Building sustainably is very important to us. All the accommodations on our finca are constructed using recycled materials. Your trash is our treasure! This relates closely to the concept of a circular economy. What exactly is that, and how can we achieve it?
A circular economy is an economy where nothing goes to waste. When a product reaches the end of its lifecycle, it becomes valuable input for another cycle. That’s the opposite of our current linear economy, where products are created, used and discarded.
A simple example is compost: Fruit and vegetable leftovers decompose and become a natural fertilizer for growing new produce. (Read more about our own composting process here at the finca)
Sometimes, it’s necessary to think a bit more outside the box to find use for what otherwise would be considered waste. This is especially challenging as it requires people from different economic sectors to work closely together. Swiss designer Noemi Niederhauser did this in the project Wastematter. In beer production, a lot of malt residue remains in brewery tanks. The first thought might be to bin it, but when combined with an organic binder, it can be used to create panels resembling chipboard. These, in turn, become raw materials for crafting new furniture.
If we can find more of these creative solutions to give “waste” a new life, we can drastically reduce the amount of trash that gets dumped every year: a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste.
Unfortunately, we are still a long way from living in a circular economy. There are many challenges to overcome. There still aren’t proper recycling techniques for many of the products we use in big quantities in daily life. For instance, some plastics are recyclable, but ZIP-lock food bags, plastic wrap and bubble wrap are not. They end up at landfills, taking hundreds of years to diminish in smaller and smaller pieces, never really disappearing. These recycling techniques need to be invented, tested, implemented and made profitable, a process that won’t happen overnight.
Another big problem is that product design is usually based on market research. Circular alternatives might not be as comfortable as what we’re used to these days. There are many options that are more sustainable than plastic packaging, but they might be heavier or less visually pretty, or considered old fashioned. They might also ask for adjustments in our buying behaviour: Many people store their rice at home in glass pots. It would save a lot of plastic if we could take those pots to the supermarket to get them topped up there. But consumers will have to accept that they need to bring their own heavy jars to the supermarkets, and supermarkets will need to change their layout, bring in extra staff to help at the rice booth and make changes to their supply system. And unfortunately, people aren’t usually happy about changes if that make their life less convenient.
A third problem is that many products are designed in such a way that recycling them is more expensive then producing a new item. This can be tackled by taking recycling into account even before a product is produced. During the design stage, designers should anticipate the end of the product’s life and plan what needs to happen to it when it has served its original purpose. This calls for a new kind of creativity, and a new approach to materials. For instance, gaining popularity as a packaging material is mycelium. Mycelium is the root system of mushrooms. If you dig into the earth underneath a mushroom you can find it. It’s possible to grow mycelium yourself by feeding it fiber, it ties the fibers together. By placing mycelium and fiber together in a mould, it’s possible to grow mycelium in specific shapes. By firing the mycelium shapes you end up with a strong and organic material, which can be used for packaging or construction. To dispose of mycelium packaging, simply break it into small pieces and toss it into a compost bin.
It might feel like there is little we can do ourselves to help the transition from a linear economy to a circular one. There is a lot that needs to change in the realm of production and business management. However, there are still actions we can take to help. First and foremost, by recognizing your power as a consumer. If we all choose to spend our money on items and businesses that are already involved in the circular economy, we can bring about real change. Besides that, we can make more circular choices in our daily lives. There are many grassroot initiatives, striving to make the world a better place. Many countries have car-sharing initiatives going on. More and more people are switching to solar power or other renewable energy sources. Buying second hand is becoming more popular, giving many still usable products a good second life. People are conscious of repairing, instead of replacing. We do it a lot here, so you can do it too!