YOUTH: How animals and rain are smarter than we are

“Imagine a world where everyone graduating from high school understands the concepts of a circular economy.” — John Lanier, executive director, Ray C. Anderson Foundation

by Dylan Morrissette, 6th grade, Minneapolis

NOAA water cycle imageWhen I was a 2nd grader, I learned about the water cycle. The sun heats the ocean and makes the water evaporate as “vapor” into the air. As it rises, it begins to cool, and sometimes forms clouds. The droplets in these clouds can become heavy enough to fall back to the earth as rain or snow. If the ground isn’t covered with concrete, the water collects in the ground and makes its way back to our rivers, lakes, ocean. And it starts all over again.

That’s a cycle.

Grizzly-Katmai-NPSAnimals also have a cycle. It’s called a food chain. I learned about that in 5th grade. Grass grows, is eaten by a grasshopper, which is eaten by a mouse, which is eaten by a snake, which is eaten by a hawk, which eventually dies and decomposes (sometimes with the help of fungi like mushrooms). The nutrients from the decomposed animal combines with sun and water to cause the grass to grow. And it starts all over again.

That’s another cycle.

Now I’m in 6th grade and I’m learning about the waste cycle. Except… there is no waste, if there is a cycle. Everything turns into something else.

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.

The problem I’ve been learning about is that a lot of the things we buy don’t turn into anything else. So they pile up as garbage. We’ve gotten so good at making things out of certain plastics and toxic chemicals that are not able to turn into something we can use again, or are dangerous when they decompose.

How much garbage do we still create?

The term I’m starting to learn about is “circular economy.” That is when people who make products do so with the intention of using only materials that will be turned into something else eventually. More kids like me will grow up learning how to make new things in new ways. There are several ways to do it.

1. Re-use materials

I visited TechDump recently, where I learned that circuit boards, particularly in old computers, have precious metals like gold (and less precious materials that are toxic), that are getting harder to find.

One statistic I found from the Environmental Protection Agency is that more than 100,000 ounces of gold could be recovered from the 129 million mobile devices that we threw away in 2009 alone. We should always bring our cell phones and old computers and electronics to a place like TechDump, because only a small percentage of those important materials are being recovered and used for something else.

I also heard that the clothing store H&M has a Conscious Foundation that is paying for people’s ideas about how to use old clothes in new ways. In Europe it uses a sorting facility that employs 600 people to divide old clothes into several piles: secondhand clothes that can be resold to someone else; re-use cloths used for cleaning and sometimes yarn; fibers that are broken down for new use in manufactured products like insulation; or scraps burned and used as thermal energy.

2. Turn “waste” into different products

Eureka Reycling DylanThere is a lot of work right now – including at our own Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis and Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colo. – where people are working hard to reduce our waste. They work with creative people who are finding ways to recycle one product into something else.

I heard that Starbucks is hoping to use bacteria – a different form of composting — to turn tons of coffee grounds and food into succinic acid, which can be used to safely create detergents, medicines, perfumes, and useable plastic fibers. It’s amazing what you can make out of materials after you make them even smaller!

I heard that students at Stanford University in California have figured out that mealworms eat Styrofoam. We throw away 2.5 billion plastic foam cups every year, which does not get recycled or composted and simply holds our food or drink for a few minutes and then contaminates our water and animals. But the worm might save us, thanks to these studies at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. There are microorganisms in a worms gut that are happy to turn those bites of plastic into biodegradable poop.

3. Change our packaging

OohoDid you know that we use oil to make things like plastic bottles – which is not a good use of oil, especially for plastic bottles that we make too much and that don’t usually decompose in a healthy way.

More people are looking at making different packages that don’t waste so much material for no good reason.

In our family, we use a cloth bag for groceries instead of plastic. But it’s even better when we can avoid buying something that simply wastes a lot of resources on the plastic wrap or frozen container it comes in. If more of us did that, maybe those manufacturers would learn that we want our food and drink packaged in a smarter way.

I’m super excited to learn about interesting things like Ooho – which makes “blobs” of water packaged in something from seaweed that we could actually eat instead of throw away.

There are a lot of people helping us figure out how to become “zero waste.”

Just like water and animals, we should be smart enough to figure out how to re-cycle everything we use. Something should always become something else. That’s the natural way.

I have learned that America recycles about 30 percent of its wasted products – but Germany, Canada, Holland, Japan, the Phillipines, Norway and New Zealand have zero waste policies that take care of 80 percent! I hope in Minneapolis we keep finding ways to become zero waste, like they have been doing in San Francisco, Seattle, and Boulder, Colorado.

Easy New Habits You Can Make

  1. Use reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic water bottles
  2. Help your family bring its own containers to stores. Why not bring your own mug to Starbucks for hot chocolate? Or have reusable containers for your own restaurant leftovers?
  3. Stop buying things in a single serving package, and avoid frozen boxes that aren’t easy to recycle.

The Future Is…


When my grandfather became an analytical chemist in the 1960s, he was influenced by a movie called “The Graduate” in which the young Dustin Hoffman character is advised to go into a future career in “plastics.” My grandpa specialized in polymers (plastics) after that.

Now, I hear that the new word in chemistry is “green.”

Who is going to learn how to create healthier materials that work, and then can be safely cycled into something else?

Maybe you? Maybe me?

“The people who want to have the safe products don’t have the skill set to make fundamentally safe materials, and the people who have the skill set to make it aren’t learning it. That’s the big impasse. That’s where I see the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity.” — John Warner, Warner Babcock Institute

Related Resources

Excellent Overview: Why plastics led to the (weak) Toxic Substance Control Act — As Dustin Hoffman remarked in The Graduate, “The rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.”…Just a few years after The Graduate was released, health concern [about the toxins used in making certain plastics that led to liver disease] had reached critical mass in the U.S. In a private session organized by the National Cancer Institute, Beach revealed that some 6 percent of the VC used during PVC production was escaping into the outside air… In 1976, the global production of plastics was around 50 million metric tons. Today, more than 311 million metric tons of plastics are produced worldwide. In 2013, plastic wholesaling generated $55 billion in the U.S., which is behind only China in total PVC production.


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