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The juice of circularity

Great initiatives for a sustainable economy: from the orange peel recycling bar, sustainable forest governance to zero-waste projects.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
09 July 2020
8 min read
byMaria Pia Rossignaud
09 July 2020
8 min read

Every year in March and April respectively, two important days are observed: Global Recycling Day, now in its third edition, and the UN’s Earth Day, which was created way back in 1970. This year the two events paid a lot of attention to the idea of the circular economy in relation to organic waste. Following the three Rs of “reduce, reuse, recycle” saves tons of food ending up in landfill. Recycling Day is a pretty young event, created in 2018 by the Global Recycling Foundation to spread the habit, save natural resources, bring down CO2 emissions and protect our planet’s future. Recycling is one of the pillars of a circular economy. The aim is to stop throwing things away after using them once, and instead bring them back into every-day use in a new form.

It’s a tricky process but not impossible. Take Feel the Peel, for example, the Circular Juice Bar dreamt up by the architect’s studio Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) in collaboration with Eni, where you can drink fresh orange juice in a cup made of the fruit’s peel. The giant juicer is 10 feet high. It looks almost magical, with its splendid dome of about 1,550 oranges, a few of which slide down a set of rails when you order a juice. The fruits end up in the juicer itself, which cuts them in two and squeezes out their liquid. The peel ends up in the lower part of the machine, building up over time. It’s then dried out, pulverised and mixed with polylactic acid (PLA), a polymer of vegetable origin. The mixture is fed into a 3D printer that turns it into cups, thereby giving a new lease of life to the rind, which would otherwise be nothing more than rubbish.

This contraption’s fame has spread in part because it’s in line with the expert recommendations that guide these two days dedicated to protecting the world, not to mention Eni’s sustainable development goals. “The principle of circularity is a ‘must’ when making today’s products,” says Carlo Ratti, a founding partner of CRA in Turin and director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “With Eni, we’ve worked to demonstrate circularity in a particularly concrete way. This machine shows us how oranges can be used not only for their juice but in their entirety. Later versions of Feel the Peel could have new functions, like printing fabrics for clothing, also from orange peel fibres,” the architect goes on. Feel the Peel is also a patent, presented for the first time at the 40th Rimini Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples late last August.

But CRA had already collaborated with Eni. For Milan Design Week in 2019 they developed an architectural structure based on mycelium, the fibrous fungus root. The installation was later christened The Circular Garden, and it set a precedent for using mycelium in design, as an example of the circular economy process of transformation and reuse. It’s born of the earth and returns to the soil after it’s stopped being useful. In the last few years mycelium has been used in sustainable packaging and small brick-like objects.

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SUPERFACTS - Circular oranges

Less is more

Reducing waste is now common practice in Italy, as the Waste Watcher Report for 2020, presented at the Ministry of Health on 5 February, confirms. “This awareness is finally growing in our country, as 66% of Italians say there is a close connection between food waste, environmental health and man,” in the words of Sandra Zampa, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Health. Seeing rubbish as a resource to be exploited, rather than something to get rid of, is an approach that values sustainability, fights waste and saves natural resources from over-consumption.

Goodbye to deforestation

Scientists say that global deforestation, the climate crisis and destruction of ecosystems and habitats, besides being the main sources of harm to the environment, help spread viruses and other illnesses. The current standstill in the planet’s deforestation, brought about by a slowdown in production, has shown us once again the need for a circular economy. As the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), a system for certifying sustainable forest management, demonstrated this year on Earth Day, we can’t run the risk of letting our guard down when it comes to environmental protection policies. During the marathon event, which involved 193 countries was streamed live due to lockdown, people were called on to commit to protect natural resources, the environment, health and general safety, and combat the current climate crisis around the world.

“Unsustainable use of our forests is one of the main upsetters of the environmental balance on our planet and could unleash some of the most serious infectious diseases faced by mankind today. In tropical areas, the practices of deforestation and buying and selling bushmeat from forest animals have brought people and wild animals into closer contact, encouraging the spillover phenomenon of animals transmitting viruses to people,” is what Antonio Brunori, Secretary-General of PEFC Italia, has to say on the matter. His NGO sets national standards for sustainable forest management, to prevent the kind of degradation and deforestation of wild trees prevalent in the 1990s. Since that time the organisation has noted a significant improvement in protection of forests and regulation of deforestation.

Since 2018, certain geographical areas, among them Indonesia, which has the highest rate of deforestation of any country in the world thanks to the palm oil industry, have actually seen the effects of environmental crimes lessen. But despite the ongoing pandemic, 203 square miles of rainforest were cut down in the Brazilian Amazon in March alone, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research. “This pandemic,” Brunori continues, “will shift the economic scales, but I believe the progress we’ve made so far in legal protection for forests will not be set back. There are many theories that the pandemic was caused by deforestation, a warning we’ve been aware of for years but haven’t paid enough attention to until now. Now we have the tools to restart with greater awareness, putting our own health and the planet’s back at the centre of things, beginning with a crucial, active part of the environment around us – our trees.”

Zero trash zero waste

Serious deforestation and growing contact between urban society and wild animals, like the wild boars and foxes moving into our cities on the hunt for food in bins, is further speeding up the age-old phenomenon of viruses spreading from animal to man. Italy has a head start in this race, including when it comes to the European Green Deal, as it’s seen its food waste per capita fall consistently since the last decade, to 126 kg a year, 16% under the EU average. This is according to data from Andrea Segrè, founder of the Zero Waste 2030 project, the main aim of which is to make people more aware of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the planet, and which is helping get polluting emissions and food waste per capita down before 2030. Improper dumping of waste in Italy is producing 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year and spoiling 30.6 square miles in the process. Without that waste, CO2 emissions would fall by 15%. Against this background, the project represents a national campaign to reduce food waste around the world and fight climate change.

If, as the Global Recycling Foundation says, recycled material is our planet’s seventh resource (after minerals, water, air, natural gas, petroleum and coal), Feel the Peel is a model to follow. As a study from the Bureau of International Recycling shows, recovering resources stops more than 700 million tonnes of CO2 getting released every year. So, recycling makes a big difference to fighting the great climate change we’re going through. It reduces consumption of new raw material, avoids waste piling up or ending up in landfill, stops pollution and saves money for everyone.