By Anwen Bowers
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vast area in the Pacific Ocean where huge amounts of plastic and other slow-to-degrade waste has accumulated over the past half century. Rubbish from all the rivers in North America and Asia gathers here and then becomes trapped by the swirling waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
The plastic has nowhere else to go, and so it circles around the oceans, breaking down into smaller and
smaller pieces; small enough to be consumed by the plankton, fish, birds and mammals of the Pacific Ocean. This poses a huge environmental threat, and it is a result of the linear processing of waste that is a uniquely human phenomenon.
In nature, everything is processed in cycles *cue famous Disney soundtrack*. As animals feed, the basic building blocks of life are passed up the food chain, and when the top predators die or defecate, the cycle starts again. Every single atom in our bodies has already passed through a number of incarnations, already been part of an ant or a daisy or a rock, and has the potential to become so again.
Many organisms have carved out an ecological niche for themselves facilitating this cycle. Animals like vultures and dung beetles may not have the most glamorous rep, feeding as they do on dung and rotting corpses. But in so doing they remove a source of harmful bacteria and disease, turning it instead into bioavailable nutrients, promoting growth, habitat, and life. Unglamorous it may be, but an invaluable service nonetheless.
Where nature operates on complex, closed systems that generate zero waste, humanity tends to operate on a linear system. In this system, materials are processed into products that are useful for a time, but once they reach the end of their life span the waste is packed into crevices in the earth’s crust, or swept into oceans, never to be useful again.
This is unsustainable not only because these endpoints will eventually become saturated, but also because by taking the materials out of circulation, we are effectively putting an end to their reincarnation cycle. The more stuff that is floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the less stuff we have to use, and logic follows that we will eventually run out.
Luckily, more and more business models are starting to see that that by following nature’s example they can simultaneously increase productivity, whilst decreasing harmful output. Cardboard to Caviar is an initiative set up by the Green Business Network (GBN) in West Yorkshire. Inspired initially by the problem of waste cardboard packaging from the restaurant industry, GBN’s solution was to collect the cardboard, shred it and sell it as bedding for horses.
A good solution, but what about the waste that then came from the stables? GBN started to collect that too, feeding it into giant composters, where the cardboard and manure were broken down by worms. The worms, in turn, are fed into GBN’s fish farm, where they are eaten by sturgeon, which produce caviar that is sold…to the restaurant industry!
The number of businesses that process waste into something useful appears to have increased exponentially over the last few years. They’re turning chopsticks into furniture and plastic bags into bricks.
However, a word of caution: Whilst these examples should be credited for their innovation in extending the life of waste materials, they are still, in essence, linear. The risk is that whilst storing plastic in bricks is better than storing it in the ocean, we could ultimately also be storing up the problem for future generations. Plastic, in particular, can only be recycled into a useful product once; any further processing deteriorates the quality too much.
To effectively transition into a low waste society, there also needs to be a parallel shift towards sustainable, natural materials that can either be cycled in themselves or converted into new materials, continuing the circle of waste.