Food for Thought

June 27, 2017

 Pictured: a lot of food for eating at the Evergreen Brickworks.

Pictured: a lot of food for eating at the Evergreen Brickworks.

 

In William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s seminal book Cradle to Cradle (C2C), the two authors unpack the concept of “Waste Equals Food” by looking towards the natural world. They lay out how nothing truly ever goes to waste in nature - everything from fallen petals to dung gets “cycled and recycled” as nutrients, forming a closed loop cradle-to-cradle system. However, the current state of the world has two distinct material flows - not just biological, but technical as well. Humans have started taking substances from the Earth and changed them into forms that can’t be safely returned to the original biological system. There now exists both biological nutrients (which are good for nature), and technical nutrients (good for industry). Resolving this conflict and fully adopting a “Waste Equals Food” strategy is vital for applications of sustainable design.

The issue is simply the fact that at its core our current system is inherently unsustainable. As a result of an exponentially increasing population and our desire for virgin goods (unboxing videos for tech products are particularly guilty of this), we have moved away from cradle-to-cradle and turned instead towards cradle-to-grave. We blend biological and technical materials into new combinations that cannot be salvaged after we are done with them. These so called “monstrous hybrids”, resilient to nature’s processes, build up in our landfills to no end.

One solution proposed by McDonough and Braungart is to eliminate our current conception of “waste” altogether. They propose instead to design from the start with the knowledge of the two material flows in mind. By keeping them separate, closed biological and technical nutrient loops can be created, making it possible to continually circulate valuable materials. Technical nutrients will be kept apart from biological ones to avoid potential toxic contamination, and biological nutrients out of technical ones where they would not only never return safely to nature, but also make reusing technical nutrients extremely difficult. Only by planning far in advance can both material streams be properly handled and recycled.

Real evidence for this can be seen in several case studies. One of these is my group’s life cycle analysis (LCA) on EcoSouLife’s bamboo plates. EcoSouLife avoids the conflict between biological and technical nutrients by using biological nutrients only. The plates are made of nothing but bamboo powder, cornstarch, and non-toxic PLA resin, the latter two which are corn derivatives. This means that at the end of its life, these plates can be easily buried in soil and left to decompose without leaching any harmful byproducts into the environment.

 Icons for the entire life cycle of EcoSouLife's bamboo plates.

Icons for the entire life cycle of EcoSouLife's bamboo plates.

Likewise, Abeego is a company that has set out to revolutionize how we use plastic wrap. By choosing natural alternatives to plastic Saran wrap, they use the same strategy as EcoSouLife and steer clear of technical nutrients. Made of cloth or hemp sheets treated with natural resins and beeswax, these sheets can be safely composted once you’re done using them. Similarly, the First Nations peoples have found the same balance as many have in the past when it comes to using their environment sustainably. By sourcing their materials locally and foremost for their practicality, the birchbark canoes they create are perfectly suited for their environment without any lasting impact.

All of these examples follow the strategy of utilizing biological nutrients in a smart way so as to minimize destructive effects at the end of their lifecycle. Although they aren’t truly cradle-to-cradle because the same materials are not used once again to make the same products, they do in a sense return to their “cradle” by breaking up harmlessly when returned to the Earth.

Beyond just individual products, one large scale example that deftly handles material flows can be found here in Toronto. The Evergreen Brickworks (EGBW) is a site reclaimed from the disastrous remains of what once was a brick factory and clay quarry. Situated in the middle of Toronto’s ravine system, the designers showed exceptional attention to material flows in the revitalization of the area to create a public, community orientated space. As a result of its location within a ravine, the EGBW makes use of many different methods to control the rainwater that passes through the complex on its way to the river. These methods let water through without contacting the contaminated soil that remains below the buildings while simultaneously slowing it down and filtered before reaching the Don River.

 The reclaimed brownfield around EGBW has become a popular destination for hikers and visitors of the community.

The reclaimed brownfield around EGBW has become a popular destination for hikers and visitors of the community.

Water isn’t the only thing that is passing through the EGBW - every weekend, local products and goods make a big showing at the farmer’s market. Fallen wood within the park is not regarded as just waste, but instead it is reclaimed and turned into custom furniture in an onsite shop by BeReclaimed. There is also a permanent gift shop open that holds a curated selection of sustainable products. Both the Abeego Saran wrap replacements and EcoSouLife’s bamboo plates can be found at that very gift store. By creating a public space that celebrates sustainability, EGBW provides a model example for how a project can be both physically sustainable as well as encourage the spread of sustainable values through education.

 The Evergreen Brickworks on a weekend near the back of the farmer's market.

The Evergreen Brickworks on a weekend near the back of the farmer's market.

Our brief look at these examples makes it easy to draw the conclusion that the only way forward while keeping material flows separate is to rely on only biological nutrients. However, this isn’t the future McDonough and Braungart envision. One day, the same cycling of biological nutrients might be possible with technical ones as well. Products like Herman Miller’s Aeron chair which can be taken completely apart at the end of its life shows how products can be imagined to avoid monstrous hybrids and allow for easy recycling. These case studies should be taken as a map for the road forward where all implementations of sustainable design will incorporate “waste equals food” thinking and respect to their place within a larger network of material flows.

My own school, OCAD, can learn from these examples and delve into exactly what nutrients may currently be becoming waste when in fact, can instead become a delicious and sustainable meal for new applications.

 

All photos taken by myself. 1000 words exactly not counting image captions.