Considering the current political climate and state of affairs (like increasing inequality and a drive to pull out social safety nets for…everyone) in the United States, I thought I’d revisit Ecology of Commerce (revised edition) by Paul Hawken. The scenario playing out right now in our government perfectly embodies his statement that, “You cannot protect a system that is rigid and entrenched without sacrificing the interests of the people it intends to serve.” Our government and the corporate interests it loyally serves is sacrificing away. The gulf between “what might be” and “what is” seems wider than ever. Perhaps that is because we are at the precipice of a new age.
I’ve been experiencing cognitive dissonance between my privileged existence and the realities of an accelerating deterioration of our local ecosystems and climate and communities. As Hawken says, “We have reached a point where the value we add to our economy is now being outweighed by the value we are removing, not only from future generations in terms of diminished resources but from ourselves in terms of unsustainable sprawl, deadening jobs, deteriorating health, and rising crime.” I hear the warning sirens from experts like Bill McKibben (Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing) and see the unreal have to be pulled into the norm. It feels like a downward spiral, with a hope for the future based on something increasingly unattainable. The reality is that way I live, despite my attempts at minimizing impact, is part of the problem. But I’m not sure where to go with that knowledge. To a large degree (as evidenced by my lack of posts on my blog over the last several months), I feel paralyzed.
I can see why Hawken focused his efforts on Project Drawdown, as the solutions he posits in Ecology of Commerce are pie in the sky, while Project Drawdown focuses on making it real. There are concrete (for lack of a better word) steps to take to address climate change. They are right there – 100 of them – researched, served up and ready to be acted upon. One of Hawken’s hopes in Ecology of Commerce is that small businesses will pick up the charge should a “revitalization and revisioning of incentives…liberate the imagination, courage and commitment that reside within individuals who truly want to make a difference – ‘ecopreneurs’ dedicated to restoring the world around them for the world that comes after them.”
My worry, similar to experts like McKibben and Hawken, is that it just can’t happen fast enough. That the massive brakes needed to stop this freight train traveling at full speed with cars full of oil and coal as far as the eye can see just don’t exist and will never exist. Perhaps it’s just not possible to slow it down.
Of course, there is another option – destroy the tracks and derail the train.
While the US government seems to lack any ability to “revision” anything other than how to consolidate power and defend the status quo for the indefensible, it’s the small efforts by individuals, non-profits and small businesses – and many of them – that perhaps are my greatest hope. This hope actually emerges from biomimicry research I started in my graduate program and plan to pick back up in 2018 – research focused on how invasive species disrupt systems quickly.
In researching invasive species, I’ve learned that invasive species aren’t considered invasive until seemingly all of a sudden they have widespread economic and environmental impact (“impact”, of course, being largely defined through the lens of human enterprise). At that point, you might say the ecosystem goes off the rails – ecosystem interconnections and resource flows are changed, sometimes irreparably so. In some cases, the eventual result is a state shift to an alternative stable state, never to shift back.
But at the point of perceived sudden widespread impact it’s not that they came out of nowhere, it’s that their small, dispersed populations went undetected or seemed insignificant (to us) AND the ecosystems in which they got established had their weaknesses. Our current systems, while being shored up by governments and increasingly walled off from the masses by corporations driven by perverse economic incentives, have clear weaknesses. The increasing number of efforts around the world to establish a different kind of system based on different criteria with different goals perhaps will eventually emerge at a large overlapping scale and shift us into a new age, the “alternative stable state” Paul Hawken and others have been talking about for decades.
This shift will derail that freight train relatively suddenly, and as with the real thing, it probably won’t be pretty. I don’t know what will emerge on the other side, but it does give me hope that the groundswell of efforts around the world, while seemingly insignificant at the moment, do actually have the potential for widespread, fast impact. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But I hope together we can lay the groundwork to make sure that what emerges on the other side is restorative and generous. As Hawken writes, “Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we will organize the economy that follows.” So let’s get on with it. Let’s change our story.
Think “flame retardant” and your next thought would not likely be “cellular respiration” and “food”. Yet it turns out a process occurring all the time in our cells (in you right now!) has invaluable lessons that have the potential to radically shift the flame retardant industry through not only new technology, but a completely radical supply chain based on raw materials from food. Yes, that’s right, food. I’ll discuss the hows and whys in Part 3 of my #SystemReset series, and demonstrate the potential paradigm shift this solution represents.
As I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions in nature as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem and beyond but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functional needs of the product category.
Nobody’s dream of the future includes their house burning down. But the fact is there are gadgets and appliances and lights throughout our homes that have the potential to catch fire, and enough accidents occur that fire is a top five leading cause of accidental death worldwide. What burns? Homes, cars, airplanes, communications equipment…you name it. The response of course is to incorporate into or douse materials with flame retardants to slow the spread of fire to enable people to escape in time. Flame retardants can be found in mattresses, couches, carpet padding, curtains, flooring, composite materials, packaging, insulating materials, glues, fabric finishes and surface coatings, plastics (oh, so many plastics) and electronic components (think computers and TVs, including cords). Great news, right? Yes and no. While they can present a clear benefit in reducing the severity of a fire and increasing the time for escape from fire in our homes and places of work, some of the major classes of conventional flame retardants can pose significant human and environmental health risks.
