La Recyclerie conference: How the circular economy takes its inspiration from nature.

Posted on 04 April 2017.

Biomimicry, industrial ecology... The circular economy takes its inspiration from nature and so develops innovative solutions for better ecological and economic performances.

Organized at La Recyclerie by the Veolia Foundation, the "2C" conferences are primarily aimed at young people to help them understand the major challenges of the circular economy. These conferences are part of the "ECOptimistes en campagne” program - every month people come to together at La REcyclerie to talk about a sustainable development related issue. The theme for March was biodiversity.

The circular economy to fix the biosphere

The biosphere refers to all the ecosystems in which life can develop, whether it is the atmosphere, the oceans or the lithosphere, the first layer of the Earth's crust.

This biosphere is a closed system, which has operated with the same amount of matter throughout the ages. Everything in this natural system is balanced because a product rejected by one species is reused by another. The famous chemist Lavoisier summed it up perfectly: "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed." Emeric Fortin, professor at the École des Ponts, reminds us: "We are all made up of particles that have existed for billions of years. The matter is simply rearranged differently over time."

Today, the biosphere is being weakened by human action. On one hand, raw materials are being extracted so quickly that they don’t have time to regenerate and are becoming increasingly scarce and on the other hand, our industrial processes create chemically transformed materials that nature is unable to break down. By burying our waste, we disrupt natural cycles and are gradually destroying the lithosphere.

The circular economy is able to provide solutions to these troubling findings.

Biomimicry: nature as a source of inspiration

The circular economy takes its inspiration from a number of natural physico-chemical processes to optimize recycling and waste recovery, and introduce innovative practices in terms of the sober use of resources.

This inspiration has a name - biomimicry. It consists of applying the solutions nature has already found to our technical and industrial fields. For example, there are natural swimming pools where water treatment is provided by plants that are just as efficient as the more often used chemicals.

A practical application: composting

Composting is a good example of biomimicry. It is a biological process in which organic matter - manure, slurry, food waste, plants, waste from agro-industry, etc. – is broken down into a stable end product - compost. And it is of real interest for soils and plants because it fertilizes and is rich in carbon. The more carbon a soil contains, the better it is.

In nature, composting is spontaneous. People have learned to reproduce the process in the industrial field. In France, 2 million tonnes of compost are produced annually. Since 1998, Veolia has been conducting experiments in partnership with the French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) to better understand the effects of compost on soils. The results speak for themselves: the plots of land that receive the addition of compost have much better yields than those treated with chemical fertilizers. Composting is therefore a natural solution that not only reduces the amount of bio-waste but also fertilizes soils.

Composting could also have a direct impact on controlling global warming. This is the idea put forward by a group of French researchers who launched the "4 for 1,000" initiative during COP 21 in 2015. Human activities generate an increase of 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere every year. Our soils, however, have an enormous carbon storage capacity because plants in the process of decompositions have a role to play in carbon capture. According to the researchers, if the amount of carbon contained in soils were increased by 0.4% per year – by among other things composting – it would completely stop the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere

Industrial and territorial ecology, inspired by nature, a pillar in the circular economy

In natural ecosystems, all resources are optimized so that there is no waste. Industrial and territorial ecology (ITE) is an organization inspired by how nature functions. It consists of developing synergies between players in the same territory - companies, citizens, communities - to optimize the flow of materials. In other words, some people’s waste becomes someone else’s resource – as is the case in nature where compounds are constantly in the process of combining with each another.

The city of Stockholm launched a requalification project for its Royal Seaport district implementing ITE principles. Materials, water and energy flow between stakeholders. For example, food waste is recycled to produce biogas, which is then used as a fuel to run public transport. Ultimately, the neighborhood aims to be autonomous, operating short circuits without the need to import either matter or energy.

Regulation plays an incentive role in deploying an ITE. For example, in France, the energy transition law stipulates that by 2025, bio-waste must be sorted at source in order to be recycled locally. In January 2017, France’s Minister of Agriculture presented the "national bio-economy strategy", based on the recovery of biomass. For example, in the wine sector, grape residue and wine lees are already used to make dyes or pulp for animal feed. These initiatives demonstrate that there is a real willingness on the part of the government to move towards a more responsible system.

The subject of the circular economy is vast. It requires all of civil society to adopt a lasting and virtuous approach for the ecology and for the economy. And giving us a helping hand nature provides an infinite source of inspiration!

The next 2C conference will be held on June 13th on "Ocean Pollution: How Circular Economy is helping to preserve them".

Find out more:

- Biomimicry: when nature inspires innovation