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The Earth's Circular Economy: Not a Practical Solution to Our Waste Issues

The Grand Canyon | Image credit: Quinn Nietfield/Unsplash

This is the second in a four-part series on geomimicry by renowned author and George Mason University professor Dr. Gregory C. Unruh. Read part one here.

Geomimicry, which is the human imitation of physical geological processes in the design and manufacture products and services, produces huge volumes of goods. Its production processes work as a linear throughput economy, where products go from the cradle to the grave. Often characterized as a take-make-waste system, it is also incredibly efficient at turning natural resources into trash. It's estimated that 94 percent of raw materials coming into industrial systems become waste before the product is even finished! You might think this sounds strange until you realize a high-quality copper deposit is only a few percent copper, which means you're throwing away 90-plus percent of the extracted copper ore as waste rock. Even in the high-tech pharmaceutical industry, it can take 100 tons of raw materials to produce one ton of salable pills, which is a 99 percent waste rate.

Of the 5 percent of materials that actually get turned into product, 80 percent of it becomes waste within a matter of weeks. Think about the lifespan of a disposable pen, razor or yogurt cup. In the end, only a little more than 1 percent of inputs become durable goods such as refrigerators, TVs or houses. We often call what we're doing “mass production,” but from this perspective, it’s actually doing mass destruction.

To address the limitations of our linear economy, it is argued that we need to rethink our current systems and create a circular economy. Well, I’ve got a surprise for you: We already have a circular economy. It’s been operating for millions of years, and all of our geomimetic wastes will ultimately be recycled in a closed-loop process. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen on timescales that are of much use to us: The existing circular economy functions on geologic timescales, which are measured in millions of years.

It is the Earth’s geosphere that is running a continental-scale recycling machine. The machine, driven by plate tectonics, is a process of crustal creation and destruction that is described by the Rock Cycle — a basic geology concept that describes the transformation of rock through time, transformations that are the basis of human geomimcry. On the surface of the Earth, you have physical erosion and weathering, which is a subtractive manufacturing process that sculpts the landscape. As the erosion flows into the oceans, you have sedimentation and accretion, which is an additive manufacturing process that's building up layers that will eventually become future rocks. When the sediments are buried, they become subjected to intense heat and pressure, which melts and transforms them, just like our geomimetic processes of metallurgy, ceramics and petrochemistry. And driving the circular process is the nuclear energy reactions occurring deep in the core of the planet.

Since we have not yet implemented our own circular economy, we are in effect still relying on the planet’s existing circular processes to deal with the massive amounts of waste we are creating. Every time we bury waste in a landfill, what we're doing in practice is turning it over to a geospheric recycling process. If we waited long enough, plate tectonics would drag it to a subduction zone where it would be melted, transformed and geologically recycled. Of course, that's not going to solve our problems — we can't wait millions of years to recycle our waste. But in effect, that's what we're doing.

Recognizing the futility of relying on geologic recycling by the planet’s circular economy should be a wakeup call to the folly of our dependence on geomimicry.

Part 3: Reversing the Great Sequestration


Dr. Gregory C. Unruh is the Arison Professor of Values Leadership at George Mason University in the Washington DC Metro area. His upcoming book, The Biosphere Rules: Nature’s Five Circularity Secrets for Sustainable Profits, can be found at [Read more about Gregory Unruh]


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