Category Archives: Circular Economy

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Maintaining the Means of Production

As I reflect on 2019, I’m thinking of how everyone likes to talk about seizing the means of production being the path to freedom, but nobody ever really talks about maintaining it.

Various tools laid out on a piece of wood

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For me, a solarpunk future is one where we can locally produce most of the things we need. Ideally, this would be from predominantly local materials, but some things would undoubtedly need to trade from one region to another. I envision a future with a much lighter international trade footprint than we have now, restricted to mostly raw materials exchange for digital manufacturing and handicrafts.

One of the things you quickly realize as you move away from the dominant throwaway culture is that maintaining the items you have takes work. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but people who work in maintenance are typically not well thought of in Western society. The plumbers, cleaning staff, and garbage haulers are somehow lesser in our culture’s eyes than a lawyer or engineer, resulting in depressed wages for many in these professions. This is pretty messed up since maintenance staff are the ones filling the most critical functions of our society. There’s an emphasis on the new and shiny, that is also exemplified by the poor state of infrastructure in the US while we continue to build new roads and highways.

Douglas Adams included an aside in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about how one civilization was destroyed when it decided it no longer needed it’s telephone sanitation workers. While it’s a bit of an absurd example, just think about who you’d rather have still working during some sort of crisis – the trash collector or a lawyer?

panoramic shot of sky

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There are so many jobs in the current economy that only exist because of capitalism’s insistence that everyone needs to work for a living even when there are plenty of resources for everyone to have the basics. We’ve designed a hedonic treadmill where we make up unnecessary jobs so people can buy things they don’t need and corporations can extract profits from our communities. I know I’ve personally had a lot of jobs that weren’t adding value to the world, and I would’ve dropped them in a second if I hadn’t needed to make rent. That said, I also definitely have a bunch of things that I’ve bought that seemed like a good idea at the time but are now just clutter in the apartment. It’s easy to say that better spending habits would make it easier to make ends meet, but making that a reality when you’re inundated with advertising every day makes it easier said than done.

I hope a solarpunk future will have a lot less waste and a lot more genuine activity. Maybe a popular activity for lunarpunks would be to clean solar arrays in the night so they’ll be operating at maximum efficiency in the morning, or tidalpunks working on corrosion mitigation in coastal communities would be highly regarded members of the town. In the past year, I’ve repaired a couple cellphones, numerous bikes, performed various software and hardware upgrades on computers, and have been nursing my 3D printer back to health after it caught fire in March. I also helped out with two Repair Cafés here in town, repairing all sorts of different things. I haven’t been disparaged for being a fixer, and most people seem surprised or impressed when a gadget or garment can be brought back from the brink with a simple repair. Repairing objects can bring communities together, and I’d really love if we could extend that wonder and respect to all the people that keep society humming. If you are one of these unsung heroes, you have my thanks and respect.

Do you have any ideas on how to generate more respect and appreciation for those who maintain our society? Please let us know below!


Disclaimer: Affiliate links to books may result in a small kickback to me to help maintain the website. I only post links to books I think are relevant and worth your time. Feel free to check them out at your local library instead!

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

man wearing teal long sleeved shirt

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As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!