80% of the environmental impact of products and services are determined at the early design stage.

- Sustainable Brand London Conference 2012

There’s little reason to believe that household photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines do much to help the environment. Because of their energy footprint of production, toxins, and numerous limitations, they often merely swap one set of side effects for another. In fact, subsidized household solar cells and wind turbines may spur greater fossil fuel consumption: Alternative energy production expands energy supplies, which places downward pressure on prices, and leads to greater total demand.

- Ozzie Zehner, Author of Green Illusions

Manufacturing is one of the hallmarks of modern society. It is the legacy of our toolmaking ancestors who began this journey of transforming the landscape with arrowheads of stone. Our ability to transform raw materials into an endless variety of products has allowed humanity to distinguish itself from all other species on this planet. Humanities combined ecological footprint has been estimated to be as high as 40% of the entire planet….most of it from the combination of mining resources, constructing our built environment, from buildings to vast tracts of agricultural land to the reckless disposing of waste back into the environment.

Our complex manufacturing systems that exist today are the hallmark of our human ingenuity. Our success is clearly something whose outcomes we could not predict and reminds us of the old cliche that we should be careful what we wish for. It is clear  now that the enormous scales of our manufacturing system profoundly and negatively impacts our ecosystem in a number of ways:

  1. Resource depletion
  2. Biodiversity loss
  3. Pollution
Since the majority of the effectiveness of recycling and reuse depends on design, we need a complete rethink of industrial design.

Outdated Linear Open-Loop Manufacturing Model

In light of our current environmental crisis, we can see in hindsight that our “successful” manufacturing model which we have developed are really open-loop linear models which have a start and end point. We  extract natural resources out of the environment, transform it into new forms that serve us and finally inject waste back into the environment.

Figure 1: Manufacturing, old linear model

This is unsustainable because it depletes limited natural resources at an ever-accelerating pace. Many resources are almost fully extracted while we are producing pollution at the other end which has no benefit and only further toxifies the environment and damage ecological systems. Unless we make fundamental changes to this process, modern society will manufacture itself right out of existence. The illusion of the planet as an infinite source and sink is beginning to fade fast as the combination of our over-consumption and overpopulation exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet and we begin to reach the Limits of Growth.

Even if we create greener designs and manufacturing processes, this alone is not enough. Human consumption displays a boomerang effect; the more efficient we make things, the more we consume. It is clear that the problem we face is system-wide and spans many areas of society – a silo approach will simply fail. We need system-wide solutions for system-wide problems.  We must transform our design and manufacturing processes at the same time that we educate to reduce our unsustainable consumption patterns.

The New Closed-Loop, Nature-inspired Manufacturing Model

 

In contrast, nature has been creating for billions of years and recycles everything. The new model of manufacturing that respects limited natural resources and detoxifiies the environment is a combination of biomimicry and cradle-to-cradle design:

Figure 2: Biologically-inspired, closed-loop manufacturing model

Figure 3: Linear vs closed-loop cycle

 

We can see that “waste” is no longer applicable in the new manufacturing model.  We don’t “waste” anything. We reuse everything. By the time our manufactured product has lost its form and function and cannot serve the limited use it was designed for, it is in a form that can be easily processed once again into virgin feedstock to input into the manufacturing process again. This biologically-inspired strategy solves both of the current serious resource depletion AND waste problem simultaneously!

Cradle-to-Cradle 

Waste has always been with us but the scale of waste begin to grow significantly in size only after humans learned to industrialize.  The Industrial Revolution created a distorted view of the environment. Industrialists began to view nature as a slave in servitude to our industrial production machines. Here, in the early days of the industrial revolution, we saw a seemingly endless supply of raw material to exploit as well as a limitless space that could absorb the toxic discharges spewed into the air or streams from our industrial plants.

200 years and 7 billion people later, this picture is no longer valid. We are reaching the limits both of what we can extract from the planet as well as the toxic waste it can successfully absorb. As the Industrial Revolution begins to set; the Ecological Revolution has begun to dawn.

