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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Harnessing Nature’s Technology:
The Biomimicry Toolkit

This was no introductory workshop. Everyone in attendance on Monday afternoon, day one of SB'17 Detroit, raised their hand when asked if they knew what biomimicry is, and everyone was interested in diving in and learning how to use biomimicry in their own work. Thus, organizers Nicole Hagerman Miller and Dr. Dayna Baumeister, both with Biomimicry 3.8 dove right in, as this workshop was designed to learn about the process to begin thinking about biomimicry when designing sustainability initiatives at their organizations.

In fact, this workshop utilized a new toolkit created by Biomimicry 3.8, which they hope allows more people to incorporate the principles of biomimicry independently, even without the direct guidance of an expert.

“We needed to create opportunities for people to experience what it's like to generate ideas from nature, even when we couldn’t be there in person,” Baumeister said.

After a detailed introduction by Baumeister, who participated via video as she was unable to make it to Detroit, participants broke off into groups of five or six. Their task: Use biomimicry to address sustainability challenges related to packaging.

Packaging is a huge sustainability challenge (it had its own workshop today, as well). As consumer culture expands across the developing world, and home-delivery becomes more and more common in the global north, we’re consuming more packaging than ever before. Traditional systems – including ones considered sustainable, such as recycling – are no longer working, as the growth in cardboard overwhelms existing facilities.

So, the question that faced participants: Are there solutions in nature to our growing packaging challenge? To facilitate discussion, Miller distributed cards from their toolkit. The cards, of which there are six different types, allow for a multitude of different conclusions and potential strategies. The workshop is, fittingly, focused not on creating an actionable solution here and now, but on learning how to begin thinking about biomimicry as a basis for sustainability solutions.

“We want to give you the experience of playing with these [cards], and create some ‘a-ha’ moments,” Baumeister said.

The groups had a lively discussion - starting with learning about the biology of the species they were given, which ranged from the well-known - elephants - to the obscure (the leaf stomata - a breathing leaf), the scarab beetle, and the bloodworm.

The ideas that teams came up with in three hours were remarkably innovative. Some were the practical - mimicking the leaf stomata, for example, through the design of new packaging that would automatically regulate airflow - to maintain ideal moisture to increase storage shelf-life. Others were inspirational, such as the group that took elephants, who act as ecosystem managers of the savannah for their numerous positive impacts, to think of a completely compostable packaging system wherein materials could be deposited anywhere – such as your backyard, or in industrial systems – creating a web of positive, circular impacts.

While diverse, the ideas developed by participants had one thing in common: They were all sustainable.

“When you start using nature, you find that biomimicry is inherently sustainable,” Miller said. “If you use Life’s Principles, then you are maintaining the integrity of biology.”

At the end, several participants stated that they enjoyed learning about these creatures, but felt they needed more knowledge to really come up with elegant designs. Others felt that the juxtaposition of a species with a realm card - the phase of packaging they should address, such as post-consumer use, forced them to really think about the problem and use biology to address it.

Not too shabby for a room of sustainability experts, not biologists. With better tools, and access to better resources, imagine what they could come up with. That is the power of biomimicry.


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