping up recycling rates by a few percent through TV ads and education, we need to invent a way to recycle everything, no matter what. Instead of spending millions of dollars developing more energy efficient recycling equipment, we need recycling systems that don’t use any electricity, and don’t even need any machinery whatsoever.
Perfect recycling without any energy or equipment? It sounds impossible, but luckily, we live on a planet where such a system already exists. Some people call it composting, some people call it nutrient cycling; at Ecovative we look at is as “nature’s recycling system”.
In nature, everything is food for something else. Without burning any oil or coal, the molecules in your banana peel might one day soon be part of a tree. Nature’s recycling system gets us very close to a thermodynamically optimized system.
Folks are starting to talk about the circular economy; the Ellen MacArthur foundation just launched a great report on this at Davos. The recycling and upcycling of nutrients in nature in my mind is the gold standard for how we should design our own systems to behave. Either by directly leveraging biotechnology, and making complex products that are compostable, or by mimicking biology in the way we design goods for re-use and re-manufacture.
A steady state economy requires steady state materials.
There is also a continuing discussion about renewable versus non-renewable resources. Ultimately, everything on the planet is renewable; it’s just a matter of time scale. If you want to build with wood, you need 20 up to 250 or more years to grow the trees. Bamboo, just a few months.
If you want to use conventional plastics, you’ll need some very rare environmental conditions and then you’ll have to wait about 65 million years for the petroleum or natural gas to form (or you can take a round-about biological or catalytic route, and get something much more expensive). If you want to use minerals or ores sustainably, you’re talking about a geological time scale anchored in the explosion of stars. It’s clear that the boundary conditions of our planet dictate that eventually we have to focus on using renewable materials to build a sustainable future.
Ecovative is focused on making renewable materials that fit our human time scales. These materials are literally grown by fungi, and can replace plastic foams, particleboard, and more. The materials we grow are “ultra-rapid” renewables; they grow in about a week. Your next purchase might come protected by our packaging. When you’re done with it, you can compost it and return those nutrients to nature.

But I see Ecovative as just one small part of the overall solution. We need thousands of new biological solutions to displace our extreme dependence on synthetic materials borrowed from the bank of time. And for those products we can’t replicate using cellular technology, we must design for re-usability, so that the technical nutrients aren't squandered in landfills or incinerators.
Although we live on a planet with limited physical resources, I’ve come to realize that there are some things that, unlike the misplaced promises of economic growth, actually do compound to grow and grow. Knowledge, ingenuity, creativity and happiness are boundless expressions of the human spirit. Let’s commit to building a future with a circular economy, with steady state materials, so that year after year, far in the distance future, we can continue to enjoy the fantastical creations of the human mind and collective culture.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship. This week: Shrink Your Carbon Footprint. Follow along, join the discussion, and share your experience at #goodcitizen.\n
Images courtesy of Ecovative.\n
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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