Category: Life’s Principles

From an Expert Manager of Things: Disrupt My Garbage Bin, Please!


Trying to give away or get rid of a Whole Host of Things from our house, I decided I should add a “Manager of Things” title to my resume. I have become a truly reluctant expert. This last round of Expunging of Stuff saw me spend literally an entire day trying to give a Carload of Things away (not to mention the time previously spent to sort and separate), only to come back home with a third of it. My goal was to not throw anything away. I failed.

As an Expert Manager of Things, I’ve learned what can and can’t be recycled (hint: not much can be easily recycled), what Things secondhand stores are willing to take and what they’re not (especially when it comes to Children’s Things) what Used Things people are willing to pay for – which have just enough value that people will come pick them up but not pay for them, and which have no value (unless you’re very patient with space and time to spare), and how arbitrary and relative price can be (how soon do you need to get rid of it, how badly do you need the money, how many people actually want the Thing, etc.).

For anyone who manages Stuff in their house, you know what I’m talking about when I say that the Shuffling of Things from one pile or shelf or room to another and eventually out the door to Somewhere Else is a perpetual pain in the rear. Particularly if you have children, the amount of Stuff is overwhelming and much of it is crap. My threshold for the Random Stuff that finds it way onto our counters and furniture and into our car is just about at its peak. This results in a less careful approach to disposal. I’ve become an expert at discretely putting Things into the free giveaway pile under our front porch (avoiding the watchful eyes of my children), but after learning that most Children Things can’t be recycled or even given away, more and more Stuff ends up in the garbage for a lack of any other option.

Reflecting after my latest effort to move a carload of things into other people’s hands and NOT into the garbage, I recognize my efforts are tantamount to an extreme behavior in the United States, Land of Stuff. But even for people like me, the options are limited by both the disposal methods available, government safety regulations preventing the resale of some goods, and the failure of our economy to place value on design and manufacture products that can avoid the garbage dump. While the generation and management of waste has improved in the United States over the last 30 years, the reality is that people still throw the majority of their Things into the garbage, with only about a third of waste going to recycling. Even when recycling and composting are provided by municipalities, waste streams still get contaminated by uneducated individuals (a perpetual problem at the last rental we occupied), and even if you do your best, the waste hauler might just take it all to the landfill anyway.

It’s stupid and stresses me out. The thing is, every Thing is a physical manifestation of something taken from the earth. Our economic priority to willfully ignore the full impact of each Thing is driving us (or already has?) towards irreversible ecological system collapse – mind you, these are the very systems that support the survival of our own species. Therefore, for every Thing that comes into my hand, I have a heavy heart for what it represents. But I also see huge opportunity. We have the ability to make choices, and there are opportunities at all levels of the system to change behaviors and processes. It does not have to be this way. At all.

But we’ve made it easy to forget this is a problem – you just put Things in the garbage bin and you never have to see them again. Off your conscience. It’s too easy. And it lets consumers, government and designers off the hook. We all have to do better. And this pile of garbage? It’s ripe for disruption.

Circular Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) circular economy push is a step in the right direction. Aiming to “redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts,” the foundation looks to rethink and redesign entire systems. This is inspired by the fact that in natural systems there is no waste – all byproducts are raw materials for something else in the system, and any byproduct that isn’t used efficiently is an opportunity for innovation and a new niche to be established in the system. These niches add the value of complexity – diversity, redundancy and variation – that make systems resilient. Circular economy advocates ask, why can’t we do the same?

In October, I was fortunate enough to attend one of EMF’s CE100 member  “acceleration workshops” in Chicago on behalf of the Biomimicry Institute. I was able to see firsthand how companies large and small – retailers, commercial goods manufacturers, government agencies, the food industry – are grappling with what the circular economy actually means in practice. It’s not clear to most of them, but the energy and interest in figuring it out is strong, from trying to figure out new retail and take-back models to overcoming the structural deficiencies of recycled plastic. Just check out the Disruptive Innovation Festival this year (DIF 2017) to see how people from across the spectrum are working to make it real.

Starting with The End

Going back to my recent failed effort to avoid throwing Things in the garbage, I can’t help but think that any effort to transition towards a circular economy (or something similar) must start with what happens to the product at the end of its life. The questions must be asked at a minimum:

  • What disposal options are available to the consumer?
  • How likely are they to use the option I am considering, and is it even available to the majority of my typical consumers?
  • How much time will they dedicate to disposal/handing off of my product?
  • What behaviors do they currently have around “waste” disposal?
  • If they must shift their behavior to do what I want them to do, what would incentivize them to do so? Is that realistic?
  • How can I make it as easy as possible?
  • How can I leverage behaviors they already have to achieve my goals?
  • Do I need to think bigger and change my business model?

