A very long time ago in ancient China, it was a special custom for guests when staying with farmers. Guests were expected to leave the next morning a small present. Farmers are specialists in understanding the cycles of life and will ensure nothing is wasted. The farmer gave you his best healthy food to the guest as present to his gut bacteria. The morning result from the gut bacteria and as such human digestion is the morning excrement waste. The gut bacteria has turned this into a high nutritional value, the farmer can use this as fertilizer for his land. The farmer waste nothing and sees only nutrients and minerals cycles he can reuse endlessly to grow food.
Now image urban areas doing the same; returning the valuable nutrients back to the land, creating edible forests, biomass production and as result restoring biodiversity in and around cities and villages. Can one create an economic system which does actually does this?
Image provided by Dycle
This is where the diaper cycle comes into play. Image biodegradable baby diapers plus the high valuable baby excrement’s plus a composting technique. The final result edible forests created by our babies.
Remarkable fact, in general disposable baby diapers contribute to 5-10% of the total city waste stream. At the moment we burn or landfill the disposable diapers including their valuable content. In countries with no recycling services diapers end up in the environment polluting the local resources. When you consider the long degradation time of more than 200 years of the disposable diapers, we are stuck with baby diapers for many years to come.
In our current system way of life, the diaper have become a convenient nice to have in our lives. They made the live of parents and especially the mothers much easier. It was one of the reasons why the Swedish government stimulated the use of diapers so women could be freed to work. Over the decades the disposable diapers have started to evolve and unfortunate not for the better. Disposable baby diapers are made out of a combination of toxic Super absorbents (to absorb the fluids) and plastic inner and outer pants to increase the comfort for the baby.
Unfortunate the unintended side effects are that our babies stay longer in diapers than necessary. Within one year babies should be able to figure out how their external system works and use the toilet. When you come to think about it, an average adult goes around 5 to 8 times a day to the toilet, so what should this be different for infants? Is the diaper designed for the baby or parents one could argue?
The other side effect I have come to understand is increasingly babies are starting to experience rashes from the diapers, the result of not sufficient changing of diapers and the toxicity in the disposable diapers. Some reports are suggesting girl’s infertility is due to infection of the urine system the result of not sufficient changing of the diapers. Although these research observations are highly contested by industry, research and parent organisations, what I’m taking out of this, is that is an opportunity to improve the system of our baby diapers.
So there is a need of diapers and business model that does good for the environment, communities and business. The diapers are an example of how an innovation in the beginning has proven to be less effective in the long run. So how can we change the business model of diapers so that parents, babies and the environment improve? It is time for biodegradable diapers which return the valuable resources from the baby back to the soil. This is where Dycle comes in.
In 2013 Gunter Pauli gave a lecture mentioning this innovation happening in Berlin. It directly caught my imagination, it would solve so many issues in one time and do good for nature. During my trip to Sweden in December 2014 I decided to stop in Berlin to talk with Ayumi Matsusaka, who was leading the team of innovators. We discussed the whole night about her innovation as she had to catch her airplane in the early berlin winter morning back to Japan for her holidays. She offered me her apartment during Christmas as I could only go to Sweden on the 1st of January. We agreed I would come back after my visit to Sweden. In March 2015 I flew from Copenhagen to Berlin to assist Ayumi’s and her team for what was to come.
Ayumi is a Japanese artist interested in the cycle of life and more specificity the human interaction with nature. She left Japan to study in Europe and eventually decided to settle down in Berlin. Her art project All My Cycle in 2010 laid the foundation of what Dycle has become. She investigated if it would be possible to grow her own vegetables on soil she made from her own human excrement’s, just like the Farmer. She closely collaborated with experts from the University of Berlin (TU-Berlin), Botanic Garden Berlin and TerraBoGa, Steinbeis-Innovationszentrum Organismische Mykologie und Mikrobiologie (Tübingen) and other experts.
