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Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

December 3, 2009

Book cover for cradle to cradleCradle to Cradle (by William McDonough and Michael Braungart) came out in 2002. Cool people read it and then tossed around words like “downcycle” and “technical nutrients*.” I figured that since I wanted to be cool, I should read the book too so I could learn what those terms actually meant. So I did. (Kelsey knew what they meant already, even though she hadn’t read the book. But that’s beside the point.)

The main principle behind Cradle to Cradle is that we should design products in order to eliminate waste, not just reduce it. To explain this concept, the authors ask readers to “consider the cherry tree:

…thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans and other animals, in order that one put might eventually fall onto the ground, take root and grow. Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, ‘How inefficient and wasteful!’ The tree makes copious blossoms and fruits without depleting its environment. Once they fall on to the ground their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its “product” than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure or, in business terms, R&D), to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree’s fecundity nourishes just about everything around it.”

In other words, economic growth and productivity don’t have to be at odds with environmental health and proper stewardship—just look at the cherry tree. We can celebrate our ability to make lots and lots of stuff, so long as we rethink how we make them. If the products we make actually improve the environment when we throw them away, then consumerism can be a positive force for our planet.

To prove their point, McDonough and Braungart describe a project they led back in the early 1990s to create a wheelchair seat cover that was safe enough to eat.

To accomplish this dubious feat (actually the aim was to make it 100% compostable), the authors refrained from using 8,000 harmful chemicals and materials that are known to cause all sorts of problems yet are commonly used in the textile business. Instead, they chose alternatives from a list of natural fibers that provided cushioning, insulation and moisture-wicking properties. Eliminating certain dyes (including the popular dyes that were part of those 8,000 chemicals) also eliminated the need for caustic chemicals that kept those dyes inert (colorfast). McDonough and Braungart eventually chose 38 ingredients that had positive properties—although the authors don’t go into detail, I assume they meant that the ingredients would be good for a compost pile.

The new fabric actually solved multiple problems at once. Since the mill that made the fabric was no longer using hazardous chemicals, they could stop filling out regulatory paperwork for the hazardous chemicals, stop setting aside space to store the hazardous materials, stop requiring workers to wear masks and gloves for protection against caustic chemicals, and stop disposing of its fabric trimmings as if they were hazardous waste—hazardous waste that we are allowed to sit on and have in our home, by the way. Not only was the new fabric biodegradable, it was ultimately cheaper to make than the old fabric. (An official case study unrelated to the book discusses this here.)

As an added bonus, because nothing hazardous went into the textiles, nothing hazardous came out of the mill. When regulators checked the mill’s discharge pipes, the water coming out was as clean as the water coming into the plant in the first place. (Actually, it was potentially cleaner since there were some elements present in the inflow that were no longer present in the outflow.)

With such cool examples sprinkled throughout the book, one could easily forget that the book’s primary take home message is that we’ll be in a whole lotta trouble if we continue to buy stuff that we just throw away. That may be why the authors made sure to start things off on a bleak note—the first chapter is a depressing catalogue of all the stuff in our homes that will likely kill us.

Nevertheless, the authors avoid playing the blame game. They let us (the readers) off the hook by saying that it’s really not our fault that we do things the way we do. They explain that the evolution of how we design and build stuff (dating back to the industrial revolution) has been a logical series of steps designed to improve our lives. It’s just unfortunate that those steps have led us to such an illogical and unfortunate place. They do follow up by saying that since we now know there’s another way, it IS our fault if we don’t do anything to change. (Ok, so maybe they’re not entirely free from finger-pointing.)

The book is well worth the read, and the authors present a compelling case of how we can choose something other than a monastic existence if we want to do right by our environment. Even if you’re already hip, reading Cradle to Cradle will make you cooler.

* “Downcycle” is the term used when products are “recycled” but are used to make products of lower quality or value—e.g. when cars are melted down as a whole and reused as lower grade steel instead of first separating the various components from one another and reusing the high-grade steel as high-grade steel. “Technical nutrients” are the materials we use to make things, such as metal, plastics, chemicals and other non-biodegradable stuff (as opposed to biological nutrients such as leather, wool and cotton). Technical nutrients are lost forever when a product is tossed into a landfill since they won’t biodegrade. McDonough and Braungart recommend that designers make products so that these technical nutrients can be pulled out of a product and reused in future products.

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