Speaking of disposal options, I can’t help but wonder: what if all local governments mandated that all waste must fall into specific categories with no waste to landfill allowed? What if residents had to consciously think about what they brought into their house knowing they would be heavily fined or inconvenienced if they couldn’t recycle, compost or hand it back when they were done with it? What kind of bottom up consumer pressure would that put on retailers and back up the supply chain to the design table? Or what if municipalities made waste companies pay to pick up their valuable byproducts (which we currently call solid waste, but they should hire marketing professionals to change the narrative!) – would the companies still throw everything in the landfill? Talk about disruption.

A select version of that has happened in Illinois – electronic waste is no longer allowed in the garbage. The reality of this regulation is that informed residents are reliant upon municipalities to offer them options for disposal. If the municipality doesn’t communicate about the regulation, only offers a drop off window one day a year, or simply doesn’t offer any help because of budget issues, people may throw small Electronic Things in the garbage anyway. Maybe residents will find a local retailer willing to accept Select Electronic Things, but there are few, if any, incentives to go the extra mile.  And that’s for those who are informed. Me? I put Electronic Things on top of my garbage bin and scrap collectors that roam our alleys pick them up.

But okay, let’s be realistic. Municipalities (made up of elected officials) aren’t going to all of a sudden turn the tables on solid waste for their own constituents. So what are our options?

We could encourage consumers to be obsessively vigilant about what they let into their homes to prevent having to throw as much Stuff away in the first place, and if it is something that will eventually be discarded, they can make sure the products they buy are made to be reused by someone else, recycled or composted. Oh wait, I said I’d be realistic. Scratch that…

Getting Down to Business

Okay, so let’s move onto business. EMF is focusing their efforts on businesses for a reason. There is incentive for businesses to try to tap into the circular economy craze. The amount of inefficiency in our current system designated as “waste” is obscene, and the potential to turn that “waste” into money is enough to set any businessperson off rummaging through one of the many Blue Ocean gyre garbage patches or the nearest beach. But they might just have a look in their own garbage bin for inspiration.

Based on my own experience, there are clear opportunities to identify linear waste streams that are overly ripe for disruption, even if you just limit yourself to Kids Stuff:

To be clear, I wouldn’t have time to go to eight different places to properly pass on these eight different categories of Things (although, okay, I admit I might do it anyway, but the average person probably would not). Solutions need to make it easy for the consumer to pass Things onto their next phase, which is why I think often solutions might come down to changes in business models that incentivize behavior change.

Some companies looking to close the loop on waste generated by their own products that can’t be handled by traditional municipal recycling programs are partnering with TerraCycle. TerraCycle aims to make recycling easy, and has figured out a way to recycle most “non-recyclable” wastes. Their programs are free (funded by these partner companies) for generators of waste – individuals, schools, anyone – and even raise money for charity. Their efforts are impressive, and they clearly have honed in on a part of the market that is wide open. However, while the TerraCycle solution addresses “end of pipe” issues, we’re still talking about waste generation at a massive scale.

At an even larger scale before anything gets to my garbage can, the U.S. Materials Marketplace “facilitates company-to-company industrial reuse” where ” industrial waste streams are matched with new product and revenue opportunities.” The platform is growing and used by hundreds of companies to start to close the loop. The potential to leverage circular economy opportunities in business-to business scenarios is enormous. Yet most of these businesses are in the supply chain for and/or make products that eventually end up in our homes and offices. And there it still is, the pile of stuff in my home that I couldn’t do anything with but throw away. This has to be addressed at the front end of design.

Designing Value In

So we’re back to the literal drawing table. Unfortunately, businesses and designers that operate in a consumer-based linear economy in which business has no responsibility for waste and sees planned obsolescence – literally designing value out of a product by ensuring it’s useless after a short period of time so the consumer has to buy another – as a serious business driver might have insurmountable challenges conceptualizing and rethinking their products and business models within the circular economy. However, for those ready and willing to make the transition, using biomimicry tools can help jumpstart and guide the redesign process.

So how can designers design products or even business models to fit into circular economy models? (check out these EMF case studies for examples!) Using biomimicry in the innovation process can help with both understanding and identifying opportunities at the system and business model scales, as well as solving specific product design challenges that might arise, such as when trying to substitute materials or redefining how to deliver the same function as the old product, but in a completely new way.

