Submitted for your approval: a world where smart phones last for an unusually long period of time due to their durability and nearly timeless style. When you do decide to upgrade, you scan the instructions (because what man completely reads instructions?) and notice that your new phone is made entirely from old phones and other electronic equipment.
Not 4% post-consumer recyclables, not 16% recycled tungsten, but 100% previously used gadgetry.
You’ve entered the Upcycle Zone.
This is a world that William McDonough, an architect, and Michael Braungart, a chemist, not only dream of, but actively work to realize.
Most of our “stuff” is designed to be consumed or used and then cast away.
For the most part, the current paradigm for design, manufacture, and use is cradle to grave. Consumer goods (and the resources to make them) are meant to be used—some longer than others—and then discarded. After that we’re off to the store to buy a new product, perhaps a shinier version of the thing we just sent off to the landfill or incinerator.
McDonough and Braungart note in Cradle to Cradle that our landfills are filled with “old furniture, upholstery, carpets, televisions, clothing, shoes, telephones, computers, complex products, and plastic packaging, as well as organic materials like diapers, paper, wood, and food wastes. Most of these products were made from valuable materials that required effort and expense to extract and make billions’ of dollars’ worth of material assets. The biodegradable materials such as food, matter, and paper actually have value too—they could decompose and return to biological nutrients to the soil.”
This is how the industrial and even post-industrial model works. Most of our “stuff” is designed to be consumed or used and then cast away. Of course, this doesn’t even take into account the cost to the landscape during the extraction and manufacturing process.
The authors demonstrate that the cradle to grave worldview is employed through the entirety of the product lifecycle—starting with the design to the eventual (and almost certain) demise of the product. However, they aren’t simply concerned with bloated landfills, but also with the use of toxic substances in the production of various goods.
Why do we make things that off-gas toxins or contain substances that must be contained at the end of the product’s lifecycle in the first place, McDonough and Braungart question.
The Industrial Revolution certainly brought benefits to millions of people, yet aside from the exploitation of child labor opposed during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries in the West, many of the negative effects of this worldwide change are ignored or glossed over.
The industrial worldview has taken hold of our imaginations and forced us to look at reality through its eyes. For instance, in seeing the good of universal design we’re unable to see how this has ignored or overwhelmed natural and cultural diversity. Our agricultural processes have followed the same model and left us shortsighted about soil erosion and the continual dependence on commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
Economics has also been infected with a myopic way of seeing. One way of measuring economic progress is through GDP (Gross Domestic Product). However, this measures only naked economic activity: consumers and companies buying goods and services. So, not only is Black Friday considered a good, but so is divorce, funeral expenses, and the medical costs associated with treating people wounded in crimes or terrorist attacks or who contracted cancer through all the toxins leaching from the products we purchase.
This shortsightedness leads to what the authors term “crude products,” observing “The design intention behind the current industrial infrastructure is to make an attractive product that is affordable, meets regulations, performs well enough, and lasts long enough to meet market expectations. Such a product fulfills the manufacturer’s desires and some of the customers’ expectations as well. But from our perspective, products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant.”
This “good enough” approach is off-gassing all kinds of carcinogens and teratogens (agents capable of causing birth defects) in everyday products made by manufacturers we’re all familiar with. Not only are we possibly (probably?) poisoning ourselves today, but we are, as McDonough and Braungart assert, committing intergenerational tyranny: using up resources in a decidedly unmindful way and releasing toxins into various ecosystems to remain for decades, even centuries to come.
Some people and corporations, of course, want to do better. They want to do less harm, create less waste, craft longer-lasting quality goods. This is beneficial for the bottom line, after all. Efficiency is one of those substances that grease the wheels of business.
Less bad, however, isn’t good enough.
Less cancer, less stuff in landfills, less pollution is good as far as it goes. But, eco-efficiency, as the authors call it, is just more of the same way of doing things, only with less. McDonough and Braungart don’t want less; they want abundance, but healthy abundance for all species.
Efficiency has its place, but to be excessively concerned with it, to make it the greatest good is one facet of what Pope John Paul II coined the culture of death.
For at least two or three decades now, society has offered the four Rs as a solution to our ecological crisis: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Regulate.
- Reduction doesn’t halt the depletion of resources or the despoiling of the earth; it merely stalls it. It only takes a tiny amount of mercury in the wrong place to create serious problems for animals and people. Small doses of endocrine disruptors compound over time the way we currently use them. Small isn’t always beautiful.
- Reusing goods seems benign, but that often only means delaying the trashing of a product or transferring toxins to someone else’s neighborhood.
- Recycling, again, we’re taught is a positive action we can take to “save the earth,” but really what happens is known as downcycling. The quality of technical nutrients usually degrades during processing and reprocessing. Toilet paper isn’t made from the finest quality paper (if you couldn’t tell) and water and pop bottles are usually turned into speed bumps and park benches, not more bottles. Sometimes, the deconstruction process only makes things more toxic for human use.
- Lastly, the authors see regulations as half measures. Regulation is required because people act wrongly; it attempts to reduce harm or punish criminal action. There is no regulation for innovation! They call it “a signal of design failure…a license to harm…at an acceptable rate.”
In Cradle to Cradle McDonough and Braungart state that “the key is not to make human industries and systems smaller … but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world.”
They use the examples of cherry trees and ants to demonstrate how creation simultaneously takes and gives back—generally in some kind of equilibrium.
