Envision a future where every material thing in our world is made out of a handful of materials, carefully selected to be safe, healthy and infinitely recyclable. Everything from coffee cup to countertop could be broken down and used as raw materials for a new shawl or lampshade.
Managers frequently say, “Sustainability is a journey” — often implying that it is an ideal that companies strive for but never actually reach. That is an unhelpful and deceptive metaphor. Sustainability is a clear destination. We know exactly what our sustainable economy is going to look like — our cities and industries are going to resemble nature.
The biosphere is built on a parsimonious materials palette, a handful of elemental materials used to create the marvelous biodiversity we see around us. Nature’s power source is solar, captured and stored chemically in living things themselves. The materials are enduring, residing temporarily in any given organism before being released into nature’s shared materials pool to be value cycled into the next, more evolved, organism. Organisms are expressions of a common underlying production platform that the biosphere leverages for massive scale, scope and information economies, allowing species to take advantage of every habitable niche on the globe. Organism design and ecosystem function are biologically captured in genetic information technology that is shared widely across the planet, allowing individual organisms to operate in an integrated way that sustains the whole.
In the future, we can envision a time where every material thing in our world is made out of a handful of materials, carefully selected to be safe and healthy for living things and infinitely recyclable. Everything from coffee cup to countertop could be broken down on the spot and used as raw materials for a new shawl or lampshade. Instead of looking to the iron mines of Minnesota or the well heads of Iraq for our raw materials, we would instead look to the skyscrapers of Manhattan or even our living rooms. As you read this, look around at what is in the room you are sitting in. Can you imagine that the bulk of it is made from a handful of carefully selected materials?
In this world, product designers and engineers would be trained to think differently. Instead of asking, “What novel materials can I use to build this product?”, brilliant designers will ask, “How can I use my pallet of proven circular materials to design a solution that delivers my client’s desired service?” And, of course, they will come up with original, dazzling solutions.
In this world, manufacturing depends not on the intense industrial heats and pressures that mimic geologic processes, but on manufacturing methods that can be powered by intelligently delivered renewable energy.
The beginnings of this world already exist. Additive manufacturing technologies — which build products from the bottom up, like nature — have the potential to incorporate all of the biosphere rules, setting the foundation for a viable circular economy. 3D printing’s additive manufacturing approach means that a single plastic polymer can be used to create a nearly infinite number of forms, fulfilling the principle of materials parsimony. Next, the recent development of solar-powered 3D printing fulfills the power autonomy principle, allowing printers to work entirely on local renewable energy. And the final piece has also been demonstrated: An integrated recycling process that can take an old object, grind it down, and reuse it as raw material for the next printing run.
Imagine that you have your own 3D printer in your garage, or perhaps you use a printing merchant at your local shopping center. Most of the products in your home — tableware, furniture, finishings, doors, and so on — are printed products. When you tire of your side table, you pop it in your car and go to your printing merchant, who promptly throws it into a solar-powered hopper to grind it down into new raw material. Then, you select the new table design you want from the merchant’s terminal and press “print.” When you come back from your grocery shopping, your brand-new table is ready and waiting for you.
While not all products can currently be produced by the technology, it is easy to imagine a large percentage of our goods being 3D printed, absorbing a big chunk of production into a circular economy.
As novelist William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
Dr. Gregory C. Unruh is the Sustainability Editor for the MIT Sloan Management Review and author of the new book, The Biosphere Rules: Nature’s Five Circularity Secrets for Sustainable Profits*. For a limited time, Sustainable Brands subscribers can download a complimentary digital copy of the book* here.