Written by Tinia Pina
Understanding Urban Metabolism
Since I founded Re-Nuble, I have learned that linkages are borne out of the unlikeliest of places. A few years ago, I was sitting with my colleague, Ranjith Annepu, discussing an idea Karl Marx first introduced – urban metabolism. Urban metabolism studies cities as if they were organisms, which exchange materials and energy from their surroundings to sustain life. This concept was inspiring to both Ranjith and I because a majority of the human population now lives in cities. We both realized the significant potential our altruistic but entrepreneurial spirits could embark on here. Cities consume 75% of natural resources and create 80% of global GDP. Given the enormity of today’s challenges, understanding cities from an “urban metabolism” perspective gives us tools to account and monitor how we use natural resources and make sustainable changes where required. As the Founder of Be Waste Wise, Ranjith had just shared with me one of the theoretical backbones to support what I was then envisioning as my company, Re-Nuble.
"Urban metabolism studies cities as if they were organisms, which exchange materials and energy from their surroundings to sustain life."
Urban metabolism focuses on energy and material flows required to keep a city running. The visualization of these flows can be both breathtaking and horrifying, especially for a New Yorker like myself. Notice the massive spike that sits squarely over our city.
Connecting Food and Urban Metabolism
Like most New Yorkers, I figured I used a fraction of energy in my daily life compared to the average American. I took mass transit religiously, I kept my air conditioner off as much as possible to avoid ridiculous bills, and I recycled everything I could. Talking to Ranjith about urban metabolism, however, I realized what New Yorkers often fail to take into account – food. How does food affect urban metabolism?
Being a conscious eater, I readily made long commutes to get to stores that stock organic produce. I figured hopping on the train, using my recyclable bags, and consuming everything I purchased brought my carbon footprint down to a near minimum. Indeed, in many ways it did. However, our conversation made clear to me that while the final segment of my food’s journey – from store to my fridge – had a minimal environmental impact, everything it took to get the food there in the first place was not nearly as efficient.
To capture how food affects urban metabolism, let’s look at an example. In New York City, avocados are trucked in from Mexico, apples from upstate, bananas from the Caribbean, and so on. Stocks then have to be divided into fleets of smaller trucks that can actually travel over massive bridges into the City. Someone then has to unload the produce crate by crate onto some of the busiest streets of the world, where another set of people then stock some of the busiest stores in the world, where some of the busiest people in the world then cram together to actually purchase the food. Add in all of the computers, servers, companies and personnel to complete these processes, and it quickly became apparent that even New Yorkers contributed to mass environmental degradation by simply staying healthy.
"It quickly became apparent that even New Yorkers contributed to mass environmental degradation by simply staying healthy."
Crafting a Solution Through Food Waste
I knew there had to be a better solution, so after six years of the corporate grind, I left to work full-time on my company, Re-Nuble. We are an agriculture technology company that uniquely converts food waste into high-quality organic fertilizer for soil-based and hydroponic farming. Our mission is to help communities and farms around the world reimagine food waste, by transforming them into an important renewable nutrient for closed-loop agriculture. Vegetative food waste that would otherwise be thrown out can be repurposed to grow… more food and conserve the natural resources being mined and extracted to produce petroleum-based fertilizers, thus reducing the effect of food on urban metabolism.
"Vegetative food waste that would otherwise be thrown out can be repurposed to grow… more food and conserve the natural resources being mined and extracted to produce petroleum-based fertilizers, thus reducing the effect of food on urban metabolism."
We’ve got a long way to go realizing this idealistic dream of local food sustainability. As soilless farming systems are increasingly being used in major urban areas, we see this as an opportunity to fix the urban metabolism problem through food. Our pelletized fertilizers and “nutrient delivery system” can be used for all soilless farm systems. It is Re-Nuble’s goal to make this kind of food autonomy the norm, not the exception.
Much like the theory of urban metabolism, we are founded on socially conscious issues in the midst of capitalistic markets. Re-Nuble is working to combine the strengths of both to make our city better and to help the average New Yorker live up to our reputation as some of most environmentally conscious people on earth.