Circular economy is the norm in nature: all products are 100% recycled and recyclable. Waste does not exist at the level of natural ecosystems, as the metabolic waste of one living being is the food of another. This can inspire us to transform our production methods towards a circular economy.
Zero waste, the basis for nature
It is often easier, for a company selling a product, not to worry about what happens to waste along the production chain. Yet everything can be put to good use, that's what nature and circular economy do.
In ecology, the concept of biocenosis brings together living beings, their organizations and their interactions in a given ecological space. These systems are extremely complex, each species interacting with a large number of living beings in its environment, from bacteria and fungi to trees. A forest is much more than the sum of its inhabitants.
This explains why it is very rare that the introduction of a species into a new environment goes well, the complexity of the biocenoses making them almost impossible to apprehend in their entirety. The added species usually ends with either becoming invasive, and lead to the reduction or disappearance of other native species, either by not adapt and disappear from the environment.
The subtle balances of biocenoses are the result of long periods of experimentation and evolution, and we humans have little chance of succeeding in creating such complex and self-sufficient systems in a few decades. What we can do, however, by biomimicry is to draw inspiration from methods that have been selected and work on the long term to design our own production systems.
The zero waste aspect is crucial in the circular economy because producing elements that are not recycled by other members of the ecosystem is the certainty of an increasingly unstable system.
Nature knows how to produce materials with remarkable physical properties, which are also recyclable. In forests, wood is recycled by fungi that have specialized enzymes capable of breaking down their long carbon chains . If the principle of forest ecosystems can be an inspiration in itself for designing industrial networks, the concrete methods employed are also powerful tools that we can put to good use. Lignin, which gives wood its strength, is made up of long carbon chains, which is also the case... for plastic! Some mushrooms are thus capable of degrade plastic into edible material with low energy cost.
Aiming for a circular economy, aiming to produce nothing that cannot be recycled at the end of its life, and recycling as much as possible are therefore lessons that can be learned from nature to create a sustainable society.
The circular economy, to get out of the linear economy paradigm
Linear production, as it is mainly conceived and practiced today, draws on stocks that are non-renewable or do not renew quickly enough and produce waste that is neither dealt with by the economy, nor by the ecosystems. This mode of production is not sustainable, and does not exist in nature. The circular economy aims to create interconnected production networks at all levels, closer to ecosystems to replace the model of production chains with a single output. To design such systems, it is necessary to think of the industry as a whole to identify environmental flows and impacts, and to encourage collaboration between economic actors.
Four strategies can be identified to move towards this ideal of a circular economy.
Manage waste in closed loops
This is our first strategy to aim for the circular economy. Nothing should come out of industries that are of no use to other actors. This goes through the recycling and recovery of co-products, points on which biomimicry can bring a lot of ideas to help recycle materials, enhance the flow of energy and materials from different actors, and to create eco-industrial systems.
These initiatives, like the ones below, simultaneously improve the profitability of the activity and reduce its environmental footprint. One way to ensure that you produce recoverable waste is to go through bio-production, which uses the chemistry of life to create materials rather than methods based on petrochemistry, for example.
We can thus create non-polluting and biocompatible alternatives. We can cite the work of researchers from the Institut Pascal de Clermont-Ferrand and IRSTEA who have developed a glue from shrimp and mushroom shells that uses agro waste-food and is itself biodegradable.
It is often said in the field of sustainable development that the best waste is the one that has never been produced. Eco-design, one of the pillars of the circular economy, aims to reduce the need for materials and particularly non-renewable materials, as well as the waste emitted throughout the life of the product. In nature, we are advantaged if we only need resources that are easily and abundantly available. Similarly, being able to survive with little material intake makes it possible to withstand periods of scarcity.
Nature is an expert in lightweight design: natural elements have every interest in limiting their mass, as resources are limited, and excessive mass hinders mobility. Woodpeckers, for example, have a skull that is very resistant to shocks, which allows them to dig into the wood with their beaks. This inspired helmets lighter that can absorb three times more energy on impact than conventional ones. Biomimicry is a powerful tool for eco-design, and very elegant design solutions abound in nature.
In living things, energy is the sinews of war. Trees are jostling to capture solar radiation first, animals are fighting for access to food. Among different bacteria that find an abundant source of food, the one that by its metabolism will be able, all other things being equal, to multiply with fewer nutrients, will see its population grow much faster than the others, and will end up suffocating its competitors. Generally, a specie that, in the same environment, needs more food to perform the same functions as another specie, has a disqualifying disadvantage in nature.
