How does the story go? By the most conservative estimates, if we all keep consuming and rubbishing at current levels we will need one-and-a-half earths by 2030. In other words, we have 16 years to come up with Warp Drive and find a nice half-planet somewhere out there in the cosmos. Hopefully far from Klingon territory.
Except…what if we could make all our stuff entirely recyclable? Or at least close to it? Wouldn’t that mean we could drastically reduce all that digging and chopping, stop fouling our waterways and stop making gigantic mountains of bleargh? A recyclable and renewable economy, where waste does not exist and where stuff never runs out because it just keeps going round and round. A bit like Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding. Ridiculous, right?
This is no joke. The circular economy is a real prospect and designers, engineers and manufacturers of all stripes are taking this very seriously, and innovations are popping up everywhere like mushrooms. After all, a ‘by-product’ takes as much money to make as a ‘product’ does – and that’s before you pay for the disposal. Creating any waste just hurts the ‘bottom line’, and restricts a company’s growth. Manufacturers get that and in their own interest they are driving a new industrial revolution; and it is gathering speed.
Meet architect, designer, and winner of a Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, William McDonough. Also meet his sidekick, chemist Dr Michael Braungart. Dynamic duo, ground-breaking creators of: ‘Cradle to Cradle’, these guys are Time Magazine’s ‘Heroes for the Planet’. Haven’t heard about ‘Cradle to Cradle’ manufacturing yet? The opposite of our industrial ‘Cradle to Grave’ tradition? Well, fasten your seatbelts, here it comes.
C2C is a new approach to production in which all waste is reused, and virtually all components are recyclable. Their logic: ‘waste equals food’ – or else; zero-waste protocols. By-products must be fully biodegradable, or able to be made into fertilizer. Manufacturers love this for the most selfish of reasons: it saves them a heap of dough. To get Cradle to Cradle certification, your goods must be entirely a source of reusable materials. No more digging huge pits into the Earth. Raw materials are mined from old stuff. You are not dreaming, you are wide awake, and this is really happening. Cradle to Cradle is not an idle philosophy; it is an established practice. Manufacturers are racing to qualify for the international ‘Cradle to Cradle’ certification.
To those of us who grew up in the age of the ‘take, make and discard’ economy, the new circular economy pushes the bounds of our imagination. What once seemed entirely ordinary and indisputably normal; will soon be viewed as anachronistic and stupid.
Oh, what the hell, it’s easier to watch this on your screen: CLICK!
And here is another example of the growing trend towards complete recyclability; an almost entirely recyclable car: CLICK!
Hey, let’s go back to William McDonough. What do you mean you haven’t heard of him? Where have you been hiding? He’s totally mega-famous! OK, listen: you got two bucks? Want to listen to some world-saving genius? Go here, and buy the interview podcast: CLICK!
Don’t have two bucks? No probs. I’ll give you a couple of highlights:
In his matter-of-fact tone, William McDonough talks about his work with chemical engineers who are developing new polymers (plastics) that will not only be degradable, they will also act as nourishment for plankton. He assures us that there is no such thing as ‘sewage’, no such thing as ‘treatment’. New generation ‘sewage’ plants in Holland, Canada, USA and Japan have been retooled, while keeping the existing infrastructure in place. Using solar energy (almost free of charge!), they take all of our poop and give us back potable water, methane for energy, nitrogen and slow-release phosphate fertilizer. As if that wasn’t enough, these cheeky buggers sell the phosphate to farmers at profit. Imagine that. Your municipal poop-plant makes money for your town. These phosphate pellets save farmers money (cheaper than importing it from the few, worryingly depleted sources that remain, in Morocco for instance). Being slow-release, they do not leech into waterways and create toxic algae blooms. And you get to feel like a hero each time you take a dump. Kiss the water shortages goodbye, kiss pollution goodbye – our grandchildren will be scandalized as they read about the waste-people of the 20th century. Welcome to the new world, where pollution is almost non-existent. Hello. It is here. CLICK! and CLICK!
Did I mention that the rhetoric about ‘overpopulation’ is a crock? Maybe we won’t need that extra half-planet after all. Maybe we just need to learn to behave a little better and a little smarter, and to treat this Earth as if She is finite. Duh! All that’s required is for us to keep everything in a circle – that way it goes on forever. We humans have already shown ourselves capable of doing just that. You realize what this means? A big population is no biggie, if we are not destroying, discarding, wasting and polluting. But my guess is that it will take a while before the lion’s share of stuff we make is ‘Cradle to Cradle’ certified, or otherwise degradable and reusable. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what is actually going to happen to our population numbers around the world. Stay tuned for Myth number 3, which will be ready to roll next week, in Part 4. I’ll see you back here next week!