The process Ayumi applied is Terra Preta, or black soil, an ancient technique by the Amazonian people. The Amazonian mixed ash, charcoal, food waste and human excrements together and left the mixture to ferment in closed pits. The result is a highly rich and thick layer of soil thriving with bacteria and fungi. It provided the Amazonian cities with vegetables and vegetation. Terra Preta technique neutralises parasites (mostly found in human faeces) and as such the Amazonian could recycle their human excrement. [pic soil]. The myth about Eldorado has been suggested it were actually these cities in the jungle which were able to sustain ten thousands of citizens.
Ayumi’s All my Cycle project inspired her team of scientists to image how this technique could be applied to solve the diaper puzzle. And so said do done, they went to work. Ayumi tested existing disposable biodegradable diapers to investigate of the cellulose could degrade and stimulate life in its soil. Her conclusion; there is need for a 100 percent biodegradable diaper made out of pure non toxic cellulose. The disposable biodegradable diaper is in need for new innovative biobased components to substitute all its current toxic components. Who said changing the system was easy? Her team of experts are currently worked on implementing an inspiring business model that would work to the innovation work.
The Systemic business model Design
First lesson, life consists of endless circles where nutrients are never lost and waste does not exist. So image a diaper cycle where the nutrients of new-borns are returned back to the soil in and around the city; A (re)cycling circle where a new economic system emerges, one where the current baby generation provides resources for future generation. And directly solving various challenges the existing disposable diapers are having on society.
Image provided by Dycle
It is important to understand why our baby excrement’s are so special. For those having had babies might have noticed the baby excrements go through a cycle, first as a green fluid state to a more solid state during the first year. The magic you are witnessing is the adjustment of the baby gut system and their bacteria to its external food source. When the baby lives in the mother’s womb it is connected to the mom indigestion. Once born the gut system needs to adjust to the mother milk and its indigestion is adjusting accordingly. The power food of mother milk is to ensure a quick growth of the baby. And what goes in must come out, so you can image how valuable the nutrients in the baby excrements are. So the more pure and organic the mother lives, the healthier the baby will be. So 1 If the mother is healthy the baby produces healthy excrements in diapers.
Humans have billions of bacteria inside and outside of our body with which we co-evolve to ensure humans can absorb the minerals and nutrients we need for our ecosystem. I use the metaphor to explain the power of the bacteria kingdom and to explain how fermentation works which is happening in the gut and also in nature.
Terra Preta is in essence an indigestion system of the terra soil where the biobased nutrients are transformed into new structures and cleaning out parasites from the system. Killing parasites as living organisme is actually transforming their DNA into new lifeforms. To make the process efficient you add organic waste, like kitchen waste, to the excrements and the transformation can start. Various farmers apply Terra Preta technique to transform their animal manure into fertilizer. So 2 transforming human excrement’s using the Terra Preta technique is nothing different than how the human digestive system work and how the soil works.
To make Terra Preta in urban areas, we need an additional ingredient, Charcoal. Nature makes (char)coal already, its natural process took thousands of years to evolve and it required no need of oxygen. Excavating mines for the creation of terra preta does not make sense, so there must be a better way to obtain the ingredient.
The process technique to make charcoal is called pyrolysis. For instance it has a similar effect when lava touches vegetation; it turns vegetation almost instantly into charcoal. The resource which is available in most urban comes from trimming its vegetation. Charcoal is made out of organic material, like wood and branches and cities and villages have many gardens and forests where they trim the plants and trees. Instead of composting or making woodchips out of the trimming it is possible to make charcoal. The benefit for Terra Preta, is that the bacteria can survive in the pockets of air locked in the charcoal. So 3, Charcoal is a fuel source for bacteria to stimulate its fermentation process for the making of Terra Preta.
To breakdown the cellulose faster and stimulate the life in the fermentation process fungi are added. The mycelium (the roots of fungi) will help decompose the cellulose and nutrients to transform the minerals faster and more effectively. So 4, mycelium (fungi) accelerates degradation of cellulose material in the terra preta process.
And the last soldiers, the worms, want to join the party. Their task is to mix and add oxygen to the final stage of the terra preta. So 5, earthworms complete the fermentation process of terra preta.
