Category Archives: Giuseppe di Domenico

Giuseppe di Domenico




Cradle to cradle

When reinterpreting processes leads to success


When I submit these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping cut down the woods. When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain a marsh for cow to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brasil. When I go birding or hunting in my Ford, I am devastating an oil field, and re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber. Nay more: when father more than two children I am creating an insatiable need for more printing presses, more cows, more coffee, more oil, to supply which more birds, more trees, and more flowers will either be killed or, what is just as destructive, evicted from their several environments”. These words are very actual and could be ascribed to a modern environmentalist. Unfortunately this essay was written by Aldo Leopold at the beginning of XX century. The drive to ensure that the industry could be less destructive goes back even more. Since the end of XVIII century some people understood that the only way to preserve the Earth was in the Nature itself. Because of their pessimism, against the great industrial revolution that, at that time, the human kind was facing, they were considered only caricatures. Even if their aim was good, they lacked in something: scientific basis. Was only in the 1962, when, with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, scientific reasons were added to the cause. This book led to the banning of DDT in the US and in German, and sparked controversies about the danger of industrial chemicals.

Nowadays we face even a worse situation, this is why recycling or being “less bad” doesn’t mean we are acting in the right way, and the solution is hidden in the linear way we think and act.

When we hear the word “waste”, the first image that appears in our mind is about something not anymore useful. But depending on the point of view it can be something dismissive, a worthless material, or by another interpretation a mine of possibility, and, if not used, a lost opportunity. In nature examples of how it’s possible to use again leftovers not throwing them away, but creating a circular system, are quite a lot. The prospect exists of deriving far more value from the same resources while moving towards zero-waste ways of operating. In this perspective the most important change that we can operate is to shift from a linear, wasteful and polluting way of using resources, to a closed loop model.

A basic consideration is that the linear mode of “take, make, dispose” of the industrial processes and lifestyle that feed on them deplete a finite reserves to create products that end up in landfills or in incinerators. This reflections brought people, as Walter R.  Stahel, to re-think the industrial processes and the manufacturing way of creating things, in order to have “cradle to cradle” strategies.

With the term circular economy is meant a particular way of designing material dividing them in two big categories: in the first we find the biological nutrients, or material that are designed to re-enter in the biosphere once they have finished their life, and technical nutrients, or material with an high quality that are designed to circulate for a very long period and are not meant to enter in the biosphere.

Stahel was one of the founder of this way of thinking. He created the Product Life institute in Geneva,  a consultancy devoted to developing sustainable strategies and policies.  In his book “The performance economy” he explains how is possible through a circular economy to extend the product-life, optimizing the total life-span of goods and reducing depletion of natural resources and consequently waste. This can be seen in Nature through the life of plants. The photosynthesis turn carbon dioxide into sugar and, with the addition of other elements taken from the soil, they are capable of growing and forming the basis of most food webs. Nitrogen is fixed into the soils by other types of plants that, due their evolution, have evolved a symbiotic relationship with bacteria called rhizobium. Thanks to this, when a plant dies or is been digested by an animal or microorganism, the carbon, the nitrogen and other elements are returned to the soil. In a similar manner, water, is cycled through ecosystems and returns to the soil as rainfall. All this processes are typical examples of a circular economy where nothing is wasted, but everything is reused to return to his original status.

In general all the ecosystems are based on this. The idea of restoring the balance when it is perturbed is the base of the “circular economy” of the nature. A simple rock gets eroded by rain, wind an ice and the grit from this process flows into hollows and is distributed to lichens and other vegetal species. These extract the nutrients creating the substrate for the formation of a simple soil on which grass can grow. On this, humus, over the time, and other microorganism expand in the soil. In a short period pioneers species, plans and other primary colonisers arrive to change the aspect of the environment and establish themselves. They create the perfect ecosystem for the second colonizers that grow on top of them, changing again the environment. Below the ground another rich system of worms, insects, fungi and microorganism proliferate to reach the same aim. This succession of species continues until the balance is reached. Only through this process the life of a variety of different species is permitted. They grow on top of each other, using the “waste” or the dead parts of other organism. In nature everything is reused for another purpose, or is decomposed to his chemical formula to renter in the cycle again.