Your mind might now be full of questions: So how is nature’s approach different from conventional flame retardants? And why do we even care? What alternatives are already out there and how is a biomimetic solution different? If a new group flame retardants shifts the flame retardant industry, what are the potential range of impacts? Let me tackle them one by one, and as always, leave a comment below to share thoughts, ask questions and continue the discussion!
The Dominant Design in Flame Retardants
The flame retardant industry is complex. The market is dominated by three major manufacturers of flame retardants – Israel Chemicals, Chemtura and Albemarle. The largest portion of the market demand comes from the construction industry and related building materials and interior finishes. Additional demand and anticipated growing markets include construction products, electrical and electronic products, wire and cable, motor vehicles, textiles, aircraft and aerospace (check out this report I drew this information from for more info on the industry). Flame retardants are used in an incredible variety of materials from foams to plastics, wood, fabrics, paper, insulation, paints, etc. Certain families of flame retardants are typically used on some types of materials and not others, depending on the material and flame retardant properties. This is no small industry, and the variety of applications is overwhelming.
Depending on the type of flame retardant and material being protected, flame retardants can make up anywhere from less than 1% to 30% of the content of a material. For example, cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. One of the challenges in creating a flame retardant is developing one that can be added to a host material without altering the properties of the host material. Because of this challenge, flame retardants are often added without chemical bonding to the host material. In addition, as some flame retardants contain volatile organic compounds, the chemicals off-gas during decomposition and evaporation (e.g., while they are sitting in your home, car and office). These challenges result in the potential for the flame retardant particles to migrate out of the host material and/or release gases into the environment.
If you’re like me, this all makes you wonder, how often and to what degree do you come into contact with flame retardants everyday? And, more importantly, what is your risk?
What are the risks?
People are primarily exposed to flame retardants in two ways – breathing it in (inhalation) or inadvertently eating it (ingestion). The flame retardants migrate out of the materials in our homes and collect in dust, which we breathe in and put in our mouths without knowing. Young children who are often on and/or close to the floor are particularly at risk of ingesting or breathing in dust containing flame retardants and are consistently found to have the highest levels of flame retardants in their systems, particularly in the Unites States. In a 2014 study of 40 child care centers in California, researchers discovered 100 percent of the centers contained both PBDE and non-PBDE flame retardant compounds, including tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)-phosphate, which was named as a presumed carcinogen in 1970 and banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977 (but not banned for other uses – facilities with foam furniture “significantly higher levels of PBDEs compared to those without foam products”).
These flame retardants not only contribute to development of cancer but are also linked to endocrine disruption, diabetes and hyperthyroidism; developmental problems for children such as decreased birth weight; neurological defects such as antisocial behavior, memory loss and lower IQ; undescended testicles; infertility in adults and DNA mutation (for information, check out these articles from the New York Times and Washington Post). (Anecdotally, it also makes me think about all the dogs I’ve known – you know, the ones with their noses sniffing and licking the floors of our houses – very few have died of anything other than cancer.)
When combusted, flame retardants can also degrade into even more highly toxic compounds such as dioxins, furans and formaldehyde. Primarily, it is the toxic smoke released by fires that kills or causes harm by attacking the respiratory systems of humans, posing the most significant risks to firefighters who breathe in the toxic smoke. A 2010 study in the UK revealed that at the same time that the increased use of synthetic polymers since 1955 was accompanied by an increase in fire deaths and injuries (peaking around 1980 at double the number of deaths and declining back to 1955 levels in the 2000s), the ratio of deaths from smoke and toxic gas inhalation increased by a factor of 20. As summarized in Chapter 4 of the book Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014), the conclusions drawn from the study were that the increase of deaths from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases occurred “at least in part by the higher fire toxicity of certain polymers, and particularly those containing gas phase flame retardants.”
The broad impact of flame retardants on human health due to the pervasiveness of fire retardants in homes is unknown, particularly in the United States where measurement of the amount of flame retardants in a typical United States home is measured in ounces and pounds. Despite the known toxicity of these chemicals, due to the structure of our political and regulatory system these flame retardants are placed onto the market without a thorough study of associated health risks. Several of the halogenated flame retardants (e.g., PBDEs, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and Tris-dibromopropyl phosphate) have been banned in the US and Europe, although they’ve been replaced by similar but unstudied organohalogen compounds. In the case of PBDEs, it “took nearly 40 years of exposure to PBDEs to accumulate sufficient evidence for action to be taken” (Chapter 4, Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014)). The question then remains, why should we wait for other flame retardants to be banned – why not replace them with safer alternatives?
Much information can be found on the internet regarding more information on health risks associated with flame retardants and preventative measures that can be taken in the home, car and workplace. A good resource is the Green Science Policy Institute, which conducts scientific research and focuses on reducing the use of flame retardants. They provide easy-to-understand information on their website. In addition, two books I referenced in this section and found useful (although highly technical) were Polymer Green Flame Retardants edited by Constantine D. Papaspyrides & Pantelis Kiliaris (2014), and Fire Toxicity edited by A. A. Stec and T. R. Hull (2010). Wikipedia also has a summary and list of major studies regarding the health risks of flame retardants.
