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By Seth GaleWyrick, Biomimicry 3.8 Engineering & Design

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The most obvious link between biomimicry and a circular economy is the idea that: “there is no waste in nature”. Turning “waste” into “resources” and endlessly reusing materials in closed loops is what ecosystems do every day. Much has been written on nature’s recycling, so I’d like to talk about a less apparent link—how biomimicry can enable a circular economy. We know that many challenges lie between our current linear system and circularity. Nowhere is this truer than in product design. After all, we can’t have a circular economy without circular products flowing through it. Fortunately, we have ~30 million species already thriving in a circular system to learn from.

If, as McDonough says, “design is the first signal of human intention” then it was clear my current designs weren’t signaling very good intentions. What is the point of designing cool products if they are quickly used up and then landfilled?

I didn’t know the terms at the time, but the circular economy is what first lead me to biomimicry. Four years into my work as an engineer in product design at Bresslergroup, I came across the book “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. It changed everything. If, as McDonough says, “design is the first signal of human intention” then it was clear my current designs weren’t signaling very good intentions. What is the point of designing cool products if they are quickly used up and then landfilled? We already aspire to solve real problems in elegant ways, but these solutions also need to be repaired, upgraded and recycled forever. I spent the next eight years digging into and applying Design Thinking, life cycle analysis, The Natural Step, etc., to this problem. Each approach had value but I found each missing one critical thing: actual solutions. And this is where Biomimicry differs—the solutions we seek surround us and the methodology of Biomimicry Thinking provides the tools to design truly circular products.

We work alongside Bresslergroup on product design projects and I recently published a video & article for their website titled “How Does Product Design Enable the Circular Economy”. I wanted to help designers and engineers understand the key principles of a circular economy and how product design fits in. It’s a good place to start, and here I’d like to expand on how biomimicry specifically generates solutions to circular challenges.

It’s easy to describe an ideal circular product. It’s composed entirely of recycled and recyclable materials and at the end of its life, these “technical nutrients” are used again in perpetuity. Critically, collection and disassembly must be painless. As straightforward as this concept is, there are many roadblocks. Few materials currently can be recycled back into stock of the same quality. Even when technically possible, the process is complicated by contamination, widely variable collection policies and fluctuations in markets for the used material. The complications multiply for assemblies of different materials that need to be disassembled. It’s especially challenging when modern industrial design favors the smallest possible product with no visible fasteners. You know the struggle is real if you’ve ever tried to repair a modern cell phone or computer. Finally, recycling requires changes in the behavior of consumers—notoriously difficult to achieve even for single component products like aluminum cans! The list of challenges is long, but fortunately, the possibility of solutions we can find in nature is inspiring. Let’s take the issues identified above and look at how we can solve them using biomimicry.


We recently had a client tell us that they wanted to “stop using polymers”. Sounds good at first, but polymers aren’t really the problem. The living world is actually full of polymers—the building blocks for everything from bones and tree trunks to natural rubber, exoskeletons and all kinds of proteins. The problem in industry today is petrochemical polymers that are difficult to recycle and have a huge carbon footprint. Solutions can be found in biopolymers, especially those developed using biomimetic design principles such as AirCarbon by Newlight Technologies. Next-generation materials will achieve high functional performance through fiber orientation, shape, and design optimization as opposed to bulk material properties. At the end of their life, they can be recycled or composted far more easily.


Of course, the products need to be disassembled first—a technical challenge nature has solved in countless ways. 

Take adhesives. The living world also uses glue, except it’s non-toxic, lasts only as long as needed, and is produced in small quantities. Starfish, for example, secrete an adhesive from their tube feet to stick to rocks and then chemically reverse the adhesion moments later when they need to move on. Wow! Imagine if we could simply reverse adhesion when we needed to repair a bonded together cell phone. 

What about fasteners? Nature tends to fasten with many, distributed, and redundant fasteners. Think of burrs that stick to your socks when hiking or blue mussels that attach to rocks with hundreds of tiny byssus threads. Many tiny fasteners can be hidden, more robust, and easier to disassemble. Disassembly can even be achieved with an entirely different approach using life-friendly chemistry by designing fasteners from polymers that can be enzymatically dissolved when no longer needed. Products could disassemble themselves when exposed to specific triggers. The possibilities are endless.


For solutions to end-of-life waste, it’s helpful to compare current municipal recycling to what happens in ecosystems. When an organism dies it’s broken down into basic nutrient building blocks that can start life anew at the bottom of the food chain. This process doesn’t involve being collected along with everything else that died that week and transported to a central processing location. Instead, the nutrients stay embedded in the local food chain. 

When a client of ours wanted to launch a new circular product line, we helped them understand the incentive structure for different participants in the nutrient cycle. The decomposers, for example, go to nutrients because they are valuable. An analog in human systems is products being collected by their manufacturers as opposed to entering a generic recycling system so that precious components can be recovered. This is further incentivized, especially in Europe, with take-back laws. The transformational result in the design of products once the laws were implemented was significant. As soon as the designer of a product is responsible for dealing with its waste, the entire incentive structure for circular design changes. Design for disassembly and reuse becomes paramount. Unfortunately, these laws are currently limited in the US. Still, many forward-thinking companies voluntarily take back their products at the end of life, both for the “nutrients” they contain, but also for what can be learned about how the product was used. Companies like Patagonia, Canon, Nike, Brita, and Crayola are leading the way and they have the brand loyalty to show for it.


For these types of recycling systems to work, consumers need to be active participants. How can we motivate engagement? In addition to emulating cutting edge technologies, biomimicry reminds us to (re)connect to nature. When it comes to a circular economy and human behavior, storytelling can provide a critical link. Weaving a narrative of inspiring organisms into the message of a product can appeal to consumers innate connection to nature. This connection can lead people to think, feel and act differently. 

Imagine that you want to buy a new kitchen cutting board and you can choose from ones made of wood, high-density polyethylene or a new kind of biopolymer. It turns out that the biopolymer is a cellulose-based material inspired by wood, yet didn’t require cutting any old-growth trees and due to the nature of the manufacturing process works better and lasts longer than either of the others. What if you learned that it could be sent back when it eventually did wear out and they could recycle the material back into a new board that was just as good as the one you had enjoyed? What if you learned that the recycling process was inspired by how mushrooms decompose fallen trees and make the nutrients available to other organisms? Yes, the process would take some energy but not nearly as much as using virgin material and the company would more than offset the energy by planting trees. That’s a pretty compelling story and suddenly throwing that board away when you’re done doesn’t feel like such a good idea. 

Understanding the origins of a biomimetic product and your place in the larger system can inspire behavior change in a way that more conventional sustainability messaging just can’t touch.


The final message that nature offers for closing the loop on the circular economy is that you can’t do it alone. Nutrient flows in ecosystems rely on countless mutually beneficial partnerships. The recycling process is a cascade of partners, each with their own role to play. For example, Teracycle’s Loop project involves not just the recycling company but UPS, Walgreens, Kroger, and over 40 different consumer product brands. Likewise, biomimetic design for the circular economy requires the expertise of multiple firms, each offering a strategy for a phase in the process. For example, we work on chemistry projects with the Warner Babcock Institute, product design with Bresslergroup and built environment projects with HOK and Jacobs Engineering

Nobody has all the knowledge and experience to pull off these kinds of truly innovative solutions on their own. Shall we partner together to help evolve a circular economy?

If you would like to engage with us to apply these principles to your business start by taking our brief survey