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Shel Horowitz: Nature’s business model - 100 percent recycling, zero energy consumption

R ecycling, as we usually think of it, is a huge step forward compared to letting materials rot (or worse, not rot, ever) in a landfill. But recycling, the way it typically works, has its own issues.

Conventional recycling requires massive inputs of energy to convert our trash into something not-quite-as-usable as the original material.

So, for instance, high-quality petroleum-based PET is good enough to store beverages for human consumption. When mingled with other plastics and processed at a recycling plant, it’s good enough to make “cloth” for shopping bags, or planks for decking and park benches. But it’s no longer good enough to store things that people will drink.

Now the good news: the world gives us many better models than this. In biology, things work differently. Every biological element breaks up (I am deliberately not saying “breaks down”) into an input for something else — starting with the basic life cycle: animals convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, the breath-of-life for plants — and plants convert the CO2 to our breath-of-life: oxygen. How cool is that?

Similarly, think of how compost works. A tree branch falls in the woods — or a family gathers their organic wastes in a bin outside. Various insects, mammals, birds, and fungi begin to digest it. Eventually, miraculously, it turns into a brand new product: fresh, nutrient-rich soil.

And both the breath cycle and the compost cycle (among many other examples in nature) do their amazing work with zero waste, and with zero need for human-produced energy.

Humans can look at how nature works and come up with fresh, creative, dare-I-say brilliant new processes to do what nature does, and to do it without consuming energy. The trick is to look at what can use any particular waste product as a new input for a new process.

I’ve known about this for quite a few years, and have several examples of this thinking in my eighth book, “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.”

Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the book, discussing the amazing work of an entrepreneur named John Todd:

In downtown Burlington and South Burlington, Vermont, you’ll find a very unusual industrial park: a place where brewery wastes turn into a growing environment for mushrooms — and in the process create an enjoyable biopark, a green and vibrant ecosystem in the middle of the business district, where downtown workers can enjoy a unique natural setting.

Welcome to the Intervale, 700 acres of sustainable enterprises and ecofriendly public spaces.

Todd, like other visionaries I profile in the book, is an entrepreneur. He is making money leveraging nature’s principles to remedy major issues such as pollution and rampant disease — both human-caused and nature caused. He’s using biological principles to clean up stagnant lakes, to purify water in developing countries where safe water is a rarity.

Not that it’s always simple. Listen to Todd explain what he did to clean up a lagoon that had been choking on the waste from a chicken processing plant: “We planted restorers with 28,000 different species of higher plants and animals. It grew very quickly. Each was designed to break down or sequester different compounds. We reduced the electrical power to convert the waste by 80 percent and cut capital costs in half.” One of the underlying principles in this work is sharing resources among different pieces of the system and changing the paradigm about what’s left over. Instead of disposing of a waste stream, Todd encourages people to think about how to use that material as an input. The goal is zero emissions: no waste generation at all. If wastes are considered as inputs, they can lead to new commercial enterprises — for instance, a mushroom farm. All of a sudden, the cost of waste disposal turns into capital for a new revenue stream.

This is how the natural world works, at least when undisturbed by human pollution. When these systems are integrated together, they not only eliminate waste, but also provide shared synergy, reduce costs, spread technical and legal expertise, and create both economic and environmental improvements — as occurred at the Intervale, where biowastes feed a commercial fish farm that also cleans the water, and the waste heat from a wood-fired power plant is recaptured to heat the complex.

But the real lesson is this: every problem is an economic opportunity for a visionary entrepreneur. And those who can solve the world’s problems with zero waste, high-quality outputs, and zero grid-based or human-produced energy are on track for success.

Will YOU be the next to create a business like this?

(Note: This article was inspired by the article, “A ‘Circular Economy’: Why the Next Packaging Will Be Grown, Not Manufactured,” on Good: http://www.good.is/posts/mushrooms-based-packaging-and-designing-a-circular-economy Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz, shel at greenandprofitable.com, writes the monthly Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).

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