Our planetary ecosystem is closed. According to the authors, “Nothing goes in or out…except for heat and the occasional meteorite.” This is why what we do now affects those who come even much later after us. Everything we need for life—technical nutrients (metals, minerals, and synthetics) to make all our tools and gadgets and biological nutrients (plants, animals, bacteria) are all that we have. Whatever we make doesn’t simply disappear but ends up in the system somewhere and in some form…. To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things—products, packaging, and systems—from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.”
That means “[p]roducts can be composed either of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles, or of technical materials that stay in closed-loop technical cycles, in which they continually circulate as valuable nutrients for industry.”
This prevents mutagens, carcinogens, persistent toxins, and other substances from collecting in our ecosystems, much less our bodies and the bodies of our offspring.
Wendell Berry (see STAND 01) insists that the word “environment” makes the natural world seem “out there” and separate from us, as if we aren’t part of any ecosystems. McDonough and Braungart (and many others) point out that whatever we put in the system—the water, the soil, the air—is going to affect us sooner or later. Or perhaps not us, but people downstream. Whether leaching heavy metals in the earth or excess pharmaceutical chemicals in our water—they don’t just disappear.
Published thirteen years ago, the ideas in Cradle to Cradle were not some quirky green-washing marketing scheme meant to make a few bucks and then forgotten six months later. In fact, Braungart and McDonough have worked with some major corporations to implement their ideas, including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Berkshire Hathaway’s Shaw Industries, Ford, Cherokee (an environmental investment fund), and the Chinese company Goodbaby.
Through their Cradle to Cradle Product Certification, McDonough and Braungart help companies envision how their products and services can contribute to a better world. Naturally, if a product can’t make money then there’s no reason to manufacture it, but ecological health figures significantly.
They have called for companies to examine their supply chains to eliminate toxic “nutrients” and if none can be found they then push to innovate change.
In 2013’s The Upcycle the authors admit that “It wasn’t always easy to find a suitable substitute whose performance was comparable. And here we come upon one of the biggest hindrances to redesign—in fact, for the most part, the reason industry has long continued to use hazardous materials. It is not out of some dastardly indifference to the environment or worker health. Designers choose these materials or substances because they perform so well, with few (and sometimes no) nonhazardous, cost-comparable, performance-comparable substitutes that the companies know about. Finding a substitute takes work and time.”
In addition to working with leading companies to solve design problems, they have also approached municipalities about capturing phosphate from sewage treatment centers to sell as fertilizer to local farmers. They have suggested harvesting another by-product of sewage—methane—and selling that as a biogas. This process helps pay for capital improvements as well as saving farmers the cost of importing phosphate from faraway locales and it completes a cycle the authors dubbed “waste as food.”
During the years between the publishing of the books, people asked the two partners about moving beyond manufacturing into creating a Cradle to Cradle fuel source or upcycling energy. Always asking “What’s next?” they set an ideal for “energy extracted in the cleanest manner possible; and that we use energy that is ever replenishing.”
The question became how can we as humans capture the best resources? How can we collect needed energy “without literally and figuratively depleting the forest?”
Again using metaphors from nature they cite the example of a single goat or an apple. Consume either, like currency, and it’s gone. However, with a herd of goats or an apple orchard, treating it like capital, something to be invested, either could potentially last “forever.”
Extending that metaphor to sunlight, in its current form and its ancient form of fossil fuels, they suggest that fossil fuels are capital and light streaming from our star is currency that we should be spending.
Carbon is presently seen as a problem and yet it necessitates all life. We should steward it, not spew it haphazardly. So fossil fuels should be spent in emergencies or for the highest priority situations, such as medical development.
We have a cost-free fusion reactor now in our midst—or only 93 million miles away. That is our self-replenishing system.
Not only sunlight, but wind energy is local to every place and presents a number of design options. We already use the sun for light and breezes for cooling, why not expand their reach?
McDonough and Braungart cite the example of flooding the Brazilian rainforest as a way to generate hydroelectricity. Unfortunately, the wood and other plants began to rot in the deluge and created methane, spilling greenhouse gases and effectively cancelling the offset attempted by hydropower. Hydrosulfides sprang from the rot corroding dam turbines and killing aquatic life. No trees were cut and money was saved, but ultimately to what end?
“There is no more delightfully serious function in life and in business than to create joy.”
This is where the authors insist on adaptation and flexibility in designing systems. What’s needed is a “humble approach combining small solutions that add up to something huge.”
Why not use existing infrastructure, from rooftops to highways, to capture solar energy? Michael Braungart suggested that Europeans put wind turbines on power transmission towers to minimize visual blight and build on the previously placed infrastructure.
William McDonough saw the public right-of-ways that lie on both sides of a railroad track as an excellent spot to install renewable power systems. After all, there are 14,000 miles of easements sitting idle.
Perhaps the U.S.-Mexican border can host something besides fences. Make it a giant solar collector, they say. It would help both countries. “Upcycling relationships,” they write. “Renewable friendship.”
The idea of the Upcycle Zone, a world where poisons are buried in the silt of your local river, of taking goods that are no longer working or wanted and having them transformed into a new, quality product instead of lying in the bottom of your trash can isn’t science fiction. At least not as far as William McDonough and Michael Braungart can conceive.
“We are working with light bulb companies as part of their product creation programs to strategize so components can later become anything from a bicycle part to a nutrient in the biosphere, or even … another light bulb.”
Their books are about pushing us to be our best. To always ask “What’s next?” To follow nature’s pattern of creating life and food from waste. Of harnessing existing energy sources like wind and sunlight. They even go beyond many environmentalists in calling for safer and pleasant working conditions for all workers, both blue and white collar.
As they write, “There is no more delightfully serious function in life and in business than to create joy.” Clearly they see hope and possibility now and in not-so-distant future. Not just for Western democracies, but for all people and all living things.