One product, differentiated green benefits

  • Creative problem-solving tackles many problems with a single product
  • Upcycling extends a substance’s usefulness and reduces waste

Do more with less. Makes sense when you’re thinking green, doesn’t it? After all, a guiding principle in thinking green is to achieve multiple purposes with a single item. The item could be a product, a component, a service, or maybe even an idea. Systems that incorporate this principle are generally much more sustainable, need fewer components, and are therefore also more economical.

Let’s look at some examples.

Reducing runoff with recycled bottles

Green builders are discovering eco-friendly substitutes for the traditional asphalt paving area. Asphalt prevents water from seeping into the ground and diverts it – usually into sewers, but sometimes into places where it causes harmful erosion.

By contrast, a paving system that lets water drain back into the ground right there and yet insulates vehicles from the problems of parking or driving directly on the ground, can maintain the water table, reduce concentrations of toxic contaminants, curb erosion and even allow for plants that grow close to the ground – thus adding oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and help mitigate against climate change. These pavers create a latticework of support above an open area, so the water can freely drain. 

I’ve seen concrete pavers like this, and they’re very cool. A company called Purus ( decided to take things up a notch and make the pavers out of recycled polyethylene from old soda bottles. This adds several more benefits: longer-lasting landfills, avoiding toxic fumes from incineration of plastic (which should never be burned), and reuse of materials, among others.

Waste becomes raw material 

Instead of the typical open system where an industrial process creates waste that is released into the environment, enviro-pioneer John Todd keeps asking how we can close the loop by using that waste as an input for something else. After all, that’s what happens in nature: humans and other animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, while plants breathe in that carbon dioxide and breathe oxygen back out. A dead tree becomes a habitat for nesting birds, and when the birds die, their nutrients are absorbed back into the soil where plants can use them. 

The company Todd founded, Ocean Arks International (, takes this single simple idea in amazing directions. For instance, an integrated system of businesses and activities called The Intervale (, in Burlington, Vermont, uses brewery waste to grow mushrooms, mushroom waste to feed fish, fish waste to grow hydroponic vegetables, and so on. Expanding the principle further, Todd and his colleagues design and build restorative ecosystems that reduce carbon, digest human-caused waste, and revivify dead or dying bodies of water. (Read more about John Todd’s work at

Biodynamic agriculture: Cattle fed an organic diet are likely to live longer, produce more milk, release less environmentally-harmful methane gas during their digestion and yield up to 20% more beef (photo credit: istockphoto)

Biodynamic farming

The last example is one that most of us are familiar with: organic farming, and its more tightly regulated cousin, Demeter Certified Biodynamic agriculture (

You already know that organic foods not only eliminate harmful chemicals but also typically produce tastier foods. But you might not know that organic agriculture can sequester 7,000 pounds (3.17 tonnes) of carbon per acre (0.4 hectare), that agriculture can raise a significant portion of our energy needs through oilseed crops like sunflowers (yes, I’m aware there are issues in using cropland for energy), that a good organic diet of grasses and flax can significantly reduce harmful methane emissions from cow burps, and that a cow fed with an organic diet will be far more profitable for farmers because she is likely to live up to three times as long and have many more lactation cycles, and will even yield 20% more beef. (These statistics are taken from my report on the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco last year. See

And you?

These are just three of thousands of examples. How can you incorporate holistic, systemic thinking to create many benefits with one innovation?