Thinking in circles, cycles and loops

Thinking in circles, cycles and loops

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its annual municipal waste Facts and Figures report last month with a new tag line of “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management.” The new name comes at an interesting time in the world of municipal solid waste management in the U.S.

In short, if America wants to recycle, people will have to pay more. So far, there really has been no discussion about the underlying reality that current practices yield a lot of contamination (aka waste).

I recently spoke at a fundraising event in Barre, Vermont for the Toxics Action Center (TAC). As part of its mission to prevent landfill expansions and associated environmental impacts, TAC advocates for "zero waste" programs. I was asked to address zero waste initiatives, especially in light of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, which forbids disposal of recycled materials and organics by 2020.

While thinking about how to frame my remarks, it hit me that "zero waste" is equivalent to "100 percent resources." In other words, every material manufactured or grown can be used or consumed, and then, because what’s left are resources, can be repurposed or reused as is, recycled, digested or composted.

In this scenario, materials currently deemed hazardous or nonrecyclable, noncompostable and nondigestable have to be reconfigured to become a resource, or eliminated.

When framed that way, we quickly move away from looking at municipal solid waste management as a hierarchy and instead view it as a cycle. Gone is the EPA solid waste hierarchy (aka the “MSW Facts and Figures”) and enter the Sustainable Materials Management cycle.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

In May, I attended a workshop in New York City, “The Circular Economy 100,” organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Closed Loop Fund. The Foundation’s graphic for a circular economy is a series of interconnecting circles and loops, with two primary cycles: biological and technical. This is wonderful food for “100 Percent Resources” thought!

In preparation for BioCycle’s Food For People, Food For Soil Workshop in Portland, Oregon in April (part of BioCycle West Coast Conference 2015), we developed a graphic, “Food System Life Cycle.” We are continuing to use this graphic to rethink/reframe U.S. EPA’s current Food Recovery Hierarchy, the inverted pyramid with landfill and incineration still in the picture.

Essentially, everything in the food system life cycle can be consumed or be recycled via composting and anaerobic digestion (including the manure from livestock fed with food scraps) to grow more food. BioCycle presents this as a cycle comprised of circles, with arrows flowing from one to the next. We are rethinking the arrows as in some cases, food goes directly from one circle to another without passing through the other circles.

All of these ideas are a work in progress. The key is to think in circles, cycles and loops, with 100 percent resources — or zero waste, if you prefer to focus on the flip side — as the defining factor.