Every so often I come across a book that makes it onto my “must read” list. It’s been a while, but William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things is one of those books. For people unfamiliar with McDonough’s work, he is an environmentalist, architect and designer who has designed a factory for Herman Miller, is designing housing in China, and has consulted with Ford, Nike, Dell and others. He has also designed products like eco-friendly textiles and McDonough wants us to fundamentally rethink the way we make things and what we think it means to be environmentally responsible.
McDonough and Braungart argue that one of the main problems is how we use materials, producing toxic waste during production, sequestering toxic chemicals in the products themselves, and then jettisoning those products as non-reusable toxic waste. Recycled materials are almost universally “downcycled” in their nomenclature. In other words, the typical lifecycle of a material is like this: pull raw oil out of the earth. In a toxic and polluting process, turn those polymers into PET bottles that have antimony (a poison with effects similar to arsenic) and phthalates (endocrine disrupter), both of which are harmful and though they leach into plastic bottles in levels below legal standards for drinking water, recent research has shown that even small amounts of endocrine disrupters (see also whyfiles) can have more far-reaching effects than previously considered. But it’s all okay, right, because we diligently recycle that stuff into bin next to our wastebasket and it comes back as another bottle right? No! I’ve been harping on that for a while, but we do not recycle plastics or most other materials if you take recycling to mean that we turn the material back into useful raw material. In fact, we turn plastic bottles into things like park benches and decking. And we turn those benches into landfill that takes thousands of years to break down. Similarly, the aluminum in cans is made out of two different alloys – the one on the top and the one on the sides. These get mixed together and downcycled into lower grade aluminum. You can never make another can top out of a recycled can.
So what do you do? Instead of using inherently unsafe materials and processes and then trying to clean up the toxic soup later, we need to create safe processes and materials that can be “upcycled”, that is reused infinitely without loss of quality. Sounds utopian, except that Braungart and McDonough are doing it over and over again in their design practices. For example, McDonough was commissioned to come up with an eco-friendly textile for a Swiss company. The company initially proposed a textile that would use recycled cotton and PET. But there are some problems with this from McDonough’s perspective:
- First, there are the materials. Cotton is the most damaging crop in the world to grow, using high levels of pesticides and causing great environmental damage. PET, as we’ve seen contains harmful chemicals
- Then there’s the product. It’s made of toxic materials and one has to wonder why were wear so many toxics.
- Finally, this is a one-hit wonder. Sure, it recycles PET, but that’s the end of the cycle. The product can never be recycled because it mixes incompatible materials that can’t be separated. It must be thrown “away” but, as McDonough says, there is no away anymore.
McDonough’s answer? He decided that they would create a product safe enough to eat. They analyzed thousands of materials and came up with a list of safe and sustainable ingredients. Furthermore, they did not mix biological and industrial products, since such mixed products can never be recycled. The textile company hesitated because the materials were relatively expensive. Eventually they decided to push ahead and a surprising thing happened – the final product was cheaper than the alternative because it had few ingredients to manage, did not require documenting, storing and managing toxic materials, and worker productivity was higher because they didn’t need to wear protective gear.
Waste is Food. Less Bad is Not Good Enough. Growth is Good.
So was the final product recyclable? No, not really. It was entirely biodegradable into absolutely safe components that could literally be used as “food” (that is, compost). McDonough says that environmental movements that look to make things less bad will ultimately fail, because less bad is not good enough. The goal must be to make things good. In an industrial society, industry believes in growth and deregulation, while environmentalists believe in slowing growth and mitigating the bad effects of industrial production. Efficiency is the watchword. McDonough points out, however, that just as there is no virtue in an efficient Nazi, there is no virtue in the efficient use and production of toxic products. In nature growth is good and even waste is good, because waste from one source is food for another. So the cherry tree grows and then wastes all those blossoms… which turn into compost and feed the grass and flowers that grow at the base of the cherry tree. That, McDonough says, should be our model for industrial production.
