Emulating Ecosystems: A Story About Beer

Emulating Ecosystems: A Story About Beer
Photo by W.D. Vanlue
Photo by W.D. Vanlue

I admire how Makers act as a community. Makers thrive on learning from each other, and sharing ideas, tools, and knowledge. Makers seem to be about cooperation, not competition.

In nature, there are communities of organisms that interact with each other and the nonliving parts of their environment. That’s what an ecosystem is. Living organisms include plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and more. We humans are part of the ecosystems we live in, but we don’t always contribute as much to the community as we could. Let’s look at ways some businesses have learned to start behaving more like cooperative members of nature.hownature_frog_make02

This story is about beer but can be applied to any business because it’s about how emulating an ecosystem can lead to less waste while supporting various industries. ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives) designed a system to change how we make beer from a “make, take, and waste” model to a circular system. It emulates how ecosystems maintain nutrients onsite in a closed-loop system through cooperative, interdependent relationships.

In a typical brewery, many resources come in from outside sources, such as grains, water, packaging, yeast, hops, and so on. The output includes beer, but also large amounts of waste. For example, 10 barrels of water go into making one barrel of beer, with the wastewater going into a sewage treatment plant. One barrel of beer uses 45 pounds of barley, resulting in 41 pounds of waste that goes into a landfill.

In nature, nutrients are continuously cycled through an ecosystem, and there is no such thing as garbage. Fungi, bacteria, and other soil-dwelling organisms play an important role in the decomposition of organic matter, breaking down plant and animal material and returning nutrients to the soil. In nature, there is a lot of upcycling going on, taking waste and using it as chemical or physical building materials.

In an ecosystem, all of this “waste” will be used by other organisms. Photo by Melanie Cook
In an ecosystem, all of this “waste” will be used by other organisms. Photo by Melanie Cook

ZERI’s system does the same thing. I talked about it in a short video as part of Biomimicry 3.8 Institute’s AskNature Nugget series. For example, spent grain from the brewing process can go into making bread or become the substrate for growing mushrooms. The spent grain could have been fed directly to pigs, but once the mushrooms have grown on it, it’s much more digestible so makes better livestock feed. Manure from pigs goes into an anaerobic digester to make an energy source called biogas, or to provide a nutrient solution (with wastewater) to raise algae to feed fish. Bread, mushrooms, pigs, and fish are all additional products that can be sold in addition to the beer.

Schematic of how the ZERI brewery system creates closed loops. © Biomimicry 3.8 Institute
Schematic of how the ZERI brewery system creates closed loops. © Biomimicry 3.8 Institute

Increasingly, businesses small and large are looking for ways to create interdependent, mutually beneficial relationships that produce positive results for people and the planet. Another example is the cardboard to caviar effort in the United Kingdom. This system shreds waste cardboard from local businesses and uses it for horse bedding. Afterwards, the waste from the stables is fed to worms, which in turn are fed to farm-raised sturgeon, which produce high quality caviar without putting pressure on native sturgeon fisheries.

Emulating nature at the ecosystem level is a deep form of biomimicry that leads to environmentally sustainable results. Makers already contribute to such cyclic systems, such as through upcycling materials and working together. Please share your stories of how you do or could contribute to a closed-loop ecosystem.

4 thoughts on “Emulating Ecosystems: A Story About Beer

  1. David says:

    If you had brought up these concepts a half-century ago, would you have been labeled, stereotyped, ridiculed, and ostracized as being some kind of Commie-Pinko, Hippi, Tree-Hugging, Faggot, Environmentalist, Liberal, Pot-Smoking, Weirdo? Now it is organic, green, sustainable, resiliency, and permaculture.
    It appears the Hippis were right.
    “Hippi Is Spelled Hippi.”
    “Hippy” is a word assigned by “The Man” as part of CoIn-Ops to put down the movement.
    Hipi (a word in the Wolof language meaning “to open one’s eyes”) was the source for both hip and hep.
    Hipi is a native word and we should give respect by not co-opting it.
    Melding earlier versions and doubling the “p” letter to give unique-from-origin gives “Hippi”.”Hippi Is Spelled Hippi.”)

  2. Your Coffee and Beer’s Ugly Past… | Deakin SciCom 2014 says:

    […] The closed loop system Source: Biomimicry3.8Institute […]

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Sherry Ritter is a biologist, writer, and educator living in Montana. Before getting involved with biomimicry, she was a wildlife ecologist with state wildlife agencies in Wyoming and Idaho, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Biomimicry fits her life-long interest in organisms’ adaptations to survive.

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