Permaculture: Closing the Loop
Permaculture: Closing the Loop. It’s probably safe to say that most of us live similar lives in a lot of ways: we go to the grocery store to purchase stacks of packaged foods; we water our lawns; we drop cardboard boxes and bags of leaves on the pavement for the trash pickup every week. Nobody even stops to think about the possible impacts of tossing the garbage in the garbage can. But what if there was more to the story? What if thousands of pounds of valuable resources are leaving our homes daily just to end their lives in landfills? This is exactly what happens in what’s called an open- loop system (1). In an open-loop system, resources are constantly entering and exiting; this system depends on the single-use items produced by a linear economy, which cares only about making money in the present moment and not about creating items that can be reused. (2). All that energy and all those resources that feed into the loop emerge from the other end as garbage instead of being recycled. Through this process of living, we’re feeding landfills and pollution, increasing the temperatures around our homes and cities, and contributing to the water crisis. Living in an open loop has become normal, but how can we change that? Is it even possible to close the loop?
The solution comes from a circular economy concept called permaculture. In this IDEAS Hive video “Closing the Loop Through Permaculture,” Caitlin Fogarty and Jeff Trapani define permaculture roughly as a self-sustaining web of symbiosis that connects plants, animals, people, and their entire environment (1). A combination of the words “permanent” and “culture” or “agriculture,” it ultimately aims to keep the natural ecosystem balanced in a self-sustainable system of living without pollution (3). Permaculture isn’t just about gardening; it’s about integrating all aspects of life into a new outlook on resource use and how we interact with our environment. As Fogarty says, “We can apply… this design science where we create self-sustaining systems to basically every aspect of our life” (1). Permaculture involves rethinking our relationships in areas like social relations and economics as well as what we put into the garbage can. So what does permaculture look like in practice? It looks like turning an empty backyard into a food forest paradise. It looks like conserving resources by recycling and reusing what’s available to us. It looks like finding a way to put the dead leaves from the lawn to good use, then enjoying some fresh fruit or vegetables grown with natural, homemade fertilizer composted from food leftovers. Basically, permaculture is about closing that loop by routing all the lost resources back into the environment around you, and there are so many ways to start.
Lost Resources in the Open Loop
Throughout their lecture, Fogarty and Trapani focus on the problem of wasted resources and how to save them by routing these valuable items back into the system. A multitude of resources land in the trash every day, but they’re more than just the ones you expect. One resource not often factored into waste calculations is solar energy. It’s free and it’s everywhere, which means that it’s also easy to forget about, but countless amounts of energy go unused each day when rooftops and urban pavements absorb sunlight. In addition to this waste, the energy absorption of pavements and roofs drastically increases the temperature in urbanized areas – it can be as much as 10 degrees higher than in outlying areas with more vegetation (4). Ignoring solar energy presents even more of a problem because our current energy sources are causing huge damage to the environment. Natural gas, coal, petroleum, and nuclear fuels provide Florida’s electricity, and electric power generation is the second-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions (after transportation) (11). Using these sources for energy causes air and water pollution, turning our environment gradually more toxic (12). Isn’t clean and accessible solar energy a far better way to go?
Another natural resource that most people overlook is rainwater. Each person uses, on average, 101.5 gallons of water per day (5). With this massive amount of water usage, many locations are running dry and water conservation becomes a major issue, but we continue to let water escape from our gutters and yards. Worse, stormwater runoff from lawns is actually a major source of water pollution in Florida. Lawn fertilizer washed down storm drains ends up in lakes where resultant algal blooms flourish, killing fish and other water life (15). Nor is stormwater the main source of what goes into storm drains. 30-60% of household water is used for outdoor irrigation, and as much as 50% of that water is wasted from evaporation, runoff, or other causes (16). Shouldn’t there be a way to save all these extra resources for use elsewhere instead of letting them vanish into the open loop?
Finally, we come to the garbage crisis. 125 to 160 billion pounds of food goes wasted every year in the U.S., and we’re all contributing to this figure (6). Much of it is actually edible and all of it is biodegradable, yet we’re throwing it away. Equally biodegradable and nutrient-rich dead leaves from our lawns are ending up in plastic bags by the roads. Even the toilets, gross as this may sound, represent a major loss of nutrients that could be used for productive purposes. The reality is that when we throw these things away, we’re not just losing valuable resources: we’re contributing to environmental pollution and degradation. Food waste degrades into methane gas to feed the greenhouse gas problem, and toilet waste nutrients gradually leak into rivers and ponds to support red tides (13). Many people don’t realize that food decomposes differently in landfills than when you compost it; the difference lies in aerobic versus anaerobic decomposition. When you compost food scraps, they will decompose aerobically, meaning they break down in an oxygen-rich environment and become nutrient-rich soil. In a landfill, the same food scraps will decompose anaerobically without access to oxygen. The problem is that the chemical process of anaerobic decomposition produces the methane gas we’re trying to avoid (17). Resource mismanagement and pollution go hand in hand – but there’s a way to change everything through permaculture.
The Permaculture Solution
At first glance, the massive amounts of waste and lost resources to be rescued may seem intimidating, but Fogarty and Trapani take on each problem one step at a time. To start with the sun – how can you utilize all that power in a productive and efficient way? One method Trapani introduces is through turning your back yard into a food forest (10). Food forests can be any size or shape because they’re simply cohesive plant communities in which the green inhabitants work together to produce food (7). Food forests involve planting multiple species together in layers, and the different varieties will produce far more than if a plot of land was dedicated to just one crop or monoculture. For example, in one small space, you can grow tall trees like chestnuts, shorter trees such as cherries, different edible shrubs, and low-lying ground-plants like herbs (8). The layers of plants stack together, integrated into an efficient system that mimics the structure of a real forest (thus the name!). All those green plants in the yard will turn sunlight into edible produce and reduce the temperature around your house as they absorb the sun’s energy (1). Another way to harvest the sun’s power is through solar panels, which transform light into energy you can use around the house (14).
Once your back yard is populated by edible plants, the question of what to do with food leftovers and dead leaves gets a lot simpler. Vermicomposting, which uses earthworms to turn biodegradable waste into viable compost, is a great option to dispose of dinner scraps or coffee grounds. Leaves become excellent mulch that will support the healthy growth of whatever you decide to plant. Cardboard boxes can be torn up and composted along with food scraps or used as mulch to suppress weed growth (9). To cover irrigation, use rainwater reservoirs to collect rainwater, which isn’t just cheap – it also has extra nutrients that will help plants grow (1).
Fogarty and Trapani offer a few ideas to take permaculture to the next level. They suggest using composting toilets to turn toilet waste into nutritious compost and biogas systems to transform biodegradable waste into energy you can use to power cooking and more. Amazing technologies like hempcrete incorporate hemp and lime from limestone into environmental building materials. And they don’t forget to mention one of the most-ignored resources: the health and well-being of the average commuter. Driving to work, Fogarty notes, is a significant source of stress – instead of spending all that time in the car, fighting traffic and frustration, why not bike to work instead? Biking is a perfect way to alleviate the pollution of car emissions while also gaining exercise and skipping out on the stresses of the morning traffic jam.
Closing the Loop
Implementing the permaculture solution means changing your entire mindset. So much of consumer culture is constructed around single-use items instead of reusable products, and almost everyone just accepts it. What if we took a different approach, considering the environment first and choosing to sustain a lifestyle that makes things last? It’s fine to start small; in fact, that’s exactly where we should be starting as we rethink the way we live our lives and begin to close the loop.
Steps to Take Now
- Rethink how you use different resources. Could you be composting leftovers, cardboard, and dead leaves? Even if you can’t use them, do you know anyone who can?
- Reroute the free resources around you through rainwater reservoirs, solar panels, or gray water recycling.
- Research the edible plants that grow in your area and turn your back yard into a food forest!
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