Again, it sounds utopian except for the fact that the book is replete with examples where McDonough, Braungart and others are putting just that into practice as in the case of the textile mentioned. McDonough does not want to give up industrial products. In some cases they are ecologically superior to natural products. For example, his first chapter is called “This book is not a tree”, which is to say that the entire object is made out of plastic. Paper of course calls for cutting down forests. Let’s say it’s made out of recycled paper or other fiber? Then it requires harsh bleaching processes or it ends up as a less satisfying read – flimsy grey pages with flecks of left-over material and ink from the original. Furthermore, few “paper” covers can be recycled because they typically have industrial products in the inks and wrapping. So McDonough has a vision for his book. Make it from non-toxic polymer that is nice and white, comfortable in the hand, and can be read in the tub and there’s no problem if you drop it in the water. Get the water real hot, though, and the ink can be washed off and reclaimed. And then the pages and cover, made from the same material, are mulched up and turned into the exact same product. Perpetually. Not cradle to grave, but cradle to cradle. Waste is food.
Not built to last.
McDonough argues that we are wrong to build products to last. All that usually means is that we have something that stays waste for a long long time. He finds it baffling that we take the most valuable substances (as well as the most toxic) and use them once then put them in the ground in a manner that does not allow for reclaiming them by any existing technology. Better is to build products that are safe, both in their production and during their lives, and efficient to produce. Above all, products that can be upcycled, that is reclaimed perpetually, and stay above the ground and useful. There is absolutely no reason that a grocery bag or iPod packaging should be built to last 50,000 years. There is no reason to use upholstery that will last 10,000 years and then put it in a car that will be retired in 10 or 20 years. A computer keyboard could be made of a material that will break down in 20 years. Why not? The eco-efficiency view wants us to create fewer and more durable products, but McDonough argues for an eco-effective approach where we build more and less durable items, but we make them safe, energy-efficient and upcyclable from cradle to cradle.
As a historian, I often think about how the carrying capacity of the planet has changed. Six hundred years ago, it would be unimaginable to think that we could live in a society of plenty where nobody had to die of famine and where we would see life expectancies of 70 years and more. Medieval Europeans believed that only in Eden had such a state existed and, furthermore, there was no reason for man to live hundreds of years like Noah and Methuselah. A short life sufficed to find salvation and a long life only served to encourage vice. As it turns out, they may have been right about that one – a long lifespan has given us the chance to use up a lot more resources per person, but hasn’t necessarily made us into better human being. In any case, though, we forget that at one time the wheeled plow was high tech and it created the possibility of feeding far more people. Similarly, changes in land tenure, the increased use of horses and so forth, made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people.
So I believe that McDonough is right. Faced with the alternatives, we can come up with products that are non-toxic. They will be infinitely upcycled if industrial products and just simply thrown “away” if they are biological products that can be simply composted. Under such conditions, what is to stop infinite growth? In a word: energy. Thus far, almost every shortage we have faced on the planet has been solved by throwing more energy at the problem. As we see the looming problem of climate change, though, we see that using more energy in the forms we currently use it is, in itself a problem. I have no doubt that if we can solve the energy question, we can shift to a planet of plenty where every necessary product is produced safely and sustainably. Some products, it’s true, might get prohibitively expensive, but for the most part we will see those as unnecessary. There is a limit to planetary population, certainly, but history has shown that we have no idea what that number is (and to some extent that’s a value judgement – can we plow up all wilderness in order to grow food?). But the energy question is one that is looming imminently. That’s the one part of the puzzle that McDonough doesn’t really address and that may be the fundamental problem. As he says, efficiency is not enough. A more efficient system just runs out of resources more slowly. Granted, energy is not on McDonough’s agenda – he designs products and buildings and does his best to make them energy efficient (that bad word again), but leaves it up to others to find sources of energy that are as eco-effective as McDonough’s designs.