This is the crucial point that marks the big gap between our human society and the Nature. While we create simple linear systems, nature creates complex closed-loop systems that can be the base for different species to live. We use things and when they are not more useful we throw them away, while Nature creates zero-wasting systems that can adapt his behaviour if the external condition changes. Other big differences between the human way to design and the nature one are the fuel used and the use of local resource. While the former uses fossil fuel, nature uses solar energy to create all the processes that needs. Moreover all the basic necessities are satisfied locally. The resources that every animal or plant, or in general organism, need, are found locally. If this sometimes is not anymore possible they change their needs to adapt themselves to the new environment. Darwin explained this in an eloquent way: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.
In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment”.

But what is more remarkable is the way the nature society is conceived. While in biological cases there are millions of contributors to the system, no unemployment, and numerous opportunities for nature’s equivalent of entrepreneurship, in human one we have the opposite situation. Large multinationals often dominate, power resides in the hands of few people, a degree of unemployment is deemed necessary and creative entrepreneurship is limited.

Even if the displacement between humans and Nature is not so easy to fill up, some efforts to mimicking the Nature’s systems are made by some people all around the world. In Denmark has been created an industrial ecosystem called The Kalundborg Symbiosis. In the basic idea every residual product of an industry is used as resource for the next, all of this in a closed loop system. What is so particular in this type of system is that private and public companies sell a variety of different product, from the steam, ash, gas, heat, sludge, and others that can be physically transported from one company to another. The aim of all of them is not to waste. So what in a normal life cycle is considered not to be reused, in this case becomes something worthwhile, and not only for the money purpose. Thanks to this system, 3 million of m3 of water have been saved due recycling and reuse. Clearly the purpose that lead all of this is the economics benefits coming to the industries that work in this system. The possibility of selling waste is economically worthwhile, and if this can lead to a better environment the question is why not? From this we can understand that the material and energy scarcity that we face in some part of the planet can be avoided or totally reset if we think not in a linear way of producing.

Kalundborg Symbiosis has developed gradually over time. From the earliest cooperation between Kalundborg Municipality and Statoil (then Esso) for the supply of water to the extension of Statoil’s production in 1961, to a real symbiotic relationship that was established in 1972. Since then, companies have continuously implemented symbiotic practicies, and today there are more than 30 exchanges of water, energy and other by-products between Kalundborg Municipality and eight other companies: Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, DONG Energy, RGS90, Statoil, Gyproc, Kalundborg Supply and KaraNoveren. In addition, a number of agricultural companies have an interest in this type of industrial symbiosis, as purchasers of fertilizer products and waste heat.

This extends beyond the economic benefits involved with the transfer of waste products, surplus heat and water, and these very different companies see the potential of joint-problem solving and development for the area.

Another example of how circular systems are useful in the economy of a country can be expressed by the project of the civil engineer George Chan. He designed a sorghum brewery in Namibia in which nothing is wasted. Breweries usually use large quantities of water and grains, of which only a small portion remains in the finish product. Often the alkaline waste water, which contains low levels of biological contamination, undergoes expensive chemical treatment before disposal and the spent grains are given away as cattle feed. The latter outcome is far from being ideal because the grains are too fibrous and this results in the cattle producing more methane, which is known for being one of the worst greenhouse gases. The approach that gave the success to the project was the assumption that all the problems could have seen as opportunities for adding elements to the system that created more value from exactly the same inputs. One of the solutions that the engineer gave was the use of the waste water as a base for the cultivation of the alga Spirulina. This product is reach in protein and micronutrient and is very effective for fight the malnutrition, a problem very common in more and more country in Africa. After this the water was used for fish farming, creating this way another source of protein. The remaining part of the grains were used as substrate for cultivating mushrooms, considering that one tonne of mushroom can be produced by four tonnes of grain. After the mushroom cultivation, the substrate, rich in fungal mycelium is then more suitable for animal feed or earthworm composting. The earthworm were used to feed chickens and the manure that went to an anaerobic digester, which produced gas for the brewery and local people to reduce the demand of wood. At the end of this long process what was reached was the production of 12 different products instead of just one. Seven times as much food, fuel and fertilizer; four times as many jobs as a conventional approach and a fraction of the waste. We can say that this, in the evolution of the production systems, is only the next step. Infact, the zero emissions is simply the continuation of the drive of industry toward higher levels of productivity and away from waste. After zero defects (total quality), zero accidents (total safety), zero inventory (just-in-time), zero emissions means that all raw materials will be fully used.

Again, what we face is that reinterpreting the nature and the function of nutrients and energy emerge that is possible to have better solution and greater resource efficiency.

As seen in this examples changing the future of the Earth is possible, it’s not a mirage or something that we cannot achieve anymore. If we change our point of view, starting right now to apply the circular economy we can still have chances to save the planet for the future generations.


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