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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Circular Economy Approach for Urban Nutrient Cycles

On March 28, 2017 the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) issued the groundbreaking Urban Biocycles scoping paper as an introduction to a Circular Economy approach for urban nutrient cycles. The well-researched paper addresses the valuable nutrients within current organic waste streams and how urban environments disrupt nature's perfected nutrient cycles. 

In August 2012 the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published the Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food form Farm to Fork to Landfill issue paper, researched and written by Senior Scientist & Author Dana Gunders. The NRDC paper opened America's eyes and hearts to the global food crisis. Ignited by the paper, pursuing awareness and action produced a multitude of food waste reduction initiatives, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Food Recovery Challenge.

While the NRDC paper brought the food waste crisis to center stage, the EMF Urban Biocycles paper expands the scope to all organic streams with a focus on economic-driven solutions. A consciousness shift from disposition | treatment to capturing valuable nutrients within productive cycles is at the paper's foundation.

Similar to the NRDC paper's impact, the EMF Urban Biocycles scoping paper is staged to propel global action with a shifted perspective on organic waste solutions. A basic premise is natural cycles produce no waste; nutrients are continuously recycled within the perfected cycles. Elemental Impact (Ei) wrote on this topic in the 2012 ZWA Blog article Perpetual Life Cycle Systems - simplicity is key. The article opens with the following paragraph:
In nature "waste" does not exist, rather a perpetual life cycle rearranges molecular structures so the finished product for one use is the basis for its next life. Using modern technology, on-farm anaerobic digestion systems seem to emulate nature's integrated approach to resource management.
Ei Team during on-farm AD tour
The key to success in the featured on-farm anaerobic digestion (AD) system was the entire nutrient cycle remained on the farm. Livestock manure fueled the on-farm AD system; the AD digestate by-product was used for livestock bedding, which returned to the AD system once soiled with manure; the nutrient-rich AD water by-product irrigated the fields used to grow livestock feed; the AD plant supplied the farm with ample electricity. Thus, the complete on-farm nutrient cycle flowed with perpetuity. 

Urban development breaks natural cycles by transporting nutrients outside of their respective cyclic boundaries. Agricultural products are often not consumed within the farm vicinity. Thus, plant | animal remains no longer decompose back into the farm grounds as nutrients for the soil's microbial community. Two challenges ensue: 1> soils are deprived of nutrients within the cycle and 2> nutrients are deposited outside of the cycle system in the form of food waste and human | animal excrement.

Modern farming relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers to replace the lost nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Yet these same nutrients cause havoc, including "dead zones," as they flow through sewer systems and water treatment facilities into waterways and oceans. According to the EMF paper: 
Urban waste streams represent a significant opportunity to recover nutrients and return them to the soil. In theory, the recovery of 100% of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in global food, animal and human waste streams could contribute nearly 2.7 times the nutrients contained in volume of chemical fertiliser currently used.
Small-scale biofuel production
facility
By crafting regenerative nutrient cycles within urban environments, organic streams shift from "expensive waste" to valuable raw materials. In addition to soil enhancements, bioenergy generation is integral to the Circular Economy model, including AD and biorefineries. From the EMF paper: The World Economic Forum estimates that potential global revenues from the biomass value chain – comprising the production of agricultural inputs, biomass trading and biorefinery outputs – could be as high as USD 295 billion by 2020.

Throughout the paper, well-documented research is used to substantiate the two main sections: The Biocycle Economy and The Circular Economy Vision – how to close the nutrient loops. In addition the paper is filled with case studies from around the globe and call-out boxes for barriers to potential solutions.

The Urban Biocycles paper was issued under the Project Mainstream (PM) umbrella. Launched in 2014 by EMF and the World Economics Forum, PM is a multi-industry, global initiative.

PM aims to accelerate business-driven innovations and help scale the Circular Economy (building awareness of it, and increasing impact and implementation). It focuses on systemic stalemates in global material flows that are too big or too complex for an individual business, city or government to overcome alone, as well as on enablers of the Circular Economy, such as digital technologies.

In January 2016 PM issued the monumental The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. The January 2017 report The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action provides a global action plan to move towards 70% reuse and recycling of plastic packaging, endorsed by over 40 industry leaders, while highlighting the need for fundamental redesign and innovation of the remaining 30%.

Intention is to follow a similar path with the Urban Biocycles paper. The inaugural paper delineates the current scenario, complete with documented research, case studies, potential solutions and barriers to implementation. In 2017, PM intends to develop an action plan to present at the January 2018 World Economics Forum at Davos. 

Congratulations to EMF Project Manager & Lead Author Dale Walker on an excellent job researching, organizing the multitude of information, and writing the superb Urban Biocycles scoping paper.

Using a Circular Economy approach, the EMF takes a high level global perspective for resolving challenges to sustain civilization | humanity. Inherent within the Circular Economy approach is recognizing the myriad of intertwining cycles at play within the global economy.

The ZWA article, Carbon Crisis: merely a matter of balance, explains the Earth's carbon cycles are out-of-balance and offers the soil as the hero for a simple balance restoration solution. Kiss the Ground's The Soil Story video is featured in the article as a creative, effective carbon cycle explanation along with a grass roots action plan. The Soil Story's sequel The Compost Story is slated for a May 2017 release to correspond with International Compost Awareness Week.

A combination of global, long-term, research-oriented planning coupled with immediate, action-oriented, grass roots efforts is a recipe for a Circular Economy to emerge. Ei is honored to support the global planning and grass roots efforts.

Ei Chair Scott Seydel serves on the EMF USA Board and Ei Founder Holly Elmore is listed in the Urban Biocycles paper credits as an Expert Input and Case Study Contributor. In addition, Ei is a launch partner for The Compost Story.

When humanity aligns with natural cycles a magical balance comes forth where businesses, communities and the environment thrive in harmony. Organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are conduits for balance restoration within the Earth's cycles.

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About the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established in 2010 with the aim of accelerating the transition to the circular economy. Since its creation the charity has emerged as a global thought leader, establishing the circular economy on the agenda of decision makers across business, government and academia. With the support of its Core Philanthropic Funder, SUN, and Knowledge Partners (Arup, IDEO, McKinsey & Company, and SYSTEMIQ), the Foundation’s work focuses on five interlinking areas: Education, Business & Government, Communications, Insight & Analysis, and Systemic Initiatives.

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