Now it is becoming interesting. Baby excrements and their diapers have been transformed into fertile soil over several months, and are now ready to assist trees and plants with their growth. Our climate is changing fast and we need to put more trees in the soil to capture the carbon we are emitting into the soil of air. So 6, What better to combine carbon capture with food production to feed future generations of babies!
More food and nuts surrounding the city, the more access citizens, more specifically mothers and their babies, have access to healthy food sources. This provides an interesting lockin, the high quality soil from the babies are now responsible for the food resources of city, within as outside the city. We now also have the opportunity to start introducing the older nuts and fruit trees old species to increase biodiversity of our food production. At the moment for instance we only have a very few apple species in our supermarkets, whereas there are over 400 different species. So 7, we are able to bring back the older fruit and nut species to increase biodiversity.
The Terra Preta is excellent substrate to grow food, eliminating the need to use expansive syntactic fertilizers consisting of external phosphate. Terra Preta is also a good soil stabiliser, improving the rainwater capture and reducing erosion with the life that is growing on top of the terra soil. So 8, now we can start replant the ancient fruit and nut species with the soil from our babies and having direct impact on our climate through carbon capture, soil and water retention. And the city can plant their trees with the soil made by the babies.
Now we are generating a new biomass forest full of life around the city. The farmers have now access to an abundance of biomass resources to feed and supply the citizens with biobased resources. Food from the organically grown fruits and nuts is one. The second is the biomass that can be used to produce new biodegradable diapers for another generation of babies. So 9, after the trees have started to produce food and biomass it opens the spectrum to develop a portfolio of products from these forests, from food, oils, honey to charcoal to be used again the process of terra preta.
So 10, farmers are able to generate more value streams improving the local food supply and their financial position. The increasing biodiversity on the land will start an upward spiral of the five kingdoms of nature so the edible forest can be harvest with biomass. The farmer becomes a bio-chemist to harness the thriving live on his land. It will also be possible to produce cellulose inlays from the production forest, without destroying it.
In order to sustain this self-propelling system, the last ingredient is added, the parents! The parents are the key to make this system work. The future of production will be decentralised self-assembly units. The Dycle concept will empower local communities, parents, to start changing their own environmental and the future of their community.
The parents will organise their collection and disposal of the diapers themselves in units of 100 parents. A local logistic system will deliver and pick up the diapers from central locations to the terra preta production unit. From 10 local units onward it becomes viable to start a local assembly factory for the production of the biodegradable diapers in the city. So 11, the inclusion and community is strengthened and job creation is stimulated.
The parents can finance the diaper system by applying carbon capture measures from local companies to put back their carbon emission into the creation of local food forests. These incomes will enable communities to buy and plant the trees. The local municipality will reduce the need of transport of diapers to the landfill of incinerator and gets in return; greener cities, healthier population, cleaner environment and more connected communities back. And the good part of this whole system, the parents will get the diapers for free! The system will pay of the cost of diaper production through its carbon credit system and added value streams. So 12, the disposable diaper system has already cashflows and income streams from existing money sources.
To conclude, the Dycle system is a powerful inclusive business requiring the collaboration of stakeholders with a common intention, to keep the local environment healthy for future generations to come. An environment where biodiversity, food, human excrements, fertilizers, biomass, bacteria, fungi and job creation are all interlinked into one multiple value chains.
The best is still to come; it will be affordable for every mother independent of their income!
Implementing disruptive innovative business models like Dycle is not easy. It requires the collaboration of many stakeholders and dealing with the pushback from the current linear economic and regulatory system. The business model works on paper, now the implementation needs to be done. The persistence, follow through and not giving up is needed as it is with every innovation. There are many aspects of the system which need to be changed in order to move to a new paradigm of the diapers. Of course many are sceptic to see the value of a systemic designed new economic system. We need to move towards a circular economic system and business models like Dycle are leading the way.
Artists like Ayumi are an inspiring example how woman are taking the lead to create the change and become entrepreneurs to make it happen. We need these visions of artists who image how innovations could look like and dare to take on the challenge with a team of experts to make it work. You can download a handbook to make your own terra Preta from Ayumi’s website