Re-Cycling, Up-Cycling, Bio-Cycling?

Google "recycled furniture" and you get some weird experiments, most of them a play on the concept of recycling like this chair made of foliage; "Commissioned by the Design Museum for the Designers in Residence programme, Harvest is a reseach project using London's flowering foliage as a raw material for furniture production. Installed in the Design Museum Tank, Jan-March 2010, and at Sawaya & Moroni, Milan April 2010"

Huge thanks to the mighty fine brains of Tim and Peter, their comments to my last post are incredibly insightful and offer a lot for designers to chew on (yes I did throw a pun in there, sorry).

I want to hear some more design voices – so I thought I would begin to articulate how I am interpreting the information flow from a design perspective and see what bounces back. How can we reverse engineer these biological models into ambitious design ideas?

Nutrient Cycles in Nature

I have a very basic understanding of nutrient cycles, and I’m likely not the only designer out there with these limitations. We’ve all seen those simple diagrams showing water flowing through a landscape, or the how nitrogen, carbon or some other basic element moves through the different layers of an ecosystem. We’ve all heard of decomposers and their vital roles. But any discussion at a molecular level is usually pretty vague.

The more I am learning in this area, the more I realize how important these principles may be for designers.

Every Organism is a Recycling Plant

Sensational Mr. Scelop (Peter) explained that in a;

[biological] consumer-producer model, the consumer digests (biodegrades) the meal and then transforms (biosynthesizes) the new product. It seems to me that the difference between that and, say recycling plastic, is that the consumer has the recycling machinery built in (tear down and remake).

Within nature there is a constant flow of nutrients because the infrastructure for recycling is built in. Every organism excretes what it can not use, and absorbs what it can in a myriad of different ways. In the manufactured scenario all infrastructure is enormous, bulky, complicated, and inaccessible to most people.

What if the recycling bins where recycling plants? You pop the milk carton in and the recycling process begins. The consequences of putting the wrong material in the wrong bin might be instantly apparent, costly, or smelly, encouraging a more conscious process by the user. Because the recycling process would have already begun within the home, perhaps the waste by-products that make their way to the street corner would have some market value? Perhaps the consumer begins to selectively purchase products made of recyclable friendly materials, or housed in easy to break down packaging that offers a return on investment. Like the cash deposit made on you alcoholic beverage bought at the beer store, there would be incentive on returning it to the source.

Distributed infrastructure is the key. It has to be everywhere.

Recycling is Possible due to Shared (Simple) Language

Both Peter and Tim jumped on this gem of information. Peter said it here;

Moreover, there is a lot of overlap between the chemistries of the producer and the consumer (that’s how why they are built in in the first place). So maybe [human] recycling programs are not so different from recycling in biological systems from a process standpoint….it is just that in the former that there are too many proprietary chemistries and too energy intensive.

And Tim jumped straight into the chemistry;

living systems share some basic core materials:

5 Nucleic Acids (DNA has 4, RNA has 3 of the same Plus one different one)

21 Amino Acids (out of the hundreds possible…all living organisms use these 21..more or less for all their proteins)

What this means in my mind, is that all living organisms share a surprisingly simple source set of “building blocks” with shared coding language between. All the blocks can react with one another, in dynamic and complex ways. It means that an organism can consume another organism, and does not need to download the latest software update in order to digest the new bit of information it has consumed.

It is of course possible to use those basic components to create molecules (the ultimately transferrable “bits”) that are more difficult to consume, i.e. toxins, but these are chemically and energetically expensive to produce, and therefore come at a cost. Tim points out there are organisms that embrace the hard work done by other organisms and re-appropriate these complex molecules into their own living systems:

When [a sea slug] eats a sea anemone, it doesn’t digest everything. There is a whole special mechanism that the sea slug uses to keep the sea anemone’s stingers (nematocysts) from stinging…and it actually takes the nematocysts cells and moves them to the outside of it’s skin so that it has stingers!! Keep in mind this is like me eating a full chicken and then my digestive system decides to take the feathers and move them to my arms… crazy!

Apparently this can also be called “co-opting” or “repurposing”, which is interesting lingo to add to the mix.

Humans Haven’t Kept Things Simple

Human produced molecules are of course the opposite to nature’s. John Warner explains this in all of his talks. We use heat-beat-treat processes to force molecules into existence that don’t occur in nature. Therefore no decomposers exist that want to munch away on Polypropylene toys that are discarded into the landfills after its use.

