In the time before humans, plants grew from the soil and sun, an animal ate it, the animal died and its nutrients went back into the soil, plants grew from the soil … a circular economy of use, recycle and repeat.

Humans, by contrast, build phones with limited resources, dispose of the old phones into landfills, build new phones with even more limited resources and repeat … a linear economy of use, dispose, repeat.

I came across this brilliant idea of building technology so that it can be easily disassembled and the components reused in new technology.  Just the reduction in toxic waste that would occur to generate new components makes this idea appealing.

But how practical is this?  And is anyone currently doing this?  

I wanted to find answers.

My first stop was to the nonprofit that produced the above video.  EMF has support from Google, IDEO and manufacturers like Philips, Renault and SC Johnson.  Considering that the last three consume a ginormous amount of resources, I didn’t know whether this was encouraging or whether my BS detector should go off.

New tools such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and biomimicry mean our design ambitions are limited only by our imagination. (Source: EMF’s Circular Design Guide, https://www.circulardesignguide.com/)


Okay, but what does all that mean in practice?  Their first example of a circular economy product sounds promising: packaging made from mushroom roots that breaks down and becomes compost. [1]

The founders of Ecovative Design, found inspiration while observing mushrooms growing on wood chips and how the mycelium – the ‘roots’ of the mushrooms – bonded the wood chips together. Mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells, then acts like a “natural, self-assembling glue”. This enabled the team to formulate a new method to produce materials able to replace various types of products, including petroleum-based expanded plastics and particle board made using carcinogenic formaldehyde. [1]

Packaging not made from plastic, and therefore not made from fossil fuels, is encouraging.  Perhaps the government could take some of the fossil fuel subsidy monies to pay for it.

But if the packaging ends up in a landfill, it won’t biodegrade.  

Seriously, I thought it might be a common myth I learned growing up that old newspapers were still readable after 50 years buried in a landfill, but the New York Times validated this over twenty five years ago:

After 20 years of sorting through garbage cans and landfills, the archaeologist William L. Rathje has accumulated precious memories. There are the 40-year-old hot dogs, perfectly preserved beneath dozens of strata of waste, and the head of lettuce still in pristine condition after 25 years. But the hands-down winner, the one that still makes him shake his head in disbelief, is an order of guacamole he recently unearthed. Almost as good as new, it sat next to a newspaper apparently thrown out the same day. The date was 1967. [2]

So not only do you need biodegradable packaging, you need an infrastructure to collect the packaging and to rotate the accumulation like a compost pile.  


Oh, and you need to mix it in the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen material for it to breakdown.  And heat. (So Minnesotans might need to ship out its packaging to warmer climates or use energy to heat an indoor composting operation.)

In summary, a circular economy is possible but there’s a great deal of logistics that needs to be in place to make it happen versus just tossing it all in the trash can and then sending it off to the landfill.

Footnotes

[1] Ecovates biodegradable packaging, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/growing-alternatives-to-petroleum-based-packaging

[2] New York Times 8/13/92, “Seeking the Truth in Refuse” https://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/13/nyregion/seeking-the-truth-in-refuse.html