Redefining waste as feedstock

Leading consultant in biomimicry fields questions posed at business summit

floor-leaf-cropInterchangeable Interface carpet tiles are inspired by the “organized chaos of nature’s ground coverings”—and reduce waste.

Welcome to the debut of Circular, a regular blog hosted by Canada’s National Zero Waste Council, which explores the economic, environmental and social benefits of preventing waste and transitioning to a circular economy.

In this post, Nicole Hagerman Miller, Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8., responds to questions posed by audience members at a panel discussion hosted by the Council at Globe 2016, The Leadership Summit for Sustainable Business, Mar. 4, in Vancouver.

Nicole, whose consulting firm includes among its clients Nike, Interface and P&G, was one of four panellists presenting at “Industrial Revolution 4.0: How Waste Prevention Can Boost the Bottom Line and Drive Circular Economy Innovation”.

The others were Nadine Gudz, Director of Sustainability Strategy, Interface; Ilse Treurnicht, CEO, MaRS Discovery District; and Malcolm Brodie, Chair, National Zero Waste Council and Mayor, City of Richmond. Dagmar Timmer, Managing Director, One Earth Institute, served as moderator.

Missed the session? You can watch it here.

Nicole Hagerman Miller
Managing Director
Biomimicry 3.8

Questions (and comments) and answers with Nicole Hagerman Miller:

Q: We need to change the perception and change the language … so that waste / garbage becomes instead a resource commodity or “urban ore.”

A: I agree 100%. We have a negative association with waste. It is perceived as having no value. In nature, however, waste is a valuable feedstock. If we can mimic that principle, we can change the game.

This is why organizations like Canada’s National Zero Waste Council and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) are so important. They are demonstrating the value of “waste” and the circular economy – which is huge!  The 2015 study conducted by the EMF discovered that a shift to a circular economy could generate 1.8 trillion euros (2.0 trillion US dollars) – and that is just within the mobility, food, and built-environment sectors. If we begin to design using the idea that waste equals feedstock, then we are contributing to and reaping the environmental and monetary benefits of the circular economy.

Q: How does nature deal with infinite growth?

A: I think, as humans, we often equate growth with success. In nature, the ultimate success for an organism is the future generation of that species. To achieve that, the organism must take care of its place, so its energy is committed to creating conditions conducive to life. That is how organisms are able to support infinite growth, thinking of the health of future generations.

Q: How do you reconcile the need for reduced energy/material consumption with a growing economy?

A: This is where, I believe, we have such exciting opportunities. To do business in smarter, more sustainable ways, we don’t necessarily have to deny anyone the right to growth or access. Nature, for example, uses materials that break down and are locally available, thereby solving the supply problem, as well as preventing waste build-up. Nature is generous and provides resources for the inhabitants of an ecosystem, which then supports and feeds back into the source. Think of an apple tree. It doesn’t just produce one apple. Why? All those other apples feed the animals that leave their fertilizer at the foot of the apple tree, also feeding the soil bacteria and fungi that create a trade system for resources that are hard to get, such as nitrogen. Generosity and collaboration creates a healthy, thriving system.

“Nature uses materials that break down and are locally available…preventing waste build-up”

Q: How can we incentivize small business/social enterprises to prioritize zero-waste principles? Funds are typically limited in the early stages and funding is scarce for these initiatives.

A: I like to think of it this way: Life is here for the long haul. For a company to successfully integrate zero-waste principles, it must be committed to a plan over time. Decisions that reduce risk and build resilience require a vision and commitment to the future.

Life builds upon frameworks. Lichen breaks down minerals in a rocky environment, followed by fungi that spread and connect to small plants that can feed off the moisture and trade for nutrients. Upon this framework, a whole forest can emerge.  If a company makes decisions based on long-term investments, it will thrive because it’s operating in a capacity that increases resilience and reduces risk.

Also, resilience is built by cultivating cooperative relationships. The more we can link academia, industry, and government to work together on creating practical solutions and infrastructure to support a transition to a zero waste or circular economy, the more we are able to expedite this progress.

Canada’s National Zero Waste Council is a leadership initiative bringing together governments, businesses and non-government organizations to advance waste prevention.

3 thoughts

  1. Reblogged this on bionomist and commented:
    The article titled: “Redefining Waste as Feedstock” explains key bionomic principles in langauge that everyone can understand. it is a very well written article on key aspects of the principles involved on how we can become a zero waste society – and thrive.


  2. Great writing! I really like the way you bring the point across that nature operates on interlocked cyclical relationships and there is no such thing as waste. – Otherwise this planet – our planet – would in all likelihood be looking like the moon by now.

    I look forward to reading more of your work!


  3. I would like to talk to Nicole Hagerman Miller about LEED 4 and the RED LIST. How it will affect the views on sustainability and “what” is being recycled.




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