Nature has the solutions to our global waste crisis

Key takeaways:


  1. The natural world is a perfect example of a circular economy in which materials flow in a cycle, and nothing is wasted.
  2. Through biomimicry and industrial ecology, we can speed up our transition from a linear to a circular society.
  3. An upstream innovation mindset is crucial to design a product, service, or business model in a way that prevents waste from being created in the first place.



In the natural world, there’s no such thing as ‘waste.’ Everything has a purpose, and nothing gets thrown away. You could say the natural world is a circular, zero-waste ecosystem by design, and we have a lot to learn from it. 

With the way things are going, UNEP estimates that municipal waste will surge from 2.1 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes by 2050. If there’s something that can pull us out of this unsustainable take-make-waste mess, it’s mimicking nature. 

An organisation I greatly admire, the Biomimicry Institute, uses education and innovation to inspire people, governments, and businesses around the world to embrace nature-inspired solutions. It’s also why we at Planet Protector use nature’s smart fibre, wool, to combat the polystyrene waste crisis. 

By designing materials and processes that emulate nature’s efficiency and circularity, we can shift to an economy where everything is reusable and biodegradable. In this blog, I discuss how lessons from nature can help us solve the waste crisis. 

Circular systems

In nature, materials flow in cycles. Think of a tree—for humans, it’s a source of fuel or raw material for a house. However, in nature, a tree stores energy from the sun and absorbs atmospheric carbon. It also supports wildlife, conserves water, provides oxygen, and much more. Even in a lifeless state, a tree becomes food for insects and birds. That’s not all. A dead tree also attracts fungi that break down its wood into soil-enriching nutrients. Despite there being some loss of energy at every state, what we’re looking at is a self-sustaining regenerative system.

Biomimicry observes natural designs like these and applies them to human-made systems to make them more sustainable and efficient. By emulating nature’s systems and processes, biomimicry provides innovative alternatives to fast-track our shift to a circular economy.

I recently watched a video by Sustainability Illustrated explaining circular economy in the simplest and most impactful way: a world where everything is healthy food for something else. 

A circular economy is a closed-loop system where materials are cycled, and waste is used to create new products. It involves using restorative and regenerative practices, like recycling packaging, composting biodegradable materials, and repairing what’s broken. It’s a stark contrast to the traditional model, where precious resources are used and thrown away. We also often overlook that when a product is disposed of, large amounts of energy and material that went into producing it is also wasted. 

Sadly, most businesses don’t give much thought to what happens to their products after they are used. They leave pretty much everything to consumers and local waste collectors, when they should, in fact, consider the product’s impact across its entire lifecycle while designing it. 

Home-compostable materials

In a circular economy, two types of cycles are required to keep a continuous flow of materials: the technical cycle and the biological cycle. The technical cycle keeps non-renewable products and materials in the cycle via repair, reuse, recycling, and remanufacturing. In the biological or ecological cycle, on the other hand, biodegradables are returned to nature via processes like composting. 

It’s fascinating how efficiently nature breaks down its products with help from its very own clean-up crew made up of microorganisms and scavengers. Mimicking this, we can develop materials that can fully and easily biodegrade. From Notpla’s seaweed-coated packaging to Ecovative’s fully compostable hemp hurd and mycelium-based material, it’s heartening to see many startups channel nature’s genius into creating alternatives that disappear in the environment harmlessly.

Our very own WOOLPACK technology is an excellent case in point. Made using discarded wool destined for landfill, WOOLPACK is a sustainable alternative to polystyrene that does for its contents what wool does for sheep: keep them warm in winter and cool in summer. The best part? WOOLPACK is 100% home-compostable and can be returned to the soil without causing any harm.

Upstream innovation and resource efficiency 

Nature has perfected itself over millions of years into a circular, highly efficient, and self-sustaining ecosystem. Look how brilliantly leaves are optimised to soak up sunlight and dispatch water and nutrients efficiently and effectively to other parts of the tree. 

So, why reinvent the wheel when all we need to do is apply nature’s solutions to the problems we deal with? This is what biomimicry champions—designing nature-inspired products and infrastructure to minimise waste from the outset. To achieve resource circulation in a circular economy, we need to focus on upstream innovation and resource efficiency. We need to rethink the way we design, package, make, or operate to prevent waste. 

Upstream innovation involves tackling a problem at the source. Instead of dealing with waste later, why not prevent it from being created in the first place? This means using fewer materials, making sure that the materials are long-lasting, and designing products for multiple uses, easy disassembly, and end-of-use return. 

Using waste as a resource

A bag of chips comes in multi-layer and multi-material plastic packaging that cannot be recycled, composted, or reused. Unsustainable and single-use design choices like these have no place in a circular economy. In nature, one species’ waste is a resource for another living being. The science of industrial ecology focuses on industries utilising each other’s waste streams, much like the way animals and plants live off each other’s waste in natural ecosystems. It encourages the idea of using waste from one process or industry as feedstock for another. 

By reducing the need to extract virgin natural resources, industrial ecology reduces the impact of industrial activities on the planet while also saving the company money. There are several real-world examples of industrial ecology, the earliest being Kalundborg Eco-industrial Park in Denmark. This is a symbiotic network of several industrial facilities, including a power station, plasterboard factory, oil refinery, fish farm, pharmaceutical and enzyme manufacturer, and waste processing facility—all of which share resources and utilise each other’s waste. 

There are many more examples of industrial ecology, such as Planet Protector using waste wool from local Australian and New Zealand farmers to create sustainable alternatives to polystyrene and plastic packaging. Another startup, Ecovative, uses agriculture waste matter and mycelium to grow innovative mushroom packaging. 

Final thoughts

Modern humans have been around for 300,000 years, co-existing in harmony with nature, before we got a bit too smart and a lot greedier. In a span of a few hundred years, we’ve built complex societies, structures, and technologies on a linear throw-make-waste model. For the sake of convenience and bottom lines, we’ve wreaked havoc on the environment. 

Take a moment to pause and reflect on this: humans are the only species that produce waste that the planet cannot absorb. It makes us stand out, but not in a good way.

Well, it’s still not too late. By incorporating lessons from nature’s mindful treatment of waste and cycle of renewal and regeneration, we can shift to a circular and sustainable future.