Another good thing to know – California passed Technical Bulletin (TB) 117-2013 which went into effect January 1, 2014. TB 117-2013 states that manufacturers may transition from the open flame test process adopted and mandated in 1975 to the new methods for smolder resistance of cover fabrics, barrier materials, resilient filling materials, and decking materials for use in upholstered furniture. This means when you buy new furniture, you can find a tag on it that states whether or not the manufacturer used flame retardants to achieve compliance with flammability regulations.
The search for alternatives
Because of the known health risks of the aforementioned flame retardants, some in the flame retardant industry have been researching and moving towards more benign alternatives in recent years. In fact, according to an industry report, “Halogenated retardants, represented by bromine- and chlorine-based products, are being phased out across the globe due to their perceived environmental and human health risks, creating an opportunity for suppliers of alternative flame retardants to replace them.” Now is the time for market disruption.
As mentioned above, alumina trihydrate now makes up almost 40 percent of the US market demand, and this report also indicates that “non-halogenated phosphorus compounds and other types with more environmentally friendly profiles will benefit from industry efforts to forestall increased regulatory scrutiny.” (note, that quote was written pre- the 2016 U.S. presidential election). While more eco-friendly flame retardants can be less toxic in their use and during combustion than those mentioned above, many still have human and environmental health and safety impacts.
For example, alumina trihydrate is produced during aluminum production. Aluminum is found in bauxite ore which is found throughout the world in tropical and semitropical zones. Bauxite ore is largely mined in open cast mines (strip mines). This type of mining consists of clearing vegetation then stripping and storing the top layer of native soil, mining the top few meters of bauxite ore, replacing the native soil in the (now depressed) land and replanting vegetation (the last two steps are best practice but not always completed). Approximately 40-50 square kilometers of new land are cleared each year for bauxite mining.
Alumina is then refined from bauxite ore in a process known as the Bayer process. The Bayer process includes heating the ore in a solution of caustic soda, water and other chemicals depending on the ore, and precipitating out the aluminum from the rest of the ore. The crystallized alumina are chemically bonded to water, so the crystals are then heated to 2000 degrees F to separate the water from the alumina. The byproduct of the process is bauxite tailings. For every ton of alumina produced, approximately 1 to 1.5 tonnes of bauxite tailings are generated, or approximately 150 million tonnes in 2015.
While alumina trihydrate is found to be relatively benign as a flame retardant with respect to human health during use and combustion, the production of alumina trihydrate is less than benign. While the aluminium industry for many years has been trying to address environmental challenges throughout the industry, the reality is that production of new aluminum requires open cast mining which destroys habitat, creates dust and erosion, disrupts hydrology, and can have social justice issues; and processing which requires large amounts of water and energy, produces bauxite tailings which can pollute water and land, and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, if looking up the supply chain, the use of caustic soda presents its own problems – the process to produce caustic soda is energy intensive and can use significant amounts of mercury (depending on the process used), and necessarily generates equal amounts of chlorine, the majority of which is used to manufacture organic and inorganic compounds.
Therefore, while the industry and potentially health experts may be satisfied with the use of alumina trihydrate as a flame retardant, the negative environmental impacts associated with the product’s life cycle render the flame retardant as far from benign. The same might be true for other “eco-friendly” flame retardants such as one based on resorcinol bis(diphenyl phosphate). Many eco-friendly flame retardants are not yet on the market and need ongoing research to find scalable production and application methods, such as those made from dopamine, milk proteins or other bio-based materials.
Significant research is going into more eco-friendly flame retardant alternatives. But considering the significant health risks associated with conventional flame retardants, we need alternatives in the market sooner rather than later. And those alternatives that are not only eco-friendly in use but also in raw material production and manufacture could significantly shift the industry for the better.
Note – some efforts to find non-toxic flame retardants include research on using natural flame retardants sources from plants or animals. For example, one research effort discovered that milk proteins (caseins, found in whey, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing), when applied to certain fabrics, are effective flame retardants and do not produce toxic off-gassing during combustion. (A commercial application of this type of product, however, is not yet available). While this research uses natural chemicals and could possibly have potentially similar effect on the entire supply chain for the flame retardants it could possibly replace, this example is not biomimicry. However, all approaches that provide this type of paradigm-shifting research are valuable in the overall effort to shift away from flame retardants that are harmful to humans and/or the environment.
How would nature fight fire?
Nature deals with fire all the time, so many plants and animals have developed defenses to protect themselves against fire. What the function of fighting fire comes down to is avoiding combustion – by either sacrificing some part of their structures, deflecting, or slowing down and/or cooling a fire. One place you probably wouldn’t even think to look for knowledge about thwarting combustion is within each cell of our bodies. Cells need to convert nutrients into biochemical energy in a process known as metabolism – it’s how we grow. During metabolism, energy in the form of heat is generated basically rendering it a combustion reaction, and yet we don’t spontaneously combust! (Or at least melt into a puddle of goo.) Why is that?
It turns out that metabolic chemical reactions occur in separate steps in our cells, and while some steps generate heat (exothermic reactions), other steps absorb energy (endothermic reactions). During a key stage in the process – the citric acid or Krebs cycle – energy is generated through the oxidation of (or binding of oxygen to) acetates which is then captured as chemical energy in a molecule (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) and stored for later use as an energy source for other metabolic processes.
