The most famous glass sponge is a species of Euplectella, shown here in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Commonly called the “Venus flower basket,” this sponge builds its skeleton in a way that entraps a certain species of crustacean inside for life. Image courtesy of National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce.
To complete the graduate program in biomimicry at Arizona State University, each student conducts an independent research project in an area that’s challenging and complex enough that they would want to work on it for the next five years of their career. For my project, I set my sights high and delved into the world of plastic. Specifically, I focused on how to get rid of plastic completely and replace it with a biodegradable material from a renewable resource that could be locally produced on-demand and just-in-time. Obviously, this challenge is far too large and gangly to solve in a one-semester research project so I focused on one kind of plastic for one use in one industry by one specific company.
This year is forcing us to reckon with the tension and connection between individual choice and collective impact.
This article walks you through the process I went through to:
- Clearly and succinctly identify the problem
- Apply the biomimicry processes and tools to one of the most vexing materials science challenges we face today
- Narrow down my solution set for the project that could then we replicated to solve other facets of the plastic challenge
- Develop a path forward for my project and for my career as a biomimic
My final project, Beyond Plastic, with a full literature review, is available for open access.
You can also view the 4-minute video about my project on YouTube.
Begin at the Beginning
2020 is the year of systemic change. This year is forcing us to reckon with the tension and connection between individual choice and collective impact. If we do or don’t wear a face-mask, that impacts our health and the health of our community. If we do or don’t stand up to racism and social inequity, that impacts our workplaces, schools, and communities at the neighborhood, city, and national levels as much as it impacts our personal circle of family and friends.
How can we make a change with broad impact that’s actionable from where we are right now with what we have?
Systemic change — change that fundamentally alters the systems in which we live and work — can be overwhelming. How can we as individuals in a sea of millions really make a difference? How can we make a change with broad impact that’s actionable from where we are right now with what we have? Even asking that question can feel daunting!
A Case Study: Plastic Waste
At the end of 2019, I faced these questions about systemic change and became determined to answer them with my research. I was just about to begin my capstone project for the biomimicry graduate program at Arizona State University, and I wanted to focus on eliminating plastic waste.
Despite the complexity of this challenge, I refused to turn away from it. I physically couldn’t turn away from it, because plastic is everywhere — the grocery store, pharmacy, clothing shops, restaurants, and every nook and cranny of my home. I had to find a way to start to make a difference right where I was with what I had during this capstone. Here’s how I did that:
Sometimes we’re so afraid to articulate our biggest dreams, because they seem impossible to accomplish. To create great change, we have to dare greatly. There’s no way around that. Open up the floodgates, and however messy or outrageous your dream project may seem, write it down as simply and succinctly as you can. Read it out loud. Imagine it in your mind. Seeing, saying, and hearing your dream are the first steps to believing and achieving it. I wrote down my mission “to rid the world of plastic waste” on a post-it and put it on the wall near my desk so that every time I sat down to work on my project, I would see my goal.
Now that I had fully committed to my big dream, I needed a tool to organize all of my research, ideas, resources, and plans. For me, the best choice was a tool called Trello. It’s essentially a segmented list-making tool that’s free and available on web and mobile, and updates on all platforms in real-time. I created a capstone board to house all of my lists for the project. My lists on the board had titles such as “Types of plastic” and “Partners to contact”. Each item on my list is what’s called a card. Within each card, Trello allows you to add text, photos, documents, and links.
The important point here is that I didn’t limit my possibilities for my project at this point nor did I try to qualify them in any way…I wanted to open up my mind and imagination.
I used Trello, because I was already familiar with it, but there are many other options even as simple as a plain notebook or a Google document. The idea here is to just have a place where you can put everything you learn, think, and discover on your change-making journey.
Write Out All the Possibilities
Once I’d committed to my big goal and selected my organizing tool, it was time to dream. With plastic waste, I realized all my potential actions fell into two main camps: I could choose actions that replace plastic altogether or manage the plastic once its useful life is finished and it’s about to become waste. Within that first category, I could focus on solutions such as existing alternative materials, the creation of a new material, or the use of an existing waste product. Within the second category, I could focus on solutions such as recycling, upcycling, public and government policy, or laws.
The important point here is that I didn’t limit my possibilities for my project at this point nor did I try to qualify them in any way. At this early stage, I wanted to open up my mind and imagination. Qualifying, editing, and choosing a specific path for my project would come later.
Talk to Other People
In my capstone seminar, I had two fantastic team mates, Lily and John. We met every other week and talked about our different projects to get feedback, help, and advice from the others. This was an invaluable exercise. Biomimicry is about having a diverse range of thinkers come to the design table, and thus it made sense to approach my project in the same way. Even though my teammates and I had our own projects, that support and the act of regularly explaining our progress to each other really helped to clearly point the best way forward even when things seemed murky. It is incredible what can be revealed from a new perspective. These conversations also allowed for accountability in helping each other make sure we were continuing with steady incremental progress as the semester unfolded.