A good place to start when thinking about how to deliver a product with the big picture materials systems in mind, we can look to biology to understand the strategies for how to design “products” that fit into it. At a high level when using the biomimicry methodology, we can look to Life’s Principles such as:

  • Use Life-Friendly Chemistry – This seems obvious, but understanding and deliberately designing products with materials that benignly interact with life throughout their own life-cycles is critical – green chemistry efforts bring us closer to making this a reality. Even Life’s un-friendly chemistry (like snake venom) decomposes into benign elements.
  • Break Down Products into Benign Constituents – Speaking of decomposing, every material created should break down into something harmless and useful for another purpose, non-toxic elements that won’t harm humans or any other life when recycled back into the environment. This must be an imperative from the outset when choosing materials in the design process.
  • Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements – Often times human-made materials are made with many elements of the periodic table, many of which life never uses and for good reason – they are often rare and/or hard to access, toxic, particularly when concentrated in large quantities. Instead, life creatively uses only a few abundant elements as building blocks to achieve an incredible array of forms and materials through variations in structure. Our materials too should be limited to life-friendly elements of the periodic table – what elements are avoided by life, and/or when rare elements are used, why and in what forms and quantities? How too can we take advantage of abundant elements to create diverse materials?
  • Do Chemistry in Water – Life uses water as a solvent and we should too. Water has incredible properties – if we can learn to leverage them, our chemical processes would significantly improve their impact. Biology has a lot to teach us about this!
  • Use Low Energy Processes – Life does chemistry at ambient temperatures. How can we rethink the way we process and manufacture materials and products to leverage existing energy flows?
  • Use Multi-Functional Design – Life’s designs are elegant, achieving myriad functions with one simple solution. How can we more effectively engineer designs that provide multiple benefits to the user with more than one use in mind, reducing the number of individual products needed? Smartphones have disrupted so many industries because they serve multiple functions in one easy-to-use piece of technology. Where can that strategy be replicated?
  • Recycle All Materials – This a no brainer when we’re talking about the circular economy. This is fundamental to the way nature works. Again, an understanding of the end game should happen during the design process. And to cycle back, at the outset of the design process finding opportunities to use “waste” materials in your own product starts to build that circular and self-supporting economy.
  • Fit Form to Function – Achieve function through elegant forms that require less energy and material (and are manufactured using low energy processes!). How can you achieve better results through intentionally using form to achieve function(s)?
  • Use Readily Available Materials and Energy – Products are often made of materials that are made with raw materials sourced on one continent, processed and or manufactured on another, then shipped to another continent (many even back to the same one!) to be put into a product that is then sold all over the world – a hugely energy intensive process that often relies on fossil fuels obtained who knows where. Birds don’t fly to Canada to gather materials, then bring those materials back to the Amazon to make a nest, then bring that nest back to Texas to have babies. We know that would be absolutely ridiculous. What materials exist locally at each of your manufacturing plant locations? Are there currently undervalued consistent “waste” streams that you might use? How might using local materials reduce risk and increase the resilience of your supply chain?

As we wrap our heads around what redesigning products for the circular economy looks like. biomimicry can be an important tool for helping design teams make these transitions – significantly broadening their thinking, providing inspiration with brand new ideas and science literally no one has seen before, and starting to shift concepts of what’s possible. But once we know the goals and think about how systems might begin to shift, it’s often hard to practically conceptualize and embody these principles in an actual product.

In addition to using Life’s Principles as a framework to think about design implications for the circular economy at a systems level, biomimicry also has a lot to contribute to the innovation process in looking to organisms to solve for specific, practical design challenges. Life has myriad solutions to kickstart and guide that redesign process, offering up a treasure trove of ideas that can help build a roadmap for short-term tweaks to long-term aspirational paradigm shifts. Critical to discovering design breakthroughs is ensuring that during the biomimicry process the design team digs deep into and stays true to the science they are mimicking including the system in which that organism operates – context, raw materials, manufacturing process and end of life.

How are (or might) you use biomimicry to transition to the circular economy? And please, start by looking at the piles upon piles of Things leaving our houses with nowhere to go – the pile is ripe for disruption! I’d love to hear about and showcase your efforts. Let’s change our story!

