The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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These yarns utilize non-toxic dyes derived from plant materials.
Image by Sharon Hoyer.

Sustainable Materials Cycles

When materials from the earth's crust, including metals and fossil fuels, are mined more rapidly than they are redeposited in the crust, they accumulate in the biosphere. In addition, manufacturing processes are causing many of the 100,000 chemicals in commercial use to accumulate in the biosphere. These materials from the crust and from manufacturing processes are known to cause a wide range of health impacts, including cancers, birth defects, endocrine disruption, and breathing disorders. They also cause climate change, acid rain, and other major ecosystem impacts.

Materials that are mined more rapidly than they can be safely redeposited in the earth's crust are systematically building up in the biosphere. Such materials include zinc, with an annual industrial flow eight times that of all natural flows, copper (twenty-four times), lead (twelve times), and chromium (five times). Largely due to fossil fuel use, industrial flows of carbon, the backbone of living systems, now dwarf natural flows, causing a dramatic increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and placing climatic stability at risk.

Synthetic compounds that are being produced more rapidly than they can be broken down by ecosystems are also systematically building up in the biosphere. Many of these compounds, including dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, and pesticides, have known Health impacts on people and other species, causing cancers, asthma, endocrine disruption, and many other illnesses. Thousands of other compounds almost certainly have similar impacts, but have never been properly studied.

There is no guarantee that ecosystems can survive the systematic buildup of any substance without significant effects. Therefore, we must extract and use materials in such a way that they do not systematically accumulate in the biosphere, any bioregion, or any ecosystem. We must also ensure that mining and manufacturing operations do not cause health impacts, and that mining and brownfield sites are completely restored.

Sustainable Materials Cycles emphasize materials which are highly abundant (nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, earth, sand, gravel, iron, caliche, hydrogen, silicon, titanium, aluminum, etc.), non-toxic, and which can be digested by ecosystems and eventually sequestered back in the crust. Enormous quantities of these materials already flow through the biosphere, making their industrial use potentially compatible with existing biogeochemical cycles.

Materials which are scarce, toxic, difficult to safely extract, or difficult to safely sequester can only be used in tightly controlled loops which do not leak into the biosphere. During all stages of extraction, manufacturing, and use, the number of types and the quantities of such compounds should be reduced. This can be done by substituting compounds (e.g. citrus-based solvents) or changing the design. Any remaining toxic compounds should be produced as needed on-site from non-toxic precursors and only used in products if they will be completely isolated and inert during the lifetime of the product.

When any toxic compounds are used, the product must be designed for takeback by the manufacturer so the compounds can be kept in a completely closed industrial loop. Under no circumstances can toxic compounds be released to air, water, or soil during any part of a product's lifecycle. With Sustainable Materials Cycles, humans and other species will have an opportunity to cleanse themselves of poisons. We may imagine chemical companies evolving to selling non-toxic processes and services, pesticide companies selling pest-control services, and Green Buildings with non-toxic carpets, furniture, and paints.

Resource Efficiency decreases both the overall flow of materials in the industrial economy and their inevitable leakage into the biosphere. This decreases the need for raw materials, making Sustainable Materials Cycles cheaper and more feasible.

Do not allow materials from the earth's crust and from society to systematically accumulate in the biosphere. Use materials which are highly abundant, non-toxic, and easily broken down by ecosystems. When their use is necessary, toxic or persistent compounds should be kept in tightly controlled loops and completely reclaimed at the end of a product's life. Promote resource efficiency to minimize the need for raw materials.

Examples of this pattern in action:

The Collins Almanor Forest: An Experiment in Sustainable Forestry
The Collins Almanor Forest (CAF), part of the resource base of Collins Pine Company, comprises about 95,000 acres located about 180 mile northeast of San Francisco. It straddles the transition of the Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range and the Southern Cascade Range. In 1993, the Collins Almanor Forest became the first industrial forestland in the U.S. to be certified for sustainable forestry under the Forest Stewardship Council standards. But the story begins almost 100 years ago…

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Collins Company



Raskin, Ilya. Phytoremediation of Toxic Materials: Using Plants to Clean Up the Environment. John Wiley and Sons. New York, NY. 1999.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling