Dung beetles eat poo. It’s what they do, and they do it many different ways. Rollers tumble it home in little balls; they cradle their eggs in it or save it for a snack. Tunnelers bury it right where they find it, and dwellers, well, dwell in it. Nothing goes to waste in nature, and these little beetles are perfect examples of a species that transforms another’s dross into gold. So, what can they teach us about re-using and recycling materials for a true circular economy? Read on to find out!
Each species of dung beetle has their own special place, but the holy rolling Egyptian scarab is sacred. The ancient Egyptians believed all scarabs were male, and that each day at dawn, the little guys re-enacted the birth of Khepri, god of the rising sun. He deposits his semen into a dung ball, re-creates himself out of nothing, and rolls his reborn sun across the sky into darkness. For the Egyptians, the scarab meant renewal, transformation, and the resurrection of the dead into new shapes among the living.
That all makes sense, of course. Dung is a precious resource; a concentrated patch of moisture, energy, and nutrients. The scarab knows it, moves fast to get it, and once he lays claim to his fragrant treasure, he rolls it away as fast as he can. Other scarabs will have no compunction about stealing the poo right out from under him, like two can-collecting hobos bickering in an alley. A fresh elephant cake will attract over 4,000 dung beetles a mere 15 minutes after it slaps the ground, and another 12,000 are en route. With that kind of competition, you roll fast and hard—dung is a steaming hot commodity.
In nature, every creature’s waste is food for another. Nutrients flow from the dead to the living in a raw soup of energy and matter, passing through our temporary bodies in vast webs of digestion as we feed, digest, and move about. Waste is precious.
This is the theme that emerged from the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego last week: Big name companies, some of the biggest in the world, are suddenly sitting up and noticing they’ve been pooping gold in our rivers and oceans and air. Now, they’re starting to wonder, “how can I get that gold poop back, and roll it off before someone else does?” Trash heaps are fine if junk is cheap, which is true when it grows on trees and gushes from the earth and leaps from the sea. But today, with the commodity price index going berserk, raw resources are expensive and unpredictable, and prices are volatile. It’s also getting pricey to find somewhere to toss all that trash.
Once upon a time, there was no garbage. There was only food: for plants and grazers and hunters and scavengers and decomposers. Humans fit nicely in that scheme. But a century or two ago, we started making stuff nobody had evolved to eat yet. Only 7 percent of the petrochemical plastic we make is recycled; the rest, we burn, or throw in a pile, or a river. We pump billions of barrels of yesterday’s carbon nutrients out of the ground, tossing it carelessly, like handfuls of windblown gold dust, up into the air out of reach. In the consumer goods sector, 80 percent of the $3.2 trillion we make goes straight into the trash. With another 2 billion people joining us by 2030, this kind of prodigal waste can’t last.
The good news is our biosphere has been working this way for a long time. Nutrients have always found themselves concentrated in one place or another., and the more they do, the greater potential they have to drive the work of making hungry creatures go. It may not be worth chasing one solitary plankton, but a herd of krill makes whale mania. In other words, our overflowing landfills and Beijing “air-pocalypses” are goldmines, and Big Business has noticed.
A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and (decidedly-not hippy-dippy) consulting firm McKinsey points out just how much value our trash has. Europe alone would save as much as $630 billion a year in materials if they put their nutrients back in the system. A 20 percent recycling rate would create an additional 3-4 percent GDP. Refurbishing smart phones would reduce manufacturing energy costs by $4 million, save an estimated 100,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, and $475 million in materials each year. And that’s before we started making our phone cases “out of thin air,” as AirCarbon pollution-built plastic does. That’s right: if the bacteria can’t figure out how to eat our mess fast enough, we’ll do it ourselves. Carbon negative manufacture is on the horizon.
Ultimately, “The Circular Economy” is a game changer, but how does a company find and roll off the golden poo-balls before the competition does? Design and innovation. The scarab follows his nose to his trove or attaches directly to the dung-maker (businesses take note!), and the frenzied scramble to make off with another man’s trash has selected for fantastic innovation. Scarabs dance wildly on their poo balls, asking which way is home? And they know the answer. One species travels by polarized moonlight (yes, that’s a thing), while others use the Milky Way: dung beetles are the only non-humans with galactic steering.
The fact is, if business can make a profit from trash, it will. New business models and product designs and take-back strategies will emerge. And the funny thing is, it really doesn’t matter if we, the consumers, even know about it. Our waste is a giant elephant cake, and the dung beetles are coming.
Our petrochemical discards are like prehistoric wood, before the wood-rot fungi evolved to eat it (to this day, they are the only ones that can). It took awhile, but eventually nature claimed that gold. Now, the wood-nutrients are returned to the rest of us, but for a long time, they built up uneaten in the wood landfills of time. Yesterday’s undigested carbon is the stuff we pump out of the ground today. There’s a lot of it, and we’ve been careless. But I have no doubt, eventually all this gold will be collected and rolled away. It’s what nature does. The dead become the living. The sun rolls across the sky. Khepri is reborn.