Sunday, February 19, 2012

Part 1 - Creating the Circular Economy

What was this again?
In my last post about Cora, a new project I am enamored with using mobile technology to help solve our "waste" problem, I mentioned that one of the reasons I think what they're doing is so cool is because "They're helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy".

What is a Circular Economy?

When I say "circular economy", I'm referring to an economy modeled on natural systems where there is no waste - "waste" is an input for other processes.  Raw materials, once extracted from the earth, are continually circulated in the industrial system as industrial nutrients.  Products are designed to be disassembled and reused, or designed to be an input into another product at their end-of-life.  In the industrial ecosystem there are losses along the way (friction - tires, brake pads, band saw blades, etc.) and as part of this thinking those losses are digestible in Nature. Eventually, a material's industrial utility has ended.  At that point, as part of a circular economy, the material may be reintroduced into Nature without any harmful impact. Of course, energy is required to re-purpose industrial waste and/or transport it for its next use.  In an ideal scenario, this energy is derived from renewable sources - including harvesting the heat generated from the very processes the materials are used in. I'm drawing upon my memory of The Natural Step and Cradle to Cradle for this definition.

I wrote the comment "helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy" in passing, almost as a "no-brainer". Then, I read an article from Fast Company's co.exist design site mentioning the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's "Towards the Circular Economy" report prompting me to
 think intently about what it would take to make it happen.  The answer: a lot.

We think about resource use and flow linearly

We've created linear systems of resource flow; we pull something out of the ground, throw a lot of energy into it in the form of manufacturing, use it up and throw it back into the ground. We recycle, that's true, though looking at  mining company financial performance one might conclude that rates of raw material extraction continue to climb. You see, collectively, we generally believe that an item has a useful life and when we're done with it, it's value is minimal or zero - to the point where it is in our best interest to toss it away as valueless, and replace it. We're essentially making an economic decision based upon an item's utility under current social conventions and economic incentives. 

We require a shift in perceived value at an object's end-of-life   

When something is "used up" from an individual perspective - its value to someone else or another organization may be high.  As one of my reuse friends said, "We're so used to buying it instead of making it for ourselves that there's more [social] legitimacy in an item we purchase than if we make exactly the same thing for ourselves at home."  Developing a secondary economy of reuse and upcycling (as is already happening) will help drive change in economic policy to support reuse.  It's not the engineers, energy geeks, and cradle-to-cradle worshippers that see a circular economy as obvious, it's consumers, politicians, gen X, Y, Z, millennials, AARP members, football stars, prom queens, liberals, conservatives, communists, and capitalists -  all of which may be reusers and creative upcyclers

I focused on the physical/material portion of a circular economy in my earlier definition. There's much more to it.  Breaking it down, I see it in three levels (as with most "sustainability" frameworks or buzzwords its a triumvirate like "people, planet, profit", "triple bottom line", "triple top line", ESG, CSR, etc.) 
  • Socially - we meet and exchange goods and services with people we know (probably nearby) and in the process build and strengthen social connections and communities
  • Economically - the goods we exchange have economic value, and the longer those goods circulate in the "material world" the more value they provide for their users and society
  • Environmentally - large amounts of energy were used to create these items, by keeping them circulating, we're improving our EROI and preventing the introduction of indigestible post-human waste into the biosphere
Up next, the the social elements of the circular economy.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Using What Appears to be Useless

What the heck do you do with these?
I'm going to ask you to bear with me on something that is probably NOT remotely part of your consciousness - what the heck can you do with a few thousand used Wolfgang Puck coffee pod wrappers?

Yes, that is correct, coffee pod wrappers.

You know what I'm talking about.  It may not be coffee pod wrappers for you, maybe it's baby food jars, or those little cardboard thermal wrap things that come with certain brands of coffee, or used bicycle inner tubes, or used coffee bean bags, or the crinkly wrapping paper that comes with takeout, or something completely different.  Things you look at and say "what a waste...why are we sending thousands of these a year to a landfill".  Sure, some of these items may be recycled - hopefully lots of them are - and there are things that cannot be recycled, and/or might have more value if they were kept in the material world and not broken back down and remade into something completely different.  After all, "recycling" (which is really downcycling at times as an item is make into something of lesser value) requires energy of some sort right?

OK, you may not be obsessing about this kind of stuff, but when you stop and think about it for a few minutes does it really make sense to bury something in the ground after we've invested who knows how much energy to pull it out of the ground and make it into something useful?

What to do?  There are services like freecycle and craigslist to connect people with used stuff with people that want the used stuff (I successfully passed along ~200 CD jewel cases a few years ago to a library) and a continually developing collaborative consumption and person-to-person ecosystem that might be considered and outgrowth of the ever present DIY, voluntary and involuntary simplicity, and reuse/upcycle community.

I recently learned about a project I'm excited about (and helping to spread the word about them)
seeking to connect the dots in all these communities - they're building a mobile app built on top of a curated database that will make it easy to find out what to do with the thirty empty bags of dog food in your garage or the empty 5 gallon buckets from your latest home improvement project.
It's called Cora - Trash Backwards.

Why I like it?
  • As much as mobile devices are contributing to our waste problem, they're not going anywhere anytime soon so we might as well leverage them to help solve the problem they contribute to
  • The Cora message is about the positive and creative things we can do with these items, and the personal connections made when we creatively reuse - not hand-wringing, guilt-ridden pleas to "save the planet" (though that's the ultimate goal, right?)
  • They're helping preserve and recreate our relational/circular economy.  We're now skewed toward a linear/transactional economy
  • I'm fascinated (and sometimes flummoxed) by the intersection of internet technology/communication and old-fashioned DIY/build it yourself culture in the real world
So head on over to their Kickstarter page (kickstarter is a clearinghouse for creative projects looking for financial help to get off the ground) check them out, make a small investment and soon you'll be able to creatively reuse the stuff you're not sure what to do with.  You can get a sneak peek of how their app works here.