The Story of Cycles

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Restore. Restoration. A Restorative Culture. These are terms commonly used in the field of permaculture, especially in relation to soil and water ecology as many plants are used to restore soil health and revive natural ecological function.

The word recycle is also commonly used, but I would argue, not accurately used in the context of permaculture. “Recycling” is really a marketing convention for environmental awareness. Recycling has good intentions and has its place in today’s multi-pronged approach to sustainability even though, in fact, most recyclables still end up in a landfill. Most people generally understand the importance or at least the concept of “recycling” but truly things cannot be recycled, only cycled. Nature cycles energy, waste (which is food), water, minerals, carbon, you name it.

With human design, recycling generally means passing off materials to another entity who you believe is going to reprocess the materials into something else that’s made of the same material. As Annie Leonard says in the The Story of Stuff, “recycling results in externalizing our waste and the environmental cost.”


The act of putting stuff in a bin that someone else will deal with other than dumping it into the nearest landfill. This may happen most times except when the materials are contaminated, mixed, or the bulk price for sellers is too low for economic benefit.


The systemic and incorporated transfer of all waste within a system so that no organic or inorganic material becomes unavailable for future use as food, fodder, fiber, or a second life. The consumer and producer are responsible for all material “waste” to its final reuse. Natural cycles, hence waste=food. In the natural world all things are food for something else as the carbon and organic matter is constantly being consumed by organisms and traded by species. The food chain is a cycle that constantly adapts to ever changing levels of material, living or dead, that is available. We “civilized” humans are quite bad at this generally, but many indigenous people have sustained themselves for generations understanding the importance and sacredness of all life and their role in maintaining the balance or better yet, being part of the balance of life.

Integrated Design:

When we apply the principles of permaculture to our designs, we seek an integrated design where all inputs and outputs are accounted for. When we implement our designs there should be no net loss in material or energy. In Europe, an ice cream producer infused native plant seeds in the cartons and encouraged consumers to throw them out the car window or into vacant lots. The carton decomposed quickly and was instant mulch for the plants that grew. In college, I made native seed paper for stationary and encouraged my local recipients to tear up my correspondence and toss it into their gardens. These examples give the design a second life as a vehicle for restoring depleted native species in urban and rural areas. In time each item would produce enough plant material to balance the material used in the initial design. Perhaps even carbon would be sequestered to offset the designs contribution to pollution.

Integrating our lives, no matter where we live, with the local sources of our materials, food, and energy and then with the final destination of these excess materials after we are done with them makes us part of the cycle. If we are not part of the cycle, we are wasting huge amounts of energy and opportunity. If we are the terminus, we are the dump, disrupting natural cycles, causing natural corrections.

Images courtesy of Flickr CC: bottle caps @stevendepolo