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The Road to a Circular Economy with Tom Chi

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Economics and ecology go hand in hand, but its not quite what you think.

Tom Chi, founder of Prototype Thinking, lab director of the Planet and former lead at Google X, explained that idea of economy versus ecology is that "there are these natural resources, and we need them for the economy. If we try to protect these natural resources and we protect the ecology then it's going to be at the expense of the economy."

It boils down to everything being a tradeoff. However, that is not the case. Economy, in contrast, works as a subset of ecology. While a linear economy - or a take-make-waste societal structure - damages natural resources, a more regenerate economy based on circular concepts only enhances the ecology superset.

"What's closer to the truth is that the economy is a subset of ecology," Chi said. "The natural world is the world that we live in, and the economy is a tiny subset of that."

More productivity is achieved from ecology than economy. The question then becomes about whether to grow the ecology to grow the economy or grow the economy which shrinks the ecology. While this encapsulates the versus mindset, it doesn't necessarily need to go in the direction of sacrificing ecology.

The fact stands that everything a person purchases or uses has either been mined or grown. Nothing around us whether its part of a business system, product or service doesn't directly derive from the environment.

"There is no economy outside of nature, period," he said. "Even digital businesses are physical."

About 90 billion tons of material is extracted or mined on an annual basis. When distributed amongst the world's population, that averages to about 11.5 tons per capita. And it's time for the dynamic to change.

Chi theorized four shifts that need to happen in order for humanity to become net positive to nature. He pointed to companies and organizations that are working to bring this to fruition:

1. Less mining with less impact

Tailings, a pool of waste material that remains following mining ore, can contain valuable resources that can be extracted.

Chi explained that "as material is mined and crushed and processed, put through acids and solvents you wind up with tailing pools, but these pools often contain a significant amount of material in them."

Sometimes the materials that can fished from tailings could be more than is gathered during processing. Companies such as Phoenix Tailings are working to revolutionize mining with this method.

2. More growing in regenerative/sustainable ways

Chi talked about Understanding Ag, a company focused on soil health sans synthetic fertilizers or compost. 

"[Understand Ag] has been able to build more than an inch of topsoil per year for the last 25 years," he said, speaking of the company's land in North Dakota.

3. Low-value materials much be Earth compatible

Cruz Foam has developed an environmentally- and economically-viable material that is 20% to 30% cheaper than styrofoam.

"They are able to express all of the different types of elements that you would want from a foam," Chi said, from spongy to hard to other elasticities. "It's completely Earth compatible. No matter what happens to this post-consumer, it can be readily returned to the Earth."

Chi pointed to a study from Roland Geyer that discovered 50% of all plastic waste has been generated since 2004, and 47% of that waste is plastic waste. 

4. High-value materials need a return path

More than half the elements on the periodic table can be found in a single iPhone. 

"We're getting to the point where we're mining more and more of the Earth and we're using more sophisted ways and it's making it almost impossible to tease out those materials post facto and be able to bring them into a closed loop chain," Chi said.

He pointed to AMP Robotics who is using artificial intelligence and machine vision to get more precise during the sorting process.

Chi concluded with his "radical sane proposal": All products and businesses must use Earth-digestible materials only. All businesses that require toxic, caustic, non-digestible or rare Earth materials must transition to a closed-loop service business.

"I don't think this is something that starts tomorrow," he said. "You have to start declaring it so that people at least start thinking about it."

Watch Tom Chi's full presentation, "Towards a Circular Economy," at WasteExpo Together Online.






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