Thembi Mtshali, a young Zulu girl, was born into poverty in rural South Africa. Her grandmother showed her how to make a doll from clay, and when she was done playing with it, to return it to the land. This circle of life image transcends time as a powerful instruction to future generations — take what you need and restore it to the earth for others to use.
Iranian architect Nader Khalili designed emergency shelters out of sandbags. These disaster-resistant structures called SuperAdobes are formed by coiling sandbags into giant beehives and stabilizing them with barbed wire. Although they can be a permanent housing solution, they can go back to the earth, too.
The Canadian province of Ontario included a regulation in the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act 2016 which requires tire producers or automotive dealers to recover unusable tires so that Ontarians don’t burn them or send them to landfills. This mandate was created as part of the provincial-wide system to fight climate change. In January 2018, proponents of this act called for a 90% recovery of all components and higher value recycling outcomes such as turning the end-of-life tire into rubberized asphalt roads. With some concerted effort, the stakeholders in the system will create jobs, reduce waste, and achieve the target.
In each example, the cycle of creation and destruction has a lower environmental impact than many alternatives. A children’s doll can be returned to the earth and leave no trace. The sustainable construction uses mostly local resources and can house millions in temporary structures. Ontario can become a global leader in higher value recycling for a circular economy.
Native American ecologist Chief Seattle said, “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints,” in 1854. Around the 1990s global standards began to emerge encouraging people to rethink production and elevate the practice of sustainable fishing, forestry, architecture and so on. Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in 2002. They created a framework to evaluate production activities at all phases from raw material extraction, production, and distribution, use and refuse. They suggest that all the things that we design should come from the earth without impact, and return it safely when it is no longer needed as compost, or provide the path to reuse the raw materials.
We see attempts at a cradle-to-cradle design, or C2C, a trend in clothing manufacturing, buildings, and sewage. Although today this framework is 16 years old, it’s in its infancy. Critics point out that a production cycle will always be impacted by energy use, transportation and speed to market, which may always prevent a product from obtaining a perfect Life Cycle Assessment score. There could be a more conscious effort to consider how humans use Earth’s resources today and leave positive options for future generations. While we make an effort conserve en masse, we need to be reminded of the scientific Law of Conservation of Mass. This law describes a system of energy and matter that does not increase or decrease over time. A perfect circular economy would do the same where we extract the maximum value of each component at the end of each service life.
If we are to live within our planetary boundaries we need to nurture a well thought out system in which we decrease man-made junk and increase our natural healing agents. How might our production methods differ if we design technology using the right kind of matter and energy for the needs of the 12 billion humans who could be living on planet Earth by 2050?
©Maggie Greyson 2018