There are three main processes of the Krebs cycle that are applicable to the properties necessary for stopping fire. During the initial generation of energy in the Krebs cycle, carbon dioxide is released when acetate molecules are oxidized – thus taking away oxygen (fuel) and producing carbon dioxide (which does not burn). In addition, the process of capturing chemical energy in the formation of ATP is endothermic, meaning it absorbs energy, which results in cooling. Another relevant aspect of the Krebs cycle is that during the formation of ATP, water is formed which also has a cooling effect. Thus both functions of cooling and extinguishing are present in the Krebs cycle.
The “Flame Retardants from Food” solution
The Kreb’s cycle was an exciting revelation for innovation scientists and engineers working on an eco-friendly flame retardant at Trulstech, Inc. They had before them a proven, working example of a process in which oxygen and energy (e.g., heat) were consumed – just the steps that are necessary for putting out fires. So they asked, if this chemical process is happening all the time in our bodies, can we not only emulate the citric acid cycle chemical processes, but also develop the solution emulating the life-friendly chemistry so that the flame retardant is non-toxic and biodegradable? The answer is a big fat exciting YES!
Trulstech developed Molecular Heat Eater (MHE)®, a non-toxic, environmentally friendly and biodegradable flame retardant containing only food grade chemicals (in approved concentrations). Based on innovation technology emulating the Krebs cycle transfer of energy processes, MHE® both cools and extinguishes flames to stop the spread of fire in polymer, plastic and fiber materials. The MHE® technology solves key challenges posed by traditional flame retardants.
MHE® functions in multiple ways to slow or extinguish a fire. MHE® is specifically formulated according to the material physics of each host material (polymers, plastics, fibers) and its transfer of energy; specifically, MHE® is formulated according to what chemicals are released from the host material and at what temperatures this chemical breakdown occurs. The MHE® technology uses weak acids in combination with strong alkalis to create acidic complex salts. Additional carbon compounds are also added. When exposed to high heat, the salts are oxidized (meaning oxygen binds to the salts), effectively taking away the fire’s fuel (oxygen); carbon dioxide and water are released from the reaction. Carbon dioxide is a non-flammable gas and water has a cooling effect. In addition, MHE® is designed to bind to the host material at the specific temperature at which the host material starts to break down; this chemical binding is an endothermic or cooling reaction which absorbs energy, thus also lowering the temperature. For all materials, MHE® causes an intumescent or charring reaction in which the material swells as a result of the release of carbon dioxide and heat exposure, increasing in volume and decreasing in density. The char (carbon) is a poor conductor of heat thus retarding heat transfer to the unexposed material. The result is that the retardant can break the chain reaction, pyrolysis, which is a precondition for starting fire. The strategy of binding MHE® to the host material significantly reduces migration of the flame retardant into the environment.
MHE® is produced in biodegradable micro-sized particles that are applied in the form of a liquid, gel or powder. Trusltech does not produce powder below 2 microns in size because they do not want to make nanoparticles with potential health issues. The size range of 2 to 10 microns reduces the weight load because it increases the surface area of the flame retardant, thus speeding up the chemical reactions during exposure to heat (so less retardant is required). MHE® currently can be applied to most types of materials such as polyester, polyamide, PVC, polyurethane, bitumen, rubber, polyolefines, latex, cellulose-based materials, PVAc, PVA and lacquer. MHE®-treated materials have met flammability standards in markets around the globe.
True to the solution found in nature, life-friendly chemistry is used to produce MHE®. MHE® is manufactured using food grade chemicals in quantities acceptable to applicable regulatory entities and manufactured from raw materials such as grape pomace and citrus fruits. In the quantities used, these chemicals are harmless to humans, completely biodegradable in the environment, and do not break down into harmful substances when exposed to fire. In addition, because the raw materials are plant-based, the raw material life-cycle is carbon neutral. Food grade chemicals are also widely available in all markets, challenging the chemical industry’s grip on pricing and barriers to market entry. In this way, MHE® solves the risks to human health and the environment posed by other flame retardants on the market, and provides a completely alternative supply chain solution that is better for our environment. MHE® is currently on the market under the name Apyrum sold by Deflamo in Europe and the former Republics of the Soviet Union.
Impact on the flame retardant product category ecosystem
As noted above, raw materials for MHE® are sourced from food products, the products are harmless when used in approved quantities during raw material sourcing, production, manufacture, use and disposal – the MHE® alternative literally provides a different approach or indirect impact on pretty much the entire product category ecosystem and associated goods and services.
Raw materials are sourced from food, even waste products of food that can be sourced local to the production facility – a far cry from the supply chain needed for producing the raw materials for flame retardants with mineral, organic and inorganic compounds. Industries affected by this shift would include the aluminum mining industry, chlorine producers (who also happen to produce caustic soda), petrochemical manufacturers and their supply chains…you get the picture. The supply chain for this type of flame retardant has the potential to shift value from the conventional supply chain players to local farmers, adding value to local communities.
Worker safety is improved and exposure to toxic chemicals is reduced at all stages of production. As MHE® is mixed into the host material at the chemical manufacturer plant, material manufacturers have lower costs because they no longer require the equipment to mix the flame retardant and material on site, store toxic flame retardant and catalyst chemicals, maintain associated complex environmental regulatory compliance or pay the high cost for disposal of toxic chemicals.
