Mimicking Marshes: Exploring Wetlands’ Restorative Nature

By Lisa Pellegrino – Strategic Partnerships Manager at TerraCycle 

With World Wetlands Day fast approaching on February 2nd, let’s look into why these precious ecosystems are so celebrated and explore their restorative nature. Resources are constantly cycling around in the natural world, but what makes a wetland so special that it gets its own holiday? It’s a near-perfect example of a system that gives back more than it takes. 

Established in 1997, World Wetlands Day aims to build awareness around the multitude of benefits wetlands provide, ranging from climate control to freshwater systems, to driving jobs creation and stimulating the global economy.

Defined as areas of land flooded by water either seasonally or permanently, wetlands are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. The importance of biodiversity is not to be understated here, as it goes hand-in-hand with resilience; when monocultures prevail, one species can wipe out entire crops on farms, or other organisms in a given area.

What do wetlands have to do with recycling?

Recycling is a human activity that solves for the human problem of waste, emphasizing reuse, repurposing, and recovery, mimicking nature. Like nature at large, every part of a wetland serves a purpose, and all organisms and plants have a use.

There are different types of wetlands, the varieties of which include marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. All of them provide a myriad of invaluable ecosystem services. Providing critical habitat for wildlife and incubators for biodiversity, wetlands act as buffers from storms and floods.

They also serve a similar function as our kidneys in their ability to remove toxins and purify water. Sediment, toxins, and nutrients (one plant’s toxins may be another organism’s nutrients!) are absorbed and stored by soil and plants, working in tandem.  Wetlands are the original Brita filters of Earth’s waterways (which, by the way, are nationally recyclable through the brand’s free program with us). 

Sustainable vs. Regenerative

Sustainability is the ability to exist in perpetuity. In its most basic terms, it’s about not taking out more than you put back in. Whether it’s nutrients from the soil or money in your bank account, for a system to be sustainable there must be more going in then coming out.

A level up, systems that are regenerative create more beneficial outputs than inputs; the natural world’s default operating system is one that is inherently restorative and regenerative. While we may consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolutionary intelligence, life on Earth has had a 3.5 billion year head start solving for some of our most pressing challenges, so we stand to learn a thing or two from nature’s intelligent design. 

How does a leaf harness sunlight and convert it into energy? How is one oyster able to filter up to 30 gallons of water a day? The answers to these questions can lead us to more efficient and effective ways of doing things.

An emerging field of study known as biomimicry or biophilic design looks to nature for inspiration and guidance when solving common challenges. Examples include a building that generates more energy than it uses, like the Bullitt Center in Seattle, one of the largest “net positive” buildings in the world. Another example of regenerative design in action is the Rohner Textile Mill in Switzerland, which uses an industrial process where the water leaving the facility is cleaner than the town’s water supply.

Designing differently to align with nature

So, what does a regenerative system for packaging look like? How might we design products and the wrapping they come in to be restorative at end-of-use? Some might point to “plantable” packaging, where there are seeds embedded in the material, or edibles like startups Loliware and Bakeys, which produce edible straws and cutlery, respectively. 

Designing human systems so they are more like wetlands and leaving things better than we found them, can help us live in greater harmony with nature. TerraCycle’s national recycling programs mimic nature by keeping finite materials cycling around, versus the dominant linear model of consumption where we take, make, then waste. 

Better still, through our Points Program, participants have the added incentive to not only recycle for free, but to earn points redeemable for a donation to the school or charity of choice.

We are surrounded by elegant, closed-loop systems in the natural world. Nature has no landfills or incinerators, so how can we re-harmonize? By looking at how the diverse plant life and soil work together in wetlands, we can integrate those lessons into how we produce, consume, and pass on resources. 

Because after all, we are part of nature, not separate.
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