Compost, Natural Cycles and the Circular Economy
Here’s a grubby little secret – shhh – don’t tell anyone – but I’m a closet compost fanatic. At last count I operate at least nine compost bins of various shapes and sizes, plus a few pre-treatment buckets where I drown persistent weeds before adding them to the main process. I just love the way that the composting process makes a product out of ‘waste’ materials – all you have to do is provide the right ingredients and the right conditions and you’re off.
Compost is amazing stuff – check out the picture of part of our allotment – the bed at the front has about three barrows of my home-made compost as a mulch whereas the one at the back is just natural soil. The crops in the compost are bigger and the weeds are fewer. The compost not only returns nutrients to the soil, but also provides soil structure, suppresses weeds and retains moisture.
What I am doing of course is harnessing the natural cycles of nature to work for me. The Earth has had about 4.5 billion years to work out a sustainable system and after about 1.5 bn years of chaos, it came up with natural solar powered cycles of substances which didn’t systematically poison itself. The system is continuously evolving – adaptation and diversity making it ever more resilient.
We know from nature that this circular model works, so it is strange then that the main focus in sustainability is on pursuing a system which doesn’t work very well – making our economy more efficient. You need massive gains in eco-efficiency (the amount of use we get out of each unit of natural resource) – and hefty resource prices/ecotaxes – to outstrip the ‘rebound effect’ – the tendency for efficient systems to simply consume resources faster. Anyway, Nature isn’t efficient – how many seeds are released to produce just one tree?
There are some great examples of the circular economy in practice – whether the industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg, Marks & Spencer making school uniforms and umbrellas out of recycled polyester, or Interface using old carpet as the raw material for making new carpet. This is about delivering on the oft-uttered but rarely implemented platitude of “treating waste as a resource” at scale. The biggest challenge is making the mental shift from trying to deal with a problem (waste) to trying to source sustainable raw materials. Once you make that mental leap, all sorts of opportunities open up.
One of the potential pitfalls is trying to design a circular economy – efforts to recreate, say, Kalundborg have largely failed, often at great expense. Going back to the natural cycles, this sort of economy has to evolve. It can be helped along by eco-taxes, research & development and information sharing, but like my compost, you have to create the right conditions, provide a helping hand when required, but ultimately you must let nature take its course.