ZWC 2014 Dayna Baumeister – Biomimicry and the Principles of Zero Waste

What happens when we blend the world of nature with that of design and technology? Dayna Baumeister examines how the natural world uses and reuses materials – to offer insights into the core principles we must embrace to implement a zero waste approach to our economy.

Dayna BaumeisterDayna Baumeister opens her presentation with an observation on the difference between our natural world and the built environment.

“It’s always interesting to travel across the country and look out from the plane as a biologist and see the very striking difference between that which we are responsible for and that which the other 30 million or so species on this planet are responsible for. It’s very visible, even from 30,000 feet up.”

Choosing Our Legacy

Baumeister shows a slide of a landfill, asking if this is what we want for our legacy on the planet. She says that much of this problem is an outgrowth of an approach to being on this planet that came of age during the Industrial Revolution.

“We make things, we use them, we dispose them and a lot of the work that goes into zero waste is about changing that equation.”

But Baumeister says simply ‘closing the loop’ won’t solve the problem.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 2.48.04 PM“When I look back at over 3.8 billion years of research and I look at what all the other organisms are doing, that’s actually not the answer.”

Baumeister points out that anywhere you go on the planet, when you get out into a natural ecosystem, you find an example of zero waste principles at work.

“There’s no landfill here, so what is it that makes it work?”

The Promise of Biomimicry

What happens when you bring the sphere of biology, nature, and life together with that of design, innovation, and technology? According to Baumeister, where the two meet is the space where the principles of bio-mimicry come into play. Next, she poses the big question. How does nature actually achieve zero waste?

“Nature puts all of these together. First, make just what you need. When the lily grows a flower there’s not waste. It grows exactly enough to attract pollinators to ensure the success of its seeds. Next, keep you what you have. A caterpillar transforms every single cell in its body to create a butterfly. There’s no waste at the end and in fact many insects when they metamorphize will then eat the cocoon. Then of course, there’s turning waste into a resource. I read a statistic once that said if dung beetles were eliminated from India, within three months India would be covered in three inches of human feces alone.”

Three Key Principles

Baumeister points out that dung beetles are the classic example of turning waste into a resource, but all of life uses waste as resources. She breaks out the tactics which allow for the successful implementation of these strategies. To make just what you need, says Dana, you must:

  1. Build from the bottom up
  2. Integrate growth with development
  3. Use multi-functional design

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 2.19.05 PM“Life maintains integrity through self-renewal. It actually self-heals,” says Baumeister. “And there’s new materials that are coming out that allow for self-healing. Life fits form to function, whether (it’s) barnacles able to withstand all sorts of temperature and moisture changes,  or rhino horn, which is not a living material, but it’s capable of self-healing. What can we learn from those lessons?”

Next, Baumeister tackles the idea of disposal.

“Believe it or not, life doesn’t actually care what it dispose of. A tree doesn’t design its leaves so somebody else can use them. But we can. There’s an emergent property in all of life’s waste that allows it to be a resource. This is something we can design for.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 2.23.11 PMShe points to the sea urchin, which makes its shell from three common and abundant elements (calcium, carbon, and oxygen – calcium carbonate) which can be used by other organisms when it breaks down. Baumeister highlights the peacock, whose colourful displays don’t require toxic heavy metals to achieve stunning iridescent pigments.

To demonstrate the possibilities of low energy processes, Baumeister looks to the abalone shell.

“The inside of an abalone shell is the strongest ceramic on the planet today, but it’s made at room temperature, so scientists are learning how those shells are sandwiched together.”

The promise cooperative relationships Baumeister finds embodied in the life of the leaf-cutter ant, involved in a ‘five kingdom’ relationship between plants, fungi, bacteria, and the world of the ants to keep a network of nutrients flowing.

“What might it look like if we began to cooperate?” she asks. If we began to ask the natural world for advice? How can we make, use, and dispose of things differently?”

Reimagine Everything

Baumeister invites the audience to imagine a seismic shift in our thinking.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 2.30.45 PM“Maybe we can completely rethink the way we make things today. A big thing that ends up in our landfills and our oceans are fishing nets. Folks in Spain looked at humpback whales, which don’t use nets to catch fish. They use bubbles! And bubbles have no waste.”

She explains how a Spanish team laid tubes on the ocean floor to create their own bubble nets to catch fish.

Baumeister wraps up her talk with an inspiring thought and a lofty goal.

“Bio-mimicry allows us to ask those big fundamental questions and completely transform the way we do things. It’s this web (of interrelationships) that is the only way we will ever be able to achieve zero waste.”

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