Ryan Chartrand

It’s quite easy – if you are paying attention – to feel distressed about the state of our world. We are facing global issues that are so complex and interconnected politically, socially, economically and ecologically, that it can all seem too much to handle: the massive deforestation of our planet, the death of our oceans and fish populations, the genocide in Darfur, suburban sprawl, the plastics polluting every nook and cranny of this planet, the rising number of children with asthma . should I go on? OK, one more: Our rising mounds of waste from excessive packaging and inefficient use of materials. “The 11th Hour,” a new documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, gives some pretty shocking statistics. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., a carpet company, said “for every 32 trucks full of material, we only get one truck of goods.” That is an incredibly inefficient manufacturing process!

I’m usually pretty positive, but there are definitely days when I feel ready to throw in the hemp towel and drop out of school to go enjoy the last remaining days of sunshine before the world collapses. Every time I feel this way, though, some small miracle brings me back to the drawing board, and lately it has all had to do with nature’s amazing ability to redefine waste as a resource.

Over the last couple of years, I have been excited about how when you mix decomposers, like worms and microorganisms, with banana peels in a bin you get compost – brown, nutrient-rich, soil-like matter – which if you add to your, let’s say, strawberry plant, will give you twice as many strawberries as before. Incredible! Not only is this great for your garden, but it also reduces the amount of nutrients going down the garbage disposal and then into our rivers and bays, leading to algae blooms and fish kills, or eutrophication. Wow!

Bioremediation is a new field where scientists perform small miracles by tapping into the natural traits of certain plants to absorb and digest toxins and heavy metals from our soils and waters. Particularly exciting is mycoremediation, which uses mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites through absorption and digestion. Amazing!

Recently, I have learned about Living Machines, which led me to the wider field of biomimicry. Biomimicry is “a design discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Living Machines is just one of the many ideas that have resulted from this interdisciplinary approach. Living Machines simulate wetlands to create a self-sustaining system to treat wastewater. These systems not only treat human sewage, but have been shown to clean up the dirtiest of the dirty waterways and hazardous waste sites – some that have built up as high as 8 feet with as many as 33 different toxic compounds that have accumulated from over a hundred years of dumping from industries! Beyond the fact that Living Machines cleans up these disasters, they do so much more affordably than “conventional” systems and their only “waste” product is in the form of habitat for wildlife. Incredible!

What these small miracles all have in common is the ability to see waste as a resource. If there is one commonality we want to extract from the systems that nature has been perfecting over the last 3.8 billion years of evolution, research and development, it is that “waste” is not in nature’s vocabulary.

Here is a list of more little rays of hope that are being researched right now. Grab on to one of these emotional life preservers when you feel like you’re going to drown in the rising sea levels caused by global warming:

Biodegradable plastics made out of carbon dioxide by mimicking plants’ ability to photosynthesize.

The use of microbes to “mine” metals from waste streams so we no longer have to mine the mountains, a practice which is not just environmentally unfriendly, but often socially unjust.

Materials produced without having to use heat, thereby reducing the amount of energy required. Diatoms, for example, produce – at room temperature and using seawater – silicate, which is the material we use to make microchips though we use a much more energy-intensive manufacturing process which also produces carcinogens.

Redesigned airplane wings which mimic the shape of a whale’s fin in order to increase airplane efficiency by 32 percent.

So next time you’re at a party and you find yourself repelling people left and right with your dreary comments on the mercury levels in fish and how feline AIDS is the number one killer of domestic cats, you can whip out this list of small miracles and unscramble the “zen” in “environmentalizm.”

Lucia Castello is an architecture senior and a Mustang Daily environmental columnist.

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