Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thinking Beyond the Pale: Re-imagining Waste as Resource

In my article on collaborative consumption, I discussed a new framework of thinking that involved making use of surplus capacity in our cities: ensuring that latent opportunity for collaboration and sharing of resources made individuals better off than when they were working alone. This concept, which is taking off in so many arenas including the sharing of parking spaces, is helping us to not "waste" opportunity by maximizing the use of what already exists, rather than producing more.

Another vital paradigm that must be applied in the planning and revitalization of cities is the "cradle to cradle" or "closed loop" system. Beyond the traditional concepts of recycle and reuse, cradle to cradle aims to redirect entire streams of waste from the landfill into the raw material of another purpose or product. Or, it challenges us to create products from the beginning that will, by virtue of their design and construction, be able to be used and then reused indefinitely.

The twin loops of 'biological metabolism' and 'technical metabolism' designed by MDBC.

The first step in creating a cradle to cradle loop is to examine every component of a product and ensure that what remains of the product once it is "used" can either be recycled into a material that re-enters the production stream or biodegrade completely into nature. An example of this is the U.S. Postal Service's shipping envelopes and boxes. Every dye, glue and paper pulp that makes up the boxes and envelopes were examined from the design stage, and ingredients were chosen that reduced water and energy use throughout production and would not leave any toxic remnants behind when recycled or left to biodegrade. And what about that second "cradle" in this two-part process? According to the US Postal Service, that recycled content comes right back into their office locations, for new postal customers to purchase and use:
"We purchase more than $200 million worth of products containing recycled content each year. Many of the containers in our mail system are made from recycled materials, and so are the stamped envelopes, post cards, stamp booklet covers, and packaging materials we provide."
A closed loop system can also generate revenue while preserving the environment when a business collects a "spent" product and turns it around, for a fee, to another company that needs this as a raw material for the creation of their product. In a recent TED talk, Michael Pawlyn discusses an innovative Cardboard to Caviar program which creates a wonderful closed loop for cardboard that ends up producing caviar:
"…in their area they had a lot of shops and restaurants that were producing lots of food, cardboard and plastic waste. It was ending up in landfills. Now the really clever bit is what they did with the cardboard waste.…So they were paid to collect it from the restaurants. They then shredded the cardboard and sold it to equestrian centers as horse bedding. When that was soiled, they were paid again to collect it. They put it into worm recomposting systems, which produced a lot of worms, which they fed to Siberian sturgeon, which produced caviar, which they sold back to the restaurants. So it transformed a linear process into a closed-loop model, and it created more value in the process. Graham Wiles has continued to add more and more elements to this, turning waste streams into schemes that create value. And just as natural systems tend to increase in diversity and resilience over time, there's a real sense with this project that the number of possibilities just continue increasing."
Michael Pawlyn's talk can be viewed here:

And if turning cardboard into caviar isn't creative enough, Starbucks recently announced it is exploring the possibility of taking used coffee grounds and making bioplastics. This example of a cradle to cradle system is twice as potent because used coffee grounds, an otherwise "finished" product, could replace crops like corn in the creation of bioplastics - thus encouraging food crops to actually feed people, rather than be made into plastics. If Starbucks is able to manufacture its own disposable cups from the spent coffee grounds of its cafes, the closed loop would be immensely instructive to other businesses who may be able to achieve something similar with their waste streams.

The tightest loop can be created when the same company can reuse its spent product over and over again to create a new version of the same product. Take a look at Shaw Floors, which has designed carpets, rugs and other flooring that can be recycled carpets, rugs and flooring! The impact is tremendous:
"Did you know around 3.5 billion pounds of carpet ends up in landfills each year? We're committed to reducing that amount through the Green Edge Recycling Program. Since 2007, we've already reclaimed more than 460 million pounds of carpet for recycling and reuse – and that number is growing every day."
This is how it works: a consumer purchases wall-to-wall carpeting or a floor rug. After years of use, when the consumer decides the carpet has worn out, the consumer simply contacts Shaw Floors and they'll help you arrange for it to be recycled and regenerated into new flooring by their company.

The concepts of cradle to cradle or closed loops are akin to to the recycling process, with a few important improvements. First, a priority is placed on examining the the design stage of a product - ensuring that its design and the selection of materials are such that it can be disassembled and separated for recycling or to biodegrade completely, rather than leaving bits and pieces of the product that are fated to land in a garbage heap. Think of the reduction in chemicals and hazardous materials littering the land and poisoning individuals if all products were designed from cradle to cradle. Second, these concepts focus on establishing the "plug-in," the designated after-use of the recycled product. Recycling in and of itself is good, but there needs to be demand for the recycled material. Encouraging such demand is what makes this process a loop, rather than a flat line. Finally, it is important to see these waste streams as potential revenue generators - where brokers can make capital by collecting and transporting waste, and producers can see their input costs decrease when they replace virgin material with recycled material. William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, founders of Cradle to Cradle Certification and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, view the creation of a regenerative product loop as a way to maximize "eco-effectiveness" (maximizing opportunities) rather than "eco-efficiency" (minimizing harm).

In the urban context, one begins to see how these closed loops could weave together waste streams with energy and food production, creating multiple benefits for the city and its residents. William McDonough illustrates how his group designed a city in China to embody such an approach:
"If you flush a toilet, your feces will go to the sewage treatment plants, which are sold as assets, not liabilities. Because who wants the fertilizer factory that makes natural gas? The waters are all taken in to construct the wetlands for habitat restorations. And then it makes natural gas, which then goes back into the city to power the fuel for the cooking for the city.... And then the compost is all taken back to the roofs of the city, where we've got farming, because what we've done is lifted up the city, the landscape, into the air to -- to restore the native landscape on the roofs of the buildings. The solar power of all the factory centers and all the industrial zones with their light roofs powers the city."
William McDonough's talk can be viewed here:

In some cities we are already beginning to see waste being diverted to secondary uses. The City of Colombo, Sri Lanka has established a program in partnership with CITYNET and HELP-O whereby food waste is being generated into gas that is used to fuel the kitchen stoves of homes in the Mt. Lavinia municipality. This replaces the use of firewood or LP Gas cylinders and diverts waste. We need to create incentives for more of such thinking (and implementation) in our cities in order to slow the enormous amounts of waste being collected in our landfills.

The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program creates some incentives by granting points for new construction that selects products produced with a minimum percentage of recycled materials (LEED New Construction Rating System, page 54). Examples that have earned projects LEED points in this area include installing reused/reusable carpeting like Shaw's or pouring concrete comprised in part of fly ash--a waste product of coal-fired energy--or other post-consumer material. "With nearly 9 billion square feet of building space participating in the suite of rating systems and 1.6 million feet certifying per day around the world..." LEED is one helpful arena in which to promote cradle to cradle implementation, but we need more incentives to really get people thinking outside the box or beyond the pale.

If the "cradle to cradle" or "closed loop" system concept catches on in the way that the collaborative consumption concept has begun to catch on, the world's cities could begin seeing some tremendously creative ways of dealing with what is currently landfill-clogging, end-of-life waste.