Of course consumers benefit greatly by this type of flame retardant due to decreased health risks – reduced long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and even more toxic gases in the case of exposure to smoke from a fire. In complementary goods and services, the health industry would be impacted in the long run as costs associated with care for the significant health impacts associated with conventional flame retardants would be non-existent. Flame retardants in this family of chemicals that are combusted in a fire remain non-toxic when they turn to into a gas phase, and health impacts associated with smoke inhalation go down. In addition, if a product never catches fire, the flame retardant will eventually biodegrade, leaving no negative impact on the environment.
Not surprisingly, Trulstech has had limited success in gaining the interest of well-established, vertically integrated flame retardant manufacturers. With a racially disruptive technology, Trulstech is searching for different leverage points to disrupt the market. It can’t happen soon enough!
With an estimated 2.8 million metric tons of flame retardant produced annually by 2018, and with halogenated products being phased out due to their human and environmental risks, there is an opportunity for disruption as alternative flame retardants fill the void. Adoption of flame retardants like MHE® thus has the potential to radically shift the flame industry landscape with completely new science that enables effective resistance to combustion at a competitive cost without causing harm to humans or the environment. Talk about a complete #SystemReset!
I would love to see the life-cycle comparison of MHE® with conventional flame retardants, including alumina trihydrate, to understand the full economic and environmental impact at an industry scale of this paradigm shift if taken to scale. Check out this example of LCAs on flame retardants – the last few slides referencing the UK study I understand to include an LCA of MHE – would love to see it! But while this is fantastic, I want to try to grasp the full impact of shifting the entire industry. What would this world look like? Can we paint a clear picture? Any takers?? Let’s put real numbers to this #SystemReset.
When I launched into my #SystemReset series last fall, I felt pretty good about the information I had about the context of three product categories (plastics, flame retardants and anti-bacterials). But some systems are more complex than others, and certainly the fire retardant industry is complex and technical – I’ve been slowed by research that leads me into ever-deepening circles of inquiry! And, of course, me being me I want to make sure I’ve got it right. So, instead of sharing my own work this week, I wanted to share with you great work by other people – a super helpful video shared this week that helps to expand our understanding of the biomimicry process, as well as a couple of fascinating books coming out this spring. Check them out!
Biologically Inspired Design for Industry: An Evolving Practice
I found this webinar to provide a thorough and helpful case study example from Kimberly-Clark of how this team has been shifting biomimicry from idea to implementation, and the lessons learned. Of course, I’ve included a permanent link on my Resources page.
The Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) at Georgia Tech, in combination with Kimberly-Clark Corporation, recently completed two biologically inspired design projects. These projects successfully generated two new active research lines for improving product performance. Join Michael Helms, PhD, from Georgia Tech, and Marsha Forthofer, Kimberly-Clark, to learn more about the projects and discuss the conditions that enabled (and inhibited) the success of the projects including:
expectation setting across different design domains
design team knowledge and skill requirements
translating biological concepts into actionable, funded research
New Books Spring 2017
Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World
My friend, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD, has authored a book about her area of expertise – superorganisms – and what we can learn from them. Drawing on fundamental lessons learned from multiple superorganisms, she provides insight into how organizations can restructure to be adaptable, resilient and integral to the functioning of a system.
The most successful species are those that adapt to change, and the same is true in business. But there are limits to vertical growth, and our hierarchical structures can only grow so tall before complexity and instability overwhelm them. Today’s global organizations need a new way to sense and respond to change. Earth’s most ancient and successful societies – the ants and termites, and vast fungal networks underground – have already solved the problem. For hundreds of millions of years, they have worked in huge cities – tens of millions strong – compounding their wealth from one generation to the next with no management whatsoever. With just four simple principles – Collective Intelligence, Distributed Leadership, Swarm Creativity, and Regenerative Value – Teeming shows how these simple individuals pool their diverse and independent experiences to create rich hotspots of abundance and exquisite resilience to change. We can do it too.
Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming
Not biomimicry per se although the premise of the idea is that we need to balance our carbon cycle like the rest of life does (and Dayna Baumeister of Biomimicry 3.8 is a Scientific Advisor!), but I am excited to see what comes out of the research Project Drawdown has done over the last few years in the book that will summarize it all, Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming. Considering the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge focus is on climate change, it will be fascinating to learn from the winners of the competition what biomimicry might add to the list of approaches we can use to balance our carbon cycle. Let’s do this!
To be clear, our organization did not create or devise a plan. We do not have that capability or self-appointed mandate. In conducting our research, we found a plan, a blueprint that already exists in the world in the form of humanity’s collective wisdom, made manifest in applied, hands-on practices and technologies. Individual farmers, communities, cities, companies, and governments have shown that they care about this planet, its people and its places. Engaged citizens the world over are doing something extraordinary. This is their story.
As we come to the close of the hottest year on modern record for the planet, the potential for a #SystemReset that results in carbon sequestration is a welcome one. In this post, I provide an example of how an alternative biomimetic systems approach to sourcing and producing plastic that actually sequesters carbon can redefine the environmental impacts of the plastics industry while still delivering high-quality plastics that meet core functional needs.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functions of the product category.