The new paradigm of a sustainable manufacturing process no longer has room for waste of any kind. We have been so “successful” that we have hi-graded all our minerals and ores. As we dig even deeper for lower qualities of ores, the energy and investment increases exponentially.  It is becoming increasingly cost effective to mine technical nutrients from end-of-life products than to mine for virgin raw materials.The growing shortage of raw virgin feedstock has, ironically focused our attention on the former “waste” streams of end of life manufactured goods. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense to harvest the technical nutrients from end-of-life products because it is much lower energy to use them as feedstock. Absent is the energy-intensive processing applied to virgin feedstock.

We need a revolution in industrial design and manufacturing to completely reclaim technical nutrients from any manufactured product whose useful lifetime has expired.  Products must be designed so that the valuable resources can be 100% reclaimed at the End-of-Life (EOF) of the manufactured product. Such redesign would allow us to recover valuable technical nutrients with very low energy, effectively creating a closed loop feedstock system. Such a design methodology is called Cradle-to-Cradle and it’s founders, architect William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart promote it with the mantra Waste = Food.

With effective Cradle-to-Cradle redesign, It will become far cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to process something already here on the surface of the earth than digging for more of the virgin raw material kilometers below the surface of the earth, transporting it to the surface, crushing, processing and refining it to become feedstock for the manufacturing process. All manufactured products must be designed to be 100% reclaimable for feedstock, reusable or biodegradable so that our presence does not disturb the ecosystem but harmonizes with it.

As a society, we are now at the beginning stages of a monumental journey to overhaul and retool our entire manufacturing process. The big question now is: how do we systematically migrate from our current unsustainable manufacturing system to a sustainable one without causing major economic disruptions?

 Biomimicry

Nature as measure. Beside providing the model, nature would also provide the measure-we would look to nature as a standard against which to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. Are they life promoting? Do they fit in? Will they last? When we view nature as a source of ideas instead of goods, the rationale for protecting wild species and their habitats becomes self-evident. To have more people realize this is my fondest hope. In the end, I think biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug. It will be gratitude, and from this, an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us.

- janine benyus

Introduction to Biomimicry

European Space Agency & Biomimicry

Biomimicry in Architecture

Nature is a genuis and we need to look at the countless ways to see how she has solved the most complex problems in the most elegant and effective way. Biomimicry is the burgeoning field of science that seeks to tap into nature for inspiration to solve human design problems. Nature has been designing solutions for 3.8 billion years; humans don’t come close.

Get started by asking nature.

The Cradle-to-Cradle Economy – Accelerating Change

Over the past decades, the environmental message has gotten out there. We all know what it means to “go green” and we all know about replacing incandescent bulbs, with LED lights, conserving water, recycling, driving less and biking more, eating less meat and more vegetarian. All these incremental changes are necessary but are they sufficient to avoid surpassing planetary boundaries? Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and a leading environmental advocate says no.

Incremental changes may have been enough decades ago when scientists first began issuing warnings, but the rate of  erosion has increased so rapidly that we now need major step changes to avoid exceeding planetary boundaries. Of the 7 billion of us that now exist, about half a billion people are consuming 50% of all the natural resources on the planet.  To this group of overconsumers, incremental changes result in relatively little impact. A huge part of the problem is the inertia built into existing systems. Our existing infrastructure is inefficiently designed and we have to live with all their limitations until cradle-to-cradle design becomes significant.

It is clear, then that the real environmental movement and change necessary is still in its infancy. The profound shift is yet to take place. Our manufacturing process must itself undergo a radical redesign as soon as possible. As long as we do not fundamentally change the way we manufacture, we will continue the linear cycle which drains off massive amounts of natural resources, consumes massive amounts of non-renewable energy and generates massive amounts of pollution.  Without the step change required in manufacturing, the impact of all our other ecologically motivated actions will fail to make a real impact.

