In 1999, two colleagues and I worked out what it takes to meet a single American family's annual needs. Each year, for a four-person, middle-class household, industry extracts, processes, refines, manufactures, burns, pumps and wastes four million pounds of material. That's approximately 20 times an average person's body weight per day. Of this vast flow of stuff, only 7 percent gets into products at all, only 1 percent into durable products and only 0.02 percent into durable products that later get recycled, remanufactured or reused. Thus U.S. materials flow is about 99.98 percent pure waste.
To produce a liter of Florida orange juice, for example, requires a thousand liters of water and two liters of gasoline – plus paper for the carton, plastic for the screw top, ink for the label, boxes to hold the cartons, pallets to hold the boxes, trucks to deliver the pallets, fuel and power for the factories and trucks, and so forth.
Nature, by comparison, has no waste. Everything that organisms produce is reused by other organisms; one's waste is another's food. Recycling is 100-percent efficient, and toxic leftovers are unknown.
What if we used nature as the model for our next industrial revolution?
Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature's models, designs and processes, then imitates or takes inspiration from them to solve human problems. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the "rightness" of innovations. "After 3.8 billion years," writes Janine Benyus, a biomimicry scientist, "nature has learned: What works. What's appropriate. What lasts."
If you want to stick to something smooth, emulate gecko feet (nano-scale hairs on their feet allow them to cling to smooth surfaces). If you want to glue things underwater, ask barnacles. If you want to collect dew from night air, check out Namibian desert beetles. Show color without dyes? Ask birds about their feathers. Self-cleaning surfaces? Lotus flower leaves keep themselves clean in muck. Or examine the inner shell of an abalone, which is self-assembled in seawater at 4 degrees Celsius, yet is twice as tough as our best ceramics. Filaments stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar are made at ordinary temperature from digested bugs: Just ask spiders.
Commercial products that mimic nature are now forming the leading edge of what's called "biomimetic design." The biggest commercial building in Harare, Zimbabwe, is the nine-story, 31,600-square-meter Eastgate complex. Inspired by termite mounds, architect Mick Pearce and design firm Arup came up with a clever passive way to cool and ventilate the building: same comfort as other buildings its size, half the electricity. Prototype rotors from PAX Scientific in San Rafael, California – modeled on the spiral ramps in seashells – can make pumps and fans quieter and more efficient.
Patagonia's latest fleece uses two fibers that mimic mammal fur through a combination of long and short hairs that yield greater warmth with less bulk. Atlanta-based Interface's Entropy® carpet design uses fractal patterns – like leaves on a forest floor – to make the edges of its carpet tiles invisible, shrinking manufacturing and fitting waste enough to save 9 percent of the materials and half the installation cost. Interface has also tested a "solutions economy" business model that, instead of selling a carpet (made from oil, worn out, then sent to a landfill for 10,000 years), leases a floor-covering service: The more durable, long-lived and remanufactured the carpet becomes (99.9 percent materials savings have been demonstrated), the more Interface and its customers profit. Next step: Make the carpet out of waste from crops grown in ways that move carbon from air to topsoil, reinvesting in the natural capital of biodiversity and in human culture and community. Chairman Ray Anderson even plans for Interface to ultimately use no fossil fuels at all. That's both realistic and lucrative, because saving and substituting for oil now costs less than buying it.
Biomimetics is part of a larger redesign of business that author Paul Hawken dubbed "natural capitalism," a form of a free-market–based economy in which money and goods as well as people and nature – the most valuable forms of capital – are productively used and reinvested. Interface, for example, has turned a quarter-billion dollars' worth of waste into profits by systematically honing energy and materials efficiency. New designs are making such savings ever more radical yet cheaper. The firm's goal is to take nothing, waste nothing, do no harm, and do very well by doing good – all at the expense of less-efficient competitors.
Radically more efficient vehicles, buildings and factories (described in the Rocky Mountain Institute's Pentagon-cosponsored "Winning the Oil Endgame") plus modern biofuels can get the United States completely off oil at a profit. Ultralight carbon-fiber composites like those in sporting goods can make cars and light trucks severalfold more fuel-efficient, yet safer, longer-lived and cheaper and easier to produce.
These innovations are driven by three forces: competitive strategy, public policy and, underlying both, customer demand. Business is the most powerful force on earth today, with vast potential to turn the old take/make-waste cycle on its head. But, ultimately, business will produce and politicians will do what you want. How you eat, what you buy, how you work and travel – your choices – will determine whether the planet heals or unravels. Choose wisely.