We like to believe that the challenges we face—climate destabilization, natural resource depletion, waste accumulation—are unique to the human species. But nature was here first, providing a catalog of nontoxic materials, a playbook of clean manufacturing techniques, and ultimately a model for sustainable systems from its 3.8 billion years of R&D. Here are some inspiring solutions to our thorniest technological and systemic sustainability challenges through the idea of business ecology, the idea that businesses are part of the ecosystem and can only be sustainable by acting like a functioning part of nature.
Dr. Kaichang Li was exploring the Oregon coast when he noticed how blue mussels adhere to rocks amid harsh conditions, using a strong natural "glue" that is obviously nontoxic. Back in the lab, Dr. Li found that he could synthesize a strong, waterproof, biodegradable adhesive from soy protein that simulates this natural glue.
Columbia Forest Products set out to replace traditional urea formaldehyde (UF)-based adhesives using Dr. Li’s new glue, and thus was born PureBond. PureBond helped Columbia use its hardwood plywood panels to compete with low-quality foreign imports and to lead the industry in adopting the UF-free standards championed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) soon after PureBond’s release.
Columbia’s employees much prefer working with PureBond than the UF glue. "Our mills went from making your eyes burn to making you hungry, because it smelled like a bakery," says Elizabeth Whalen, who served as Columbia’s Director of Corporate Sustainability during the project. "The development and commercialization of PureBond altered the course of an entire industry for the good of human health," she added.
The PureBond story is one of a biomimetic product success, but also highlights biomimicry’s future. Columbia redesigned the product system, from their regionally sourced soy protein to the compostability of PureBond cabinets. Taking natural inspiration for a product or technology is a great start, but mimicking the organism’s role in its ecosystem is the ultimate path to industrial sustainability.
Preserve, which makes household goods from recycled plastic, was founded on this principle of business ecology. Preserve depends on a supply of recycled materials, so it works with its business ecosystem to encourage recycling. One of these is a mail-back return program for its iconic toothbrush.
While industry applauded a 3% to 5% return rate for the toothbrush, Preserve saw that as only a first step. Its designers designed a package that doubled as a mailing envelope, increasing the return rate to over 20%. Preserve regrinds the returned brushes into plastic lumber and rain barrels and is experimenting with a "cradle to cradle" (that is, a toothbrush-to-toothbrush) process. Preserve also partners with Whole Foods and RecycleBank on a program called Gimme 5 that encourages consumer recycling of #5 plastic.
EMD Millipore, the life science division of Merck KGaA, recently launched a mail-back program for its water purification cartridges, called Ech2o. To further meet its own sustainability goals and to help its customers meet theirs, EMD Millipore is piloting an ambitious program to close the loop on other products by helping train its customers to clean, sort, and ship back disposable products for reuse or recycling.
EMD Millipore’s first-of-its-kind program will revolutionize the biopharmaceutical industry, just as Columbia Forest Products has revolutionized its own. Johanna Jobin, Sustainability Manager at EMD Millipore, agrees that this is a hugely challenging goal, but added that "it would be irresponsible of us not to steward our products’ end of life, given the increasingly single-use nature of biopharma."
Sprint has been managing its ecosystem for over a decade, implementing loop-closing technologies for product remanufacture, component reuse, and material recovery.
Their Buyback program rewards customers with Sprint credit for about 800 specific models of wireless devices, many of which Sprint will refurbish; this both reduces their environmental impacts and financial costs and increases customer loyalty. Phones collected by Sprint that aren’t needed for its operations are resold either to mobile virtual network operators like Credo or into the secondary market. If they have no market value, they are recycled for plastics and precious metals.
Sprint has set a target of taking back nine phones for reuse or recycling for every 10 they sell, by 2017; to increase their recycling rates (around 40% in 2011), they take competitors’ phones as well, reducing the whole industry’s footprint. "This isn’t green for green’s sake," Sprint’s Corporate Responsibility Manager Darren Beck told me. "In order for this to be sustainable, it has to serve environmental, social, and financial needs."
There are three classes of nutrient- and energy-gatherers found in nature: producers, consumers, and decomposers. In business ecosystems, materials extractors and energy providers fill the producer niches, and companies that convert this energy and material into products fill diverse consumer niches. But our linear value chains burn nonrenewable energy to process materials uni-directionally—there are few decomposers.
Companies like Columbia Forest Products, Preserve, EMD Millipore and Sprint are playing in new niches in the business ecosystem, from sustainable producer to decomposer—creating what Greg Unruh terms a "value cycle" in his business ecology handbook, Earth, Inc.. If we fail to create this new business ecology, the earth will call to an end this troubling human experiment.