How would nature produce plastic?
Plastics are generally made from fossil fuels through an energy intensive process that results in the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change. But a new paradigm is emerging that has the potential to radically change the plastics industry – plastic made from “air pollution” inspired by the fact that plants are sequestering carbon by turning greenhouse gases captured from the air into polymers every day.
Plants produce polymers by first converting the sun’s light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, a process in which carbon dioxide (an abundant greenhouse gas) pulled from the air is combined with water to make sugars (oxygen is a byproduct of this process). Glucose (a sugar) is then connected in long chains via an enzymatic process in proteins to produce polymers such as cellulose for structure and starch for stored energy. Cellulose and starch are of course biodegradable materials that at the end of the plant’s life are returned back into the nutrient cycle.
So startup plastics companies asked, if plants are sequestering carbon from greenhouse gases from the air into biodegradable polymers, why can’t we humans? Turns out we can.
At the end of the material’s useful life, fossil fuel-based plastics are sometimes recycled, but unfortunately more often than not are thrown away. As these plastics degrade, the plastic will breakdown eventually into tiny microparticles and toxic additives in the plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) (an endocrine disruptor), are released. However, because these microparticles are synthetic plastic, they are not broken down any further by microorganisms and thus do not reenter the natural carbon cycle.
*A Google search resulted in a wide range of estimates.
Why does it matter?
Carbon dioxide and methane are essential carbon-based greenhouse gases that are part of the natural carbon cycle on the planet. The carbon cycle helps to regulate our planet’s systems in a way that sustains life (including us humans!). As native ecosystems are replaced or modified by human development, including both agricultural and built environment systems which do not cycle carbon in the same way as the native ecosystems they replace, we begin to disrupt the ability of those native ecosystems to continue to cycle carbon in the same way and in the same quantities.
In addition, as we disturb carbon sinks (forms of carbon that are otherwise not released back into the carbon cycle) by burning fossil fuels, cutting down and burning forests and tilling soils for agricultural purposes, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere that would otherwise stay in the ground and biomass (exceeding natural fluctuations). With the decreasing ability of ecosystems to absorb and store carbon and increasing quantities of greenhouse gases released from human activities into the air, combined with insufficient carbon sequestration by humans to balance the amount released by human activities, the carbon cycle is shifting as more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans.
As the quantity of greenhouse gases increases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the gases increasingly prevent heat from the sun’s rays from escaping our atmosphere. Some trapping of heat is necessary of course or we would all be frozen to death. Increasing heat, however, changes weather patterns on a global scale, resulting in increasing flooding and drought, extreme heat and cold, intensity of storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. This change in weather patterns can result in increased human suffering in any place where these natural disasters occur – not in isolated areas, and not confined to third-world countries (have you seen Miami at high tide?). It also increasingly threatens biodiversity on our planet as many organisms cannot adapt quickly enough to the change in weather patterns which impacts everything from water availability to timing and availability of food supplies on land, and warming temperatures and increasing acidification in oceans. The planet’s systems are increasingly out of whack, and the use of fossil-fuel based materials and energy systems contributes to this disruption.
Realizing that the dominant design for plastics that has emerged in modern times relies on cheap fossil fuel-based feedstocks that have significant environmental and human health impacts, companies have been working to figure out more environmentally friendly and scalable feedstock alternatives that can compete on price. Most of these alternatives are bioplastics, which are derived from plant or animal based materials. By changing the feedstock to plant or animal based material, the resulting bioplastics biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle resulting in less harm to the environment at the end of life of the product. The bioplastics industry thus has the potential to significantly shift the raw material sourcing as well as impact of the disposal portions of the product category ecosystem.
However, the life-cycle petroleum inputs that are consumed in the agricultural production and energy consumption necessary to produce the plant-based materials can be close to those required for fossil fuel-based plastics. Other environmental impacts also emerge from plant-based plastics, including the potential to accelerate the rate of deforestation and soil erosion as a result of the increasing demand for agricultural land. In addition, bioplastics also face the challenge of having high costs with low yields relative to petroleum-based plastics. Thus, the resulting consensus on bioplastics is that while they generally have a lower environmental impact than fossil fuel-based plastics, the jury is still out.
The “Plastics from Air Pollution” Solution
A different emerging alternative to this dominant design, however, seeks to capture feedstocks from the air, just as plants do. By looking at the life cycle of carbon in plants, innovators were able to see an entire alternative system of carbon cycling and try to mimic aspects of it – raw material sourcing (the air), production (enzymatic process) and disposal (breakdown and recycling back into the carbon cycle to be used again).
Modeling their raw material sourcing and production and eventual disposal of polymers on the natural carbon production and degradation cycle in plants, Newlight Technologies is commercially producing AirCarbon, a group of biodegradablepolyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) thermoplastics that combines a biocatalyst with methane captured from biodegradation processes (before it is released into the atmosphere) and oxygen from the air to produce polymers, all done at a competitive price. Novomer is another company using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases to make polymers.
