Eco-Design Thinking

Editor’s note: The following column appeared in today’s Wanganui Chronicle to offer one more perspective on the ongoing issues with our waste water treatment plant. Is should be good for a laugh. 
Plant should work with nature, not against it.
Unlike most residents of Whanganui, I grew up around skunks. I’ve had skunks in my garbage. I’ve had skunks get into my food store while camping. Skunks had babies under my house once. And every dog I’ve ever owned has been skunked at some point in their lives. But never have I felt like I am living inside of a skunk…until now.

Whether it is opening the front door or opening the Wanganui Chronicle, I am constantly reminded of the continuing saga of the wastewater treatment facility at the heart of our malodorous melodrama. The commonly recommended remedy for a skunked dog is to wash it in tomato juice. If only our solution were as easy.
By most accounts, ‘fixing’ the problem will cost ratepayers on top of what we have already paid ‘experts’ to design, build and operate the facility. In slang usage, to skunk someone means to cheat them by failing to pay. In this case, however, it appears that ratepayers may be skunked by having to pay twice because of someone’s poorly done work whether that involved the design, the operation, or some protein discharge by industry. Someone made a mistake, but I see the problem as bigger than just finding someone to blame.
Instead of pointing the finger at ‘one of the above’ as others have in the pages of this paper over the last months, I’ll take a novel approach to the ‘problem’ by suggesting that the entire situation could have been avoided while dozens of local jobs could have been created if an eco-design perspective had been taken in the first place.
Eco-design is a large field with many slight variations, so I’ll focus on the work of two of the finest eco-designers on the planet: William McDonough and Michael Braungart. In their landmark book, Cradle to Cradle, the pair lay out their philosophy of “waste equals food” by promoting the idea that the mere concept of waste can be eliminated by designing systems in which the ‘waste’ of one process is the feedstock for another process. The same philosophy is held by Zero Emissions Research Initiatives (ZERI), which explains its perspective this way: “The common vision shared by the members of the ZERI family is to view waste as resource and seek solutions using nature’s design principles as inspiration.” (
From this perspective, protein discharges never would have entered the treatment plant as ‘waste’ because they would have been used by a secondary industry making a useful product and creating jobs. What we now face as a liability may have been made an asset that would both save ratepayers money and pay wages to local residents. The process of turning a ‘waste’ into a valuable product was depicted in one of the finest films of all time, Fight Club, where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) recovers fat from the bins outside a liposuction clinic to make soap that sells for a very handsome profit. Waste = Soap = Profits.

From an eco-design perspective, any system can be designed to work with nature instead of against it. In the vast majority of cases, the end result saves money and provides a higher quality of life for human beings. Cheaper. Healthier. Better for the environment. This is known as a win-win-win situation. Yet our community now faces the exact opposite. Expensive. Unhealthy. Polluting. Having lived in New Zealand for four and a half years I cannot claim to have a worldview of a native Kiwi. But from a North American perspective, I reckon we’ve been skunked.
Peace, Estwing

One thought on “Eco-Design Thinking”

  1. Hello NelsonYou mention Design Thinking in the post title but not in the body of the post, does this indicate that you do not actually mean the discipline of 'Design Thinking'?I feel that applying Design Thinking using Holmgens permacutlure principles is the ultimate way to design resilient systems whether they be food production systems, invisible structures, waste water managment systems or just as an approach to wicked problemsHave a read about Design Thinking as a subject on wikipedia. I think you will find it very interesting/useful. I believe the marrying of Design Thinking and Permaculture principles is the way forward for permauclture design also have a post on Households (Zone: 0) as part of the hydrological cycle ideal and reality that shows how corporations masquerading as municipal entities steal our water and give us an inferior product whilst at the same time poluting our environment and charging us for the privilege which others designers may find useful Excellent blog, keep up the good work

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