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Green Circle: Redefining the Extractive Economy—TrackerNews.net Link Suite Overview

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Recycling isn’t just sorting the trash for garbage pick-up any more. A new generation of designers, entrepreneurs and activists is coming up with all kind of clever ways to connect seemingly disparate supply chains, turn expense into profit and redefine the “extractive economy” through a mix of biomimicry and circular thinking.

“Green Circle” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

The ancient alchemists aimed low, merely attempting to turn lead into gold for personal gain. The real magic, according to the chemists at start-up Micromidas , may be both muckier and microbial: turning sludge into bio-degradable plastic. If they are right, and their scheme scales commercially, it will be a win for everyone. What was once a problem will be transformed into an asset as a (literal) waste stream becomes a valuable feedstock. What was a  municipal cost will become a source of municipal income. And throw-away products made from eco-friendly plastic will, actually, go away, decomposing into environmentally compatible parts, instead of swirling into eternity in middle-of-the-ocean gyres.

It is a radical re-think of the “extractive economy,” notes Ryan Smith, Micromidas’ CTO. After a few centuries of hauling finite resources—from fossil fuels to rare earth minerals—out of the ground, we have enough on the surface to keep us going, and in fairly good style, but only if we refocus our collective tech smarts and investment dollars on mining garbage.

Drilling for oil and refining it into a form that can be used to make a plastic bottle, for example,  is a long, complicated giant-carbon-footprint process. When the bottle is tossed, the energy embedded in its manufacture is lost as well.

Architect William McDonough’s paradigm of “cradle to cradle” (C2C) design, which calls for products to be developed with recycling in mind, is subtly shifting towards what’s being called the “circular economy.” This is biomimicry nested into systems thinking and goes beyond the C2C mantra of “waste = food.” It is about  transformation, creative re-use and discovering unintended possibilities (or, to put it in evolutionary biology terms, “exaptations”**– traits evolved for one set of needs that come in handy for something completely different).

From Terracycle, an “upcycling” company that turns juice pouches into pop culture-stylish backpacks and sells worm poop fertilizer in re-used plastic bottles, to Recycle Match, whose founder refers to the company as the “eBay of garbage,” the focus is on keeping as much as possible from needlessly ending up in landfills.

Likewise, Oregon-based clothing manufacturer Looptworks, creates limited edition fashion lines from high-quality “pre-consumer” waste, a.k.a. surplus fabric that mills and manufactures otherwise simply discard. Nearly 12 billion pounds of textile waste is produced annually just in the U.S.—much of it destined for landfills. They have rejiggered the traditional fashion business model by creating smaller runs that require less lead time (a couple of months versus a year, or more), sourcing great fabrics at bargain prices and streamlining the distribution network, using the internet both for direct sales and developing a national retail network. Lower labor, material and distribution costs drop straight to the bottom line.

Ecovative Design wants to keep styrofoam out of landfills, not by re-using it, but replacing it with a product whose production itself diverts would-be agricultural waste streams from landfills. Founder Eben Bayer and his team developed a process that infuses crop byproducts packed into special molds with mushroom mycelium. In less than a week, the mycelium consume the ag waste, creating a sturdy biodegradable polymer in whatever shape the mold happened to be. Instead of throwing away packing materials, consumers can compost them for their gardens. Even if the material ends up in a landfill, it will break down quickly, unlike styrene, which can last for millennia. Also, because the “mycobond” process requires comparatively little investment in machinery—the fungus does most of the heavy-lifting—and can be adapted for a broad range of ag waste material, it lends itself for a distributed production network. That means yet another level of carbon-footprint savings shipping product over shorter distances.

The wisdom of the (scrap metal) grasshopper / Edouard Martinet

Perhaps the most poetic example of “upcycling” in the TrackerNews link suite is Edouard Martinet’s stunningly intricate scrap metal sculputures. Cutlery, bicycle parts  and office machine components are turned into spot-on grasshoppers, fish, frogs and birds. The sleight-of-junk is even more impressive in that the parts aren’t soldered together,  but selected: pieces for extravagantly intricate puzzles. An exaptation mash-up at the art gallery. Calling Edward Scissorhands

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  • Win two free tickets to Compostmodern! (Really, who can resist a conference with such a great name?) All you need to do is rescue something garbage-bound and design a genuinely useful reincarnation for it. Entries for the GOOD magazine-sponsored competition must be submitted by December 20, 2010. The San Francisco-based conference, organized by the local AIGA chapter, takes place on January 22-23.


* Micromidas’ website is currently being upgraded. Contact information: rsmith (@) micromidas (dot) com.

** Can exaptations apply to ideas? Yes, yes, yes, according to Steven Johnson, who devotes an entire chapter to it in his terrific new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”

2 Responses

  1. What a great round-up of the waste to resource innovators! I’m so proud RecycleMatch is included. It is our JOY to make it easier for innovators like these to find the materials they need more cost effectively.

    You guys are inspirational!

    @BrookeBF from @RecycleMatch

  2. Aw shucks…you’re doing all the amazing work!

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