The Newlight and Novomer plastics processes are literally capturing carbon “pollution” (aka, an abundant resource that happens to be a greenhouse gas too) that would otherwise contribute to climate change and sequestering it in plastic products. In the case of Newlight, the feedstock is actually derived from the byproduct (methane) of microbes that break down organic materials in wastewater treatment plants, anaerobic digesters, landfills and farming operations. And just like the polymers produced by plants, these plastics will eventually break down into natural elements that are digestible by microorganisms and incorporated back into the organic life cycle.
So instead of digging carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the air, these companies are actually taking carbon out of the air and sequestering it into a solid material. According to the Newlight Technologies website, a cradle-to-grave analysis of the Aircarbon material concluded Aircarbon is carbon negative. The potential of this plastic to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuel-based plastics, but to actually sequester carbon out of the air (thus helping to reduce the severity of climate change) represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the plastics industry, and companies are taking notice.
Impact on the Plastics Product Category Ecosystem
Changing the raw material sources from fossil fuels to “air pollution” has the potential to change the entire raw material chain for the industry as well as reduce its impact at the end of life of the material.
Most significantly, in the case of Newlight, the source of feedstock for their polymers is from two sources – the air outside combined with methane from farming operations, wastewater treatment plants and/or anaerobic digesters (anywhere where microorganisms are digesting organic matter and producing methane). This shift eliminates both direct and indirect suppliers of fossil fuel-based raw materials from the product category ecosystem. Those impacted include companies such as crude oil and natural gas extraction companies and the subcontractors that serve them; oil and natural gas distribution/transportation companies; oil and natural gas storage companies; refineries; and petrochemical plants.
The value associated with this portion of the product category ecosystem of course is then redirected to the alternative raw material sources – methane pollution capture companies (i.e., farmers, municipal wastewater treatment plants or anaerobic digester energy plant operators). As such, value is not being lost within the ecosystem, but rather redirected to new players along with increased value placed on a resource that was previously considered a “waste.” And the resulting value to the planet as a result of greenhouse gases sequestered in air pollution plastic at a time when we have no time to lose to address climate change is invaluable.
Other improvements might be made to address other challenges throughout the industry, such as using renewable energy to power production plants, and using life-friendly additives to the plastics that ensure recyclability and/or complete biodegradation of all materials in the plastic end products.
These new models for plastics production change the underlying dominant design assumption that to be scalable at a competitive cost in today’s market, plastics must be made from fossil fuel feedstocks. So what if we could shift the “plastics from petroleum” paradigm to the “plastics from carbon pollution” paradigm at a large scale? I’d love to have the resources to do the math! I think we’d find the resulting paradigm shift would have huge ripple effects throughout the industry.
I would also argue that this kind of thinking is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we view carbon “pollution.” This example begs the question, how else can we sequester abundant carbon resources (combined with reduction efforts) to begin to balance our carbon cycle? Plants figured this out a long time ago. We are just getting started.
Newlight’s innovation and it’s potential for redefining the plastics industry’s love affair with fossil fuels is no longer a question of “if”, but rather “how soon?” Talk about a #SystemReset.
I’m a big fan of one of the three 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival’s (DIF) themes, #SystemReset – “It’s time for a change of operating system.” That about sums up where I am with everything, so I’m adopting it for my next series of posts on biomimicry’s potential for setting us on completely new paths. Where is that System Reset button??? I want one.
Ok, so I have to lay the obvious out there – on top of the three weeks of some virus tearing me down, it’s all getting to me. It does indeed sometimes seem somewhat hopeless. To me, an individual, all this makes me feel powerless. My conscious and unconscious selves have slowly moved in harmony in one direction (finally!) – unfortunately, it’s been towards an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, feeling of inertia. But I know it’s not just me. Apparently psychologists are reporting a much higher percent of patients feeling stressed as a result of this election (and I’m guessing it’s more than just this election, as evidenced by the public’s desire for an “outsider” candidate). We are all feeling it one way or another. The System Reset button is on our consciousness. We don’t know where it is or what it does or what it looks like, but we hope it’s out there.
What happens next?
One of the six primary Life’s Principles (LP) in biomimicry is “Integrate Development with Growth.” What does that mean? It means don’t grow 300 feet tall without simultaneously investing in your root structure as you grow or you’re sure to fall over. It means you can’t evolve a democracy without simultaneously investing in educating the entire population about democracy. It means when you press the System Reset button, make sure you’ve got the support system to back you up, or your turn with the button will fail.
It also means before we reset the whole system, let’s try resetting smaller systems first, one at a time. And let’s combine and leverage these smaller alternatives as we go to create a larger, more complex robust system. Then when we finally find and hammer that System Reset button with enthusiasm, perhaps we will see a real shift.
So what are these smaller alternative systems? We can see and feel that there has to be something better than the current paradigms that results in us poisoning ourselves, tearing down our human dignity, throwing our entire planet out of balance. But the alternatives – real answers to satisfying our needs with truly sustainable solutions – often elude our imagination. Too often we find ourselves stuck in the rut of resource minimization as our only path forward. What are the opportunities? What if examples for alternative systems are already out there? And how do we find them?
Biomimicry and #SystemReset
Each design challenge exists in context – a system that surrounds it that includes both direct and/or indirect connections with raw material sourcing, transportation, manufacturing, retailing, marketing, distribution, consumption and disposal. It also includes cultural norms and deep-seated assumptions that we often don’t even question until someone designs something that flies in the face of those same assumptions. Biomimicry helps us to break down those assumptions and focus in on the true goal of a design – the need the design is addressing – a.k.a., the function.
