Green Circle: Redefining the Extractive Economy— 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

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

Additional links on:
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.



  • 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”

Vaccines!: The Good Fight, Funding Struggle, Breaking the “Cold Chain” and a Bit of Biomimicry

TrackerNews “Tumblr” posts are short intros to new link suites on the aggregator.  However, the Vaccines! post ran a bit longer than usual, so we have decided to reprint here as well. – Ed.

Few things bring as much “bang for the buck” in global public health as vaccines. It is simply a lot cheaper to prevent a disease than to pay for treatment and the cascade of downstream costs (orphaned children, food for people too ill to farm or keep jobs, etc.) Yet in the current economic downturn, funding cuts have forced even high profile programs such as polio eradication and HIV vaccine research to make some fraught decisions about which initiatives to pursue and which to drop.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of money vaccines. Sales jumped nearly 30% between 2007 to 2009, from $18.5 billion to $26 billion, with flu jabs accounting for $5 billion, and Gardasil, Merck’s controversial vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer, hauling in just over $1 billion. Per year.

Some vaccines provide subtle but significant side-benefits. Use of vaccines against diarrheal and pneumococcal diseases, for example,  have led to a decrease in antibiotic resistance in local populations. Fewer antibiotics overall are needed, which cuts down on the opportunities for resistance genes to evolve. Those who need antibiotics are more likely to actually benefit from them.

Likewise, GALVmed’s focus on livestock and poultry vaccines not only benefits animals, but also the hundreds of millions of rural poor in developing countries who rely on them for food and income. A measly 5%  of international aid goes toward agriculture, yet it is much cheaper to help people grow their own food than to ship stockpiles of emergency grain.

Breakthroughs in vaccine delivery and storage have significantly increased the effectiveness of immunization programs. Breaking the “cold chain” has become a rallying cry for a raft of new technologies. Traditionally, vaccines have had to be kept chilled throughout the entire journey from high-tech lab to off-the-grid clinics. A new bi-chambered syringe, which keeps the vaccine in a freeze-dried form until needed, may change that.

Vaccines with longer shelf lives should also cut down on costs. An estimated $260 million worth of swine flu vaccine had to be thrown out in the U.S. when it hit its expiration date over the summer.

Research continues on “edible vaccines,” a.k.a. “plant-based pharmaceuticals,” a.k.a. “molecular farming.” Although not quite the headline-darling they were five years ago, in large part due to concerns over GMOs, 20 years of research has more than proved the concept. It is possible to snack one’s way to immunity.

Since human researchers have yet to invent anything Nature doesn’t already do at some level (see “jumping genes), it begs the question whether foods naturally provide a degree of vaccination. For example, could this be a contributing factor for why not everyone gets sick drinking contaminated water? Is it possible that plants, which are known to take up pathogens via water (e.g., e.coli in lettuce), slurp up low levels of local germs, triggering an antibody response in those who eat them?

Of course, this is just speculation. But if anyone out there knows of any research, or is inspired to do the research, please keep us posted at TrackerNews. We love this sort of thing. Nobody does balance better than Nature.

The link suite includes articles and videos on:

  • Breaking the “cold chain” with a smarter syringe
  • Malaria vaccine possible by 2015
  • Vaccinating the middle man: protecting robins against West Nile and mosquitoes against plasmodium
  • Dengue trials for an all-four-strains vaccine in Australia
  • Why the money might run out before polio does
  • Hurdles slowing down progress on TB jab
  • Fungus to fight fungus – vaccinating trees
  • Is eradication futile?
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)

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On biomimicry and the answers right in front of us; Photosynthesis & personal power; Urban farming, tropical agroforestry and (eco)system modeling; A carbon negative idea with fertile perks; Population balance

Waiting for diplomats to resolve the global climate crisis may take so long, it won’t matter. So what do we do in the meantime?

At TrackerNews, we have highlighted all kinds of promising green energy ideas, from micro-wind and solar textiles to vast arrays of concentrated solar collectors and giant “sea snakes” harvesting wave energy.

We love them all and their heartening range of ingenuity and resourcefulness. But none of them – or even all of them taken together – can do much to move the global thermostat in the near term, especially without the political will and the investment that results to grow them to scale.

We began to wonder whether there were any ideas that could make a difference, that could actually help stabilize our feverish planet within a matter of years instead of decades. We found five – an encouraging start. Notably, all take their design cues from nature and offer multi-faceted benefits. Nature, notes Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute, relies on technologies that have been field tested for millions of years, the ultimate in iterative design. It works. Every time.



MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera says he can solve the world’s energy needs with a little bit water – and while he’s at it, make a dent in the water crisis. Although the most theoretical of the four ideas, Nocera’s breakthrough could lead to a quick and decisive global conversion to a hydrogen-based economy.

He began by calculating global energy needs past and future (best case and business-as-usual scenarios), comparing them with the most optimistic projections for energy generated from non-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear) and noting the physical limitations that prevent significant improvement in battery storage.  Disturbingly, even if we all did everything possible to minimize per capita energy consumption and the number of “capitas” was kept in check by educating poor women – the fastest way, according to Nocera, to reduce the birth rate, the future looks pretty gloomy.

In the hopes of rosying things up, he studied how plants make energy by splitting water molecules. For years researchers had focused on finding catalysts that could survive the process. Nocera noticed that nature didn’t bother, instead using catalysts that simply reassembled themselves. The system was “self-healing.” Then he came up with a way to do the same thing.

Within  “8.1254 years, ” Nocera envisions homes outfitted with solar panels tied into  inexpensive water-splitting systems (no pricey precious metals such as platinum required – common pvc pipe will do). The resulting hydrogen will be stored on site to take care of the home’s energy needs and recharge electric cars.  Each building will become its own power station, with no grid  – and no coal-powered central power stations – required. As a bonus, the catalyst is hardy enough to handle dirty water, so the system  can be set up almost anywhere. And if you reverse the process, reuniting hydrogen with oxygen, presto, clean water. Continue reading