Timely feedback given with compassion by people you trust is priceless. Find those people and collaborate with them on your big dream project.
Additionally, I had a committee of experts who also provided me with invaluable feedback, direction, and support. Without them, I never could have developed a project with this much nuance and detail. My committee included Dr. Rein Ulijn, the Principal Investigator at the Ulijn Lab located within the Advanced Science Research Center at the City University of New York, who specializes in peptide nanotechnology, and Lex Amore, Communications Director and Biomimicry Leader at the Biomimicry Institute.
Timely feedback given with compassion by people you trust is priceless. Find those people and collaborate with them on your big dream project. I was most fortunate to work with Rein, Lex, Lily, and John throughout my research, and this project is far better than it would have been without them.
You Are a Sculptor
Think of your big project as a piece of clay. To find your path, you need to sculpt that clay and give it shape. In my case, I had this enormous dream of eliminating plastic waste, but there was no way I would accomplish that goal in a handful of months. Now I had to narrow down my project to something manageable. If I could make progress along one avenue, I could then replicate that success and include what I learned in later stages on the way to my big goal. In writing, we call the process of editing eliminating the unnecessary words so the necessary words can speak. The same is true for our dream projects. Carve away layers until a clear, manageable path forward emerges.
The sculpting of my project about plastic waste went through several phases of sculpting. First, I had to choose one of the two main camps of solutions: a replacement material or some version of waste mitigation such as recycling. Recycling is a deeply flawed system with enormous negative environmental impacts. It also requires consistent personal choices be made over and over again. I am much more passionate about moving upstream and replacing plastic altogether at a systems level. I decided I wanted to take steps toward creating a new material.
This synchronicity allowed me to tie my project to a timely issue — COVID-19. That’s not surprising because biomimicry is meant to do exactly this — solve a problem by looking to nature for a solution and then replicate the spirit of that solution in new ways.
Once I made that choice, I decided to focus on one kind of plastic for one purpose in one industry to keep the project manageable and attainable. This is one of the hardest steps in solving challenges: getting clear about a point of entry for a particular problem. Once I got clear about the pathway, I went a step further and decided to focus my project around the idea that I would eventually need to sell my new material into a company for them to use. My background in business and product development also helped me create a tailored pitch to the category leader in my chosen industry. I focused crafting a pitch to Chobani, the category leader in the yogurt industry.
Narrow Path, Broad Applications
Though I had a very specific path to walk for my project — create an alternative material for Chobani’s yogurt containers to replace the plastic they use — I was also mindful that my success in this endeavor could eventually have wide-ranging applications. Yogurt containers are made from plastic #5, polypropylene (PP). This is the same plastic used in most rigid plastic food containers, diapers, automotive parts, and medical prescription bottles. By complete coincidence, polypropylene is also the type of plastic used in non-woven materials that are used to make disposable wipes, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks and gowns, and most medical supplies in healthcare settings such as syringes, medical devices, and IV bags.
This synchronicity allowed me to tie my project to a timely issue — COVID-19. That’s not surprising because biomimicry is meant to do exactly this — solve a problem by looking to nature for a solution and then replicate the spirit of that solution in new ways. This is how nature problem solves, too: through iteration over time. At its core, biomimicry is a methodology that looks at challenges of all shapes and sizes and asks, “How might nature solve this?” Because of its broad scope and specific applications, biomimicry can be applied to a wide variety of issues from how to mitigate plastic waste to how to curb a global health pandemic to how to create a more just and equitable society.
Choose Your Passion
Big dreams are long-term projects. You will have to dedicate a lot of effort over a long period of time to bring them to life. For this capstone, the goal was to find a project that we would want to work on for the next 3–5 years. I found that passion in this project.
Big dreams are not accomplished all at once. They come into focus bit by bit with steady, sustained, and often slow progress.
Your dreams should light you up. They should motivate you to get up out of bed and try over and over again to make progress, often in the face of failure. You will encounter roadblocks and difficulties. There will be frustrations, wrong turns, and dead ends. You will persevere through all of that if you truly love the work.
Big dreams are not accomplished all at once. They come into focus bit by bit with steady, sustained, and often slow progress. Every step, however small, makes a contribution. Over time, those steps add up to a journey. Your only job is to make sure you choose a journey that’s meaningful to you.
In May 2020, I finished my capstone project, graduated from ASU, and launched the website beyondplastic.nyc. On that website, you can find my full research project, literature review, and a 4-minute video I created about my vision for a plastic-free world. I welcome your feedback and collaboration. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com with any questions or comments. I look forward to the conversation.
Christa Avampato is a writer and the founder of Double or Nothing Media in New York City. She is currently a graduate student in the Biomimicry Program at ASU.
Twitter: @christanyc | Instagram: @christarosenyc