Stromatolites are possibly the oldest form of living organism that can still be found alive. The picture was taken at one of the few locations where they still exist, in Western Australia. How they come to feature in the context of circularity? Well, they are held responsible for dumping sumptuous amounts of oxygen into the world, laying the foundation of life as we know it.
There are many more visible (and younger) examples of circularity in ecosystems, but I find this one is not found in the spotlights very often. The first and foremost aspect of circularity with stromatolites is, that they make their waste product (oxygen) freely available for all other organisms to take advantage of. This is an essential lesson that businesses could adopt in order to move towards a more circular economy.
In ecosystems, the symbioses and interrelations between species evolved as a result of trial and error. In contrast, governmental programmes and business initiatives that try to promote circularity are directed. Learning from ecosystems, a circular economy should focus on the high-level natural concepts of circularity:
- Free availability of (information about) waste streams. This does not mean to dump everything just anywhere, because that is not practical with non-biological waste streams as well as in crowded areas. For modern waste streams, it would rather concern the information about waste streams. What, where, when … and how much do you value it. Selling waste streams as such is not in conflict with circularity. However, lack of transparency is.
- A diverse pool of receivers increases system resilience. By definition, free availability means that potentially anyone can compete for the material that has come available. The more potential receivers there are, the faster the transaction will be done. Thus, more receivers will make a more resilient and successful system. In ecology, we often see specialisation in circularity, like ants and plant lice. For business, this might a less successful strategy, as this might reduce the resilience of the system.
- Separate biological and non-biological (technical) waste streams. It has become evident through time that the laws of thermodynamics, and specifically entropy, are applicable to whatever we dump. As for all biological materials, there will be an organism or process that will be able to make use of that particular biomass. For technical materials, this is not the case. That is what makes separation of biological and technical material streams so important. (compare Cradle-to-Cradle, The Natural Step and other sustainability theories for confirmation.)
There might be more fundamental natural concepts that enable a circular economy. Do you know them? Share!
Further interesting reading about the circular economy can be found with the Ellen McArthur Foundation (who have a wonderful animated diagram of a circular economy), at Gunter Pauli’s ZERI and at wiki.
A more detailed set of natural design principles is offered by ZERI:
- No one species eats its own waste; whatever is waste for one, is food for another species belonging to another kingdom.
- Whatever is a toxin for a species belonging to one kingdom will be neutral, or a nutrient, for another species in at least one other kingdom.
- Whenever highly complex ecosystems operate, viruses [can] remain inactive and even disappear without causing harm [when] passing through at least 2 other kingdoms.
- The more diverse and local the systems, the more efficient and resilient their operations. When systems are more efficient and more resilient, the more diverse and the more local they are operating.
- All kingdoms combined, integrate and separate matter at ambient temperature and pressure.
The 5 kingdoms in this context are Protista (the single-celled eukaryotes); Fungi (fungus and related organisms); Plantae (the plants); Animalia (the animals); Monera (the prokaryotes). Many biologists now recognize six distinct kingdoms, dividing Monera into the Eubacteria and Archeobacteria.