My Climate Action List, LP Style

Sonoran Desert, Arizona

On this day of Climate Action, and in light of the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “pages relating to climate change, climate science, the impacts of climate change and what readers can do about climate change are all gone from the live site” to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt” (read: Koch brothers)…

[A direction, I would argue, that can only be described as dragging our collective heads into the proverbial sand – but actually literally Middle East sand, Canadian tar sands, sand at the bottom of the ocean – until we decide to bang our heads against the proverbial wall – that wall of oil shale rock that blankets the United States – anywhere where that black gold can be found and extracted at whatever cost (and let’s not forget to manipulate markets to make it profitable to extract no matter where it lies)…But, I’m getting sidetracked…]

I thought I’d post a list of quickly brainstormed ideas around climate-related actions I can take in line with Life’s Principles so I have less of, and in some cases a regenerative impact on the planet (because remember, it’s not about just doing less bad, it’s about finding ways to be a regenerative participant in life’s systems!). We will change our story through our actions, so paying specific attention to how we live our lives (walk the talk) makes a difference. Perhaps my ideas will inspire you to do something you hadn’t thought of, and I’m sure there are umpteen more things I could be doing – I’d love to know what actions you are taking!

So let me dive right in. (btw, this is the Biomimicry 3.8 Life’s Principles list and definitions, used with permission)

Be Locally Attuned and Responsive

Fit into and integrate with the surrounding environment.
  • Pay attention to the wildlife around me and do not get complacent about the changes I see.
  • Respond with actions to mitigate the climate change that is precipitating the changes I see.
  • Find ways to take action here at home and in my community.
  • Collect, pay attention and respond to feedback when community climate action proposals don’t pass, and adjust proposals accordingly.
  • Notice if plants in my yard aren’t attracting and supporting a diversity of animals throughout the year and insects and adjust plantings accordingly.
  • Identify challenges I have with material goods and see if these are opportunities for neighborhood community-scale responses (like finding second-hand sports equipment, sharing power and garden tools, etc.). (to reduce the amount of material goods needed and all the climate implications of those goods). Love the idea of a community tool library! And we have some email & online platforms for second-hand goods, but some things are more challenging than others to find.

Leverage Cyclic Processes

Take Advantage of phenomena that repeat themselves
  • Leverage my own cycles of purchasing and actions so that I can make myself successful in trying to change my behaviors (like remembering to take bags to the grocery store, remembering to think first about using materials around the house before going to buy new materials, etc.).

Use Readily Available Materials and Energy

Build with abundant, accessible materials while harnessing freely available energy.
  • Don’t simply buy things when a need arises – think about it first and use what’s available before heading to a store!
  • Reuse unused materials in our house for new project when possible.
  • Investigate the possibility of a solar water heater system, or even solar panels.
  • Use materials from our garden (like sticks) to built a trellis for our vegetables.
  • When we have to head to the store, find local second-hand goods where possible.
  • Bike or walk whenever possible. (I need to do better at this, but I try!)
  • Use scrap paper for grocery lists, kids drawings, etc.
  • Use reusable bags.

Use Feedback Loops

Engage in cyclic information flows to modify a reaction appropriately.
  • Participate in local community climate action discussions.
  • Understand and “speak the language” when trying to bring on board potential partners who aren’t necessarily thinking about these issues. What makes them tick, and how can that make a solution even better?
  • Learn more about how to most effectively participate in and use social media to effectively achieve goals.
  • A clear feedback loop is that the old guard is worried about losing its power as we transition to a non-fossil fuel based economy. NOW is the time to step up our actions exponentially.
  • And in line with that, clear indications of the crazy future we will face are everywhere along the coasts as cities are being inundated with sea water, and evidence points to climate chaos nearing at an alarming rate according to scientists. NOW is the time to act.

Cultivate Cooperative Relationships

Find value through win-win interactions.
  • Identify synergies between friends, businesses and communities for opportunities to work together on any of these ideas!
  • Join the Oak Park Environment & Energy Commission.

Use Life-Friendly Chemistry

Use chemistry that supports life processes.
  • Use non-toxic cleaning chemicals in my house.
  • Use methods in my garden that boost resilience against pests, and where needed don’t use chemicals to solve pest problems (use elbow grease!)
  • Buy goods that are responsibly sourced and manufactured (we try our best).
  • Buy organic everything.
  • Never buy anything with a chrome finish.
  • Drive my gasoline car as little as possible.
  • Reduce use of fossil fuel-based plastics (which are so insidious…sigh).

Break Down Materials into Benign Constituents

Use chemistry in which decomposition results in no harmful by-products.
  • See above. I’m not manufacturing anything, so my hope is that by adhering to keeping the use of toxic chemicals to a minimum in what I buy, when they break down they are benign in the environment. This is a hard one to control on an individual level with the exception of controlling what I purchase and use on a daily basis.

Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements

Assemble relatively few elements in elegant ways.
  • Hmmm…being creative with what I have and using my stuff in different configurations to achieve different results depending on needs (functions) without buying new stuff.

Do Chemistry in Water

Use water as a solvent.
  • Again, for me this is probably limited to my purchasing power and buying water-based products, such as the oil wax finish I just purchased to stain my reclaimed wood.

Use Low Energy Processes

Minimize energy consumption by reducing requisite temperatures, pressures and/or time for reactions.
  • All those energy efficiency things we are told to do – daylighting, LED light bulbs, turning off and unplugging electronics when not in use, energy efficient appliances, etc.
  • Buy renewable energy from the utility (we don’t have on-site renewables).
  • Walk and bike whenever possible.
  • Combine many errands into one trip to minimize mileage in car.

Use Multi-Functional Design

Meet Multiple Needs with one elegant solution.
  • Learn permaculture.
  • Use furniture that serves multiple purposes.
  • Buy kitchen appliances or furniture that do multiple things, not just one (the number of single-function kitchen appliances is astounding, and you pretty much don’t need 90% of them)
  • Design spaces for multiple functions (like our playroom that is also a guest bedroom that is also a music studio that is also a…)

Recycle All Materials

Keep all materials in a closed loop.
  • Recycle all the materials I can – first in my home through reuse, and if we have no use for them, through our community recycling program.
  • Buy products with recycled content wherever possible.
  • Keep garden clippings in the yard, compost.
  • Incorporate circular economy thinking into any action I try to get done in my community!

Fit Form to Function

Select for shape or pattern based on need.
  • I think the key to this is “based on need.” Hardly anything in our consumer society is based on “need”, but rather “want.” I’ll continue to make sure whatever I buy is based on need and that it effectively and efficiently performs the function, and preferably more than one function.

Integrate Development with Growth

Invest optimally in strategies that promote both development and growth.
  • Keep my actions and learning opportunities aligned. Don’t go off in multiple directions! Make sure everything I do is rooted in my core goals.
  • Teach my kids age-appropriate lessons about climate change (and other related topics) to inform their actions and opinions, and continually add more complex information as they get older to further develop their understanding and actions.


Create conditions to allow components to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system.
  • I wish I could do this better personally. Haha!
  • Find groups that are interested in climate action and find common ground between them, so they can leverage each other to create better solutions.

Build from the Bottom Up

Assemble components one unit at a time.
  • Choose my battles/opportunities one at a time, and pick the next one to build momentum from the previous.

Combine Modular and Nested Components

Fit multiple units within each other progressively from simple to complex.
  • Hmm…I’m stumped.

Evolve to Survive

Continually incorporate and embody information to ensure enduring performance.
  • Make sure to keep up-to-date on the latest science and actions to learn from others and incorporate their lessons learned in my own actions.

Replicate Strategies that Work

Repeat successful approaches.
  • Try to get community to use Project Drawdown strategies!
  • Learn from others and repeat successful approaches.
  • Take better stock of what does and doesn’t work for me and try to repeat those that do (like
  • how to trick myself into bringing reusable bags to the grocery store)

Integrate the Unexpected

  • Incorporate mistakes in ways that lead to new forms and functions.
Take the time to see my failures as opportunities for positive change.

Reshuffle Information

Exchange and alter information to create new options.
  • Always think about the information I have through different lenses, and exchange ideas with others, to identify new opportunities for action and change.

Adapt to Changing Conditions

Appropriately respond to dynamic contexts.
  • Don’t bury my head in the sand! Grr.
  • Change my approach/actions with respect to climate change when the context demands it. Which means that because it is clear that the Trump administration is waging a war on science and actions to mitigate climate change, and because evidence of the acceleration of climate change is increasingly alarming, we need to step up our response NOW.

Incorporate Diversity

Include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need.
  • Try to engage people and organizations at all different scales (whether that’s at the individual, community, regional, national, global scales), taking different actions, responding to the problem differently, as it makes sense with respect to local actions.

Maintain Integrity Through Self-Renewal

Persist by constantly adding energy and matter to heal and improve the system.
  • I also need to work on this personally! Find ways to self-renew (through getting outside, exercise, hobbies, etc.)
  • Find out what makes people tick about this challenge – their energy will improve the effort
  • Always reach out to new people to bring into the effort

Embody Resilience Through Variation, Redundancy and Decentralization

Maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together.
  • The fight against climate change will take local actions across the globe. Help to make the local response more robust by creating programs that are diverse, redundant and decentralized, while finding ways to leverage our successes in the global movement (to share and help make other efforts also resilient).