The colossal stock of energy that humanity was suddenly able to exploit during the industrial revolution (with the exploitation of coal and then oil) made it possible to develop technologies that do not meet the criteria of sobriety and interdependence found in natural systems. Due to the great availability of resources, energy efficiency was not initially a major criterion in the development of these technologies, and even if this has changed a lot now, many technologies are still far from the capacities of living beings in terms of energy efficiency. energy efficiency and resilience or modularity (adaptation to changes).
In a logic of circular economy, we must free ourselves from our dependence on non-renewable resources for our energy needs, which requires, among other things, better efficiency energy. Whether by improving the aerodynamics, with well-known examples like the Kingfisher-inspired Shinkansen or the Airbus Super Transporter inspired by the shape of the beluga, the network management or even the architecture, biomimicry is not at its first energy sobriety attempt.
By offering the possibility of avoiding material support to carry information, IT makes it possible to avoid producing prototypes thanks to simulation, to optimize the management of complex systems in real time and to improve our understanding of them. In this sense, IT can be a powerful ally in reducing our environmental impact and organizing the multi-stakeholder cooperation necessary for the circular economy.
Industries are equipped for example with digital twins, to simulate their production chains. This makes it possible to anticipate the consequences of disruptions, to test solutions virtually before implementing them physically, and overall to operate more efficiently.
Dematerialization, however, relies on a physical medium: computing, that consumes energy (and its consumption increases by 9% each year), requests materials and generates waste. Given the growing importance of IT in the functioning of our societies and our daily lives, succeeding in making the sector more sustainable is a strategic challenge.
Biomimicry offers opportunities to reduce the material and energy cost of storing and processing information. Harvard is researching the storage of information on DNA as in the living. This technology makes it possible to store 1000 times more data in the same volume as a conventional hard drive, using only bio-produced organic matter.
Research on bio-inspired algorithms is also very active, and makes it possible to create elegant, energy-efficient solutions, inspired for example by our brain, which perform computational feats, simultaneously solving a wide variety of problems with only 20 Watts (the consumption of a small light bulb!).
Meeting the Challenge of Sustainable Computing with ZACK
Eventually, we should succeed in producing fully renewable computers. In the meantime, we can already work, as a first step, to integrate a circular economy logic into IT.
Solutions already exist to create electronic components from organic materials. You may have already heard of OLEDs, organic LEDs. Conventional LEDs use semiconductors often enriched with rare metals whose stocks are limited, whose extraction is very polluting and whose recycling is very rare. OLEDs achieve excellent performance while being fully recyclable and highly energy efficient: they surely represent the future of lighting.
The span of bioinformatics aimed at using living processes to achieve operations rather than traditional electronic components, is a field of research in full explosion, but which still fits into long-term perspectives. The energy efficiency of biological systems makes them interesting in theory, but their implementation is currently too complex for them to be used on a large scale.
We already have a lot of electronic equipment in circulation. Surely you have some somewhere that you no longer use and we have a proposal allowing you to participate directly in the circular economy!
The waste of all these electronic components, which at best are forgotten in drawers and at worst end up polluting the environment, is gigantic. Based on this observation, three innovators, Timothée Mével, a graduate of Supaéro and Polytechnique, Casimir de Hauteclocque, a Ponts et Chaussée engineer and Pierre-Emmanuel Saint-Esprit, a graduate of ESSEC, met in Berkeley where they collaborated to found their start-up ZACK. ZACK is already the French leader in the management of second-hand electronic products and makes it possible to recover abandoned devices with less effort.
The initiative by ZACK fits perfectly into the logic of the circular economy, by creating an actor who will take charge of electronic products that no longer work and reintroduce them into the economy, just as decomposers make the molecules of living beings available to the ecosystem.
ZACK has already put 800 tons of electronic components back into circulation since its creation in 2016. ZACK also gives the opportunity to promote its old appliances with a minimum of procedures, since the company resells the components at auction in less than a month. Their customers are often surprised to know the value of their electronic devices, even out of use.
Combining ecological gesture and economic gain while making participation as simple as possible, this is what allows ZACK to participate in changes in consumption patterns and the fight against planned obsolescence.
We believe it's essential that as many people as possible hear about these initiatives that can give everyone a role in transforming the way we live and the establishment of a circular economy. To give an order of magnitude, each year an amount of 50 million tons of e-waste are generated, and only 20% that are recycled. This waste pollutes the soil and groundwater, while it represents an annual value of $62.5 billion (a little more than the GDP of Croatia), and a ton of this waste contains more gold than a ton of gold ore before processing.
Suffice to say that ZACK still has its work cut out for it, and they're just waiting for you to put all your old phones, computers, clock radios, music players back into circulation. It's good for the planet, good for us, and it's the kind of initiatives we need more than ever to achieve a sustainable and circular economy!