Humans haven’t designed materials that are easily digestible. Nor have we made materials or components that can be easily co-opted or repurposed. Perhaps this is the biggest misunderstanding we have made. What if all the toys I made as a designer were from easily accessible components that could be removed and repurposed? The reason why it doesn’t happen now is cost. It would make the final products far too expensive for the average consumer with the current technology, because screws and reusable fasteners are cost prohibitive when compared to simple snap fit mechanisms moulded into the tool for the plastic. That highlights a problem in the overall system that needs revision.

It’s very hard as a designer to wrap my head around this, because I have no experience thinking at the molecular scale. Not many design disciplines do. Architects operate at a larger scale where much of this interchange of components is possible. Think of fixing your own plumbing with pieces bought from the hardware store, or customizing your kitchen with kits of components from IKEA. Because of the scale, cost and lifespan of the products and infrastructure most of this level of accessibility and customization is very standard. It’s the relationship between product and material that is the grey area for most of us.

The High Value of Nutrients

Lastly, in nature it takes a lot of work to gather and process nutrients, (and there are no nutrient banks to get polysaccharide loans from) so organisms tend to be very careful about their long term use. Because recycling and reuse is designed into the system, wherever possible organisms will manage their own internal nutrient cycles, especially seasonally. Tim’s Maple trees are a great example:

I also like the story of a Maple tree in New England in the Fall. As the conditions change from warm, wet summer it begins to pull the chlorophyl back out of the leaves, and stores the nutrients for next spring. Meanwhile, it let’s the cross-linked (hard to digest), and cheap leaves fall to the forest floor (where they act as a protection, water collection, and food/shelter for a broader ecosystem)

All of our cost sheets as designers are balanced knowing that once the materials have left the building, they aren’t coming back. Even when you invest in tooling, it’s a one off hit because it commits you to owning a lump of metal for an extraordinary long time with vary limited room for variation.

What if there was a mind shift, such that expensive, reusable, valuable materials were monitored as long term investments? Bruce Sterling describes a world where every object is tagged and tracked as a piece of information, so that it is possible to have a global inventory of stuff in his “Internet of Things”. It would be possible to know the flow of materials, products and their components. An expensive item with embedded materials of value beyond the life of the product would therefore be trackable and could be called upon, or claimed by the company who produced it for a future repurpose.

All of this sounds a little dreamy when you think of the enormous infrastructure that would be required to manage such a huge information flow. But as with the recycling station discussion, nature is capable of doing it at a local, highly specialized scale. There is no master database of Maple tree nutrient storage in North America, not even a smaller inventory of the region for Ontario. It’s also difficult for me to fathom whether the Maple tree itself has anything remotely similar to a spreadsheet with an allocation of materials. Therefore, we as designers need to understand what the simple embedded rules are that exist within the nodes along leafy tree branches that facilitate this flow of information. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the distributed system of simple feedback loops?

Design Opportunity

So, the designers out there reading this, both of you who have managed to make it through my rant and hyperbole, we have a few brilliant biologists reading my humble offerings and adding some tremendous content full of possibility. I want to hear some insights and questions from you. What more do you need to know to start conceptualizing links between these biological provocations and design opportunities? My brain is running in circles trying to process the biological information in my own words, I’m very curious to know how everyone else is doing.

Of course, if any one has any tips towards finding people developing case studies that speak directly to these insights and challenges, I am especially hungry for that!

And… if I have over simplified or misunderstood any of the biology, I look forward to hearing the corrections!

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3 Comments on “Re-Cycling, Up-Cycling, Bio-Cycling?”

  1. […] Nature is standardized at it’s very core, using similar nucleic acids, amino acids, and of course the cross platform coding of DNA. There is an opportunity for design to redefine the concept of standardization to facilitate up-cycling and co-opting that extends the life of products, but perhaps even more importantly may encourage more iterative evolution to “stuff”. Please read my earlier exploration on this topic if curious. […]

  2. […] that sounds a little harsh, it’s probably not far from the truth. Ever since my rant about upcycling in nature I have been looking for examples where plastic is not only recycled, but is also used at a high […]

  3. […] will get built, formed, grown in the future. I have written a bunch of posts around issues of recyclability and re-use, and the big differences between nature and human fabrication. Recently I’ve been thinking a […]


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