To learn more about the circular economy, in which cradle-to-cradle and biomimicry become the heart of manufacturing, go here.

What is Required to be Truly Sustainable? Greenwashing vs. true Cradle-to-Cradle

Ozzie Zehner’s precautionary tales in Green Illusions illustrate just how easy it is for technocrats to be fooled. To completely eliminate resource depletion and waste simultaneously requires a complete overhaul of our manufacturing process and, perhaps even more difficult, an overhaul of the way that manufacturers and designers think.

Zehner often cites the case of Solar PV panels as a perfect case in point that illustrates the Short Termism thinking that plagues not just government policy makers and business people, but also engineers and scientists working within renewable energy itself.

There are many who espouse the virtues of green technology but very few indeed have actually performed Life Cycle Analysis as Ozzie Zehner has. If they did, they reach the same surprising conclusions that Zehner does, the  Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy, as Zehner likes to call it. For solar PV, the dirty secret is their very high embodied energy & resource costs for the lifetime of a complete installed system as well as their disposal problems. In particular, there is little to no discussion about what happens to PV cells or other advanced technology solutions after their End of Life.

What hope have we got if even the renewable energy designers and engineers who are tasked with the responsibility of providing the “clean” energy solutions to replace fossil fuels are still predominantly not in the habit of thinking and designing from a cradle-to-cradle perspective? They need to shift the paradigm and automatically ask certain questions at the very beginning of their design cycle:

  • What happens to a designed hi-tech product after the End of Life?
  • How many toxins and how much pollution is used to design and build the product from cradle to grave?
  • How much resources are used?
  • What is the embodied energy?
  • What is the total cost over its lifetime?
  • Does it just become E-waste with no possibility of recovering the technical nutrients?
  • If so, isn’t it irresponsible to scale this up to a global level?

Providing such dirty “clean energy” solutions would merely perpetuate the same problems we are trying to solve, albeit under a different guise of sustainability. It is merely another form of greenwashing from the industrial technological complex.

The required paradigm shift is from the current system that mines virgin non-renewable resources to one that recycles 100% of the technical nutrients found in the products of manufacturing. Mining virgin stock is acceptable only if it can be completely replenished in short enough cycle times; in other words, as long as it is a renewable resource. Bamboo and Industrial Hemp are examples of two crops which satisfy definitions of renewable bio-resources.

This new philosophy is called Cradle-to-Cradle and requires a complete redesign of our manufacturing process. The first thing it will do is eliminate a huge amount of products that currently exist or exist in current form. Take electronics.

Hi-Tech, E-Waste and where to from here?

Integrated circuits power all our electronics. They carry among the highest embodied energy of anything we manufacture. It isn’t surprising, given that chips like Intel’s Xeon processor pack over 2 billion transistors into the chip die. This extreme amount of resolution requires enormous amounts of energy to etch so finely. The embodied energy of integrated circuits is so high, in fact, that they constitute 95% of the embodied energy of a computer. The circuit board, chassis, plastic molded parts, etc…contribute only 5%. Integrated circuits embody 6 orders of magnitude more energy in their manufacture than conventional technology.

Chips and circuit boards are notorious for using some of the most toxic substances known to man in their manufacture. Components such as resistors, capacitors and inductors compliment these integrated circuits on the printed circuit board. Extremely fine pitched metallization is printed onto a fibreglass insulating substrate to allow current to flow from one device to another. There can be hundreds of layers of insulator and metallization in order to make devices as compact as they are.

When our hi-tech gear have outlived their very short lives, they become E-waste. Yet the very manufacturing process that has made them marvels of miniaturization also pose the greatest challenge to recovering their technical nutrients. Often, the many rare earth metals that are used are combined in such small quanitities that there is no practical way to recover them.

Hi-Tech is therefore faced with an enormous challenge if it is to move into a truly sustainable future.