Biomimicry focuses on function – function is the bridge between human design and biology that allows knowledge transfer to happen. Which function you choose to research and pursue will determine to a large extent the potential breadth of impact of your biomimetic design solution. Are you looking to redesign a well, or are you looking to redesign people’s access to water? Are you looking to redesign a light bulb or are you looking to illuminate?
Choosing a function that contributes to a product design will result in a redesigned product.Choosing a function that forms the core definition of a product design need will result in the potential for not only a completely redesigned product, but also a redesigned product ecosystem, with ripple effects into complimentary goods and services systems.
In the Constantinos Markides and Paul Geroski 2005 book, Fast Second, they discuss how the culmination of the “radical innovation” process results in a “dominant design.” A dominant design “defines what a product is and what its core features are. It is, if you like, a platform, from which come a wide range of product variants that are distinguishable from each other without seeming to be fundamentally different.” (p. 52) The dominant design is the category of products we think of when we hear “TV”, “car” or “fan.” The term “product” here can even apply to systems – such as our systems of politics, financial markets and economic system, although obviously the ecosystem surrounding that “product” would be represented somewhat differently.
When we hear “lighting” we think light bulbs, and can probably name several kinds of bulbs – incandescent, fluorescent, LED, halogen, etc., and many brands like Phillips, Sylvania and more. But what is the function of lighting? To illuminate. What if we could find other ways of illuminating that don’t look or operate anything like a light bulb? And what if we took it one step further and asked about how the lighting product is made – materials, manufacturing, source of power for use, and disposal? Now we are starting to rethink an entire system.
When biomimicry thinking is used in the design process and the right questions are asked that get at the core function of the challenge and how that product is made, the potential for coming up with entirely new approaches with entirely new product ecosystems while still meeting existing needs is great.
Choosing a function that improves the functionality of an existing design without fundamentally changing the core features limits its disruptive impact within the product category. For example, if you redesign the structure of a water bottle using biomimicry with a function of reducing material use without sacrificing strength of the structure, your impact will be limited to reducing the amount of raw and manufactured materials used, retooling for production, and increasing the efficiency of distribution (weight is reduced, resulting in increased fuel efficiency of transportation). While these efficiency gains are important, they do not fundamentally change the access and method of delivery of water to people for consumption.
However, when you start to think about the central function of a challenge along with each part of the product ecosystem, the impacts change dramatically. Take the vaccine thermo-stabilization technology solutions from Stabilitech and Nova Laboratories, Ltd, which rethink the dominant design in the industry for thermoregulation of live vaccines – that the only way to keep them alive is refrigeration throughout the supply chain. The Stabilitech and Nova Labs technologies are based on anhydrobiosis – a natural process that occurs in plants and animals during times of drought in which the water within cells is replaced with a sugar solution that thickens to a point of solidifying as a glass, protecting the cells until water is available again. Their technologies achieve thermoregulation protection for live vaccines and other thermo-sensitive pharmaceuticals using this same concept. The technologies require no refrigeration during their life cycles (they can withstand heat and freezing temperatures) and no lengthy reconstitution before injection.
The potential magnitude of impact of this approach to thermoregulation for vaccine stabilization technologies can be found throughout the product category ecosystem, from raw materials (non-toxic and inexpensive sugars), to manufacturing processes, distribution (no refrigeration required throughout the product life cycle, reducing storage and transportation costs and expanding the reach of vaccines into third world countries), and use (vaccines and other pharmaceuticals are not thrown out due to fear of exposure to temperatures outside of the accepted range, and rehydration of the vaccine is instant). Depending on the delivery mechanism of these technologies, the disposal of the product might also produce less waste and close the loop.
In addition, not only is the ecosystem surrounding this technology disrupted, but the complimentary goods and services are impacted as well, particularly with respect to all services associated with refrigeration – the refrigeration product manufacturers, energy companies, thermo-regulated storage and transport suppliers, etc. are rendered irrelevant with respect to these products. By redefining the dominant approach to thermoregulation of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, the entire product category ecosystem and more is impacted.
Searching for other #SystemResets
As you can see, your choice of function to solve for in any design challenge affects the potential impact that solution has on a product category ecosystem. If you are looking to create solutions that are not just “disruptive” but rather radically change the entire product category ecosystem – initiate a system reset – start with an approach that rethinks the core features that define a product category to redefine the dominant design.
Using biomimicry (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to solve for that central function while looking at the entire life-cycle that surrounds the product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. The sooner we can begin to rethink and impact multiple systems which in turn have an expanding and overlapping ripple effect beyond the product categories, the greater chance we have of turning the tide against existing paradigms that do not support life.
It’s important to recognize that creating alternative systems is a serious challenge, as systems often resist change. But actually coming up with and developing alternatives is the first step. Second step might be to quantify more fully the broader potential impacts of these alternative systems (i.e., conducting a life-cycle or cradle-to-cradle analysis of not only the product itself, but of the whole industry and the impact of potential changes brought about by these alternatives). Third, we need to figure out how to disrupt systems. The more we can do this, the greater the support system we create for large-scale change when we find and push that System Reset button.