If you’re a CleanTechnica reader, even a young pup, you probably know about the difference between the linear economy we have (“take-make-waste”) and the circular economy we want. While the linear economy has a cradle-to-grave worldview, the circular economy aims for a regenerative, cradle-to-cradle perspective: designing products so that at end of life, they can become the feedstocks for other products. It’s how nature works, after all.
You know how Elon Musk popularized electric cars so that they weren’t the exclusive purview of ecologically-minded enthusiasts? Well, Cradle to Cradle made industrial ecology and the circular economy a lot more mainstream than they had previously been. They’re both still niche notions, but without Cradle to Cradle they’d be a lot more obscure. And if you’re interested in sustainability, the book (or at a minimum this summary!) is required reading.
The book was written about twenty years ago by William McDonough, a former university dean of architecture who received the highest environmental award in the US in 1996 (the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development). His co-author Michael Braungart was a former director of chemistry for Greenpeace.
They created MBDC (McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry) in 1995, and have worked with an assortment of Fortune 500 companies. Their most famous project is probably the turn-of-the-millennium redesign of Ford’s River Rouge facility.
Now, this light-hearted (but hopefully insight-heavy) summary isn’t meant to be a replacement for reading the book. It’s more a breezy attempt to pique readers into wanting to purchase a copy, or at a minimum borrow one from their local library, and is adapted from a document I wrote for our workplace business book club about eight years ago.
So, let’s dive in!
Introduction: This book is not a tree
Almost everything we make is made to be thrown away. Even recyclable objects (e.g. pop bottles) are typically only downcycled once or twice (e.g. jackets, shopping bags) en route to the landfill or incinerator.
Regular books are made of paper and ink. Paper is usually downcycled, not recycled, and most inks contain trace amounts of heavy metals. Perhaps not coincidentally, the authors’ follow-up is called The Upcycle.
In the spirit of walking the talk, the authors had the book made using a polymer. So not only is it waterproof, but when buyers’ great-grandkids are done with it, the tome can be melted down and the polymer recovered for another use. Isn’t that cool?
Chapter 1: A question of design
Virtually all industrial products are based on the “throw-away” model of cradle-to-grave thinking. But nature operates on a cradle-to-cradle model. (e.g. deer eat plants which convert deer droppings into more plants for more deer.) Nothing gets thrown away — frankly, because there’s no “away” to throw things!
So sold items can be generally thought of as “products, plus.” They serve a function, and deliver bonus side effects. Examples include tin cans, which contain trace amounts of BPA. Or bottled water, which may contain trace amounts of antimony (a heavy metal used in the plastic’s polymerization process).
Companies would be advised to think of what “bonus” side effects their products might produce over their lifecycle. In the ever-popular EV scene, there’s a lot of effort to “lightweight” cars (fancy way of saying “making them lighter”) using aluminum, high-strength steel alloys, and carbon fiber. Thinking from a cradle-to-cradle terms, one wonders which the preferred choice is.
Aluminum is pure – it doesn’t need to be separated from other metals – so recycling would probably be easier than for high-strength steel, for which you would want to smelt and separate the different metals. That said, both can be fully recycled into equivalent uses on the second go-round.
Carbon fiber reinforced plastics (like those used in the BMW i3) are the lightest of all, but plastics are notoriously hard to recycle; they almost always get downcycled. CFRPs might still be the best choice even if reincarnated as filler for countertops or plastic park benches, but that’s a pretty dramatic downcycle, eh? As you can see, these considerations are rarely easy. But then, few worthwhile things in life are; the challenge is what makes them worthwhile!
In good news, CleanTechnica reported a few years ago that SunPower had achieved cradle-to-cradle certification for some of its solar panels. A list of C2C-certified consumer products can be found here.
Chapter 2: Why being “less bad” is no good
Reducing, reusing and recycling only slow down the rate of increase in the accumulation of industrial waste into natural systems. Our goal should be to reduce the absolute levels, not slow the rate of increase. That requires redesign from the ground up.
The chapter argues regulations on pollution are a license to harm in return for providing societal benefits, and suggests regulations which combine carrot and stick might be more effective at spurring private sector innovation.
Zero Emission Vehicle purists, rejoice – the authors will almost certainly agree with your desire to getting people out of combustion vehicles, even conventional hybrids, and even plug-in hybrids, and into fully zero-emission transport! That said, don’t get too cocky, because the authors would probably be even more in favour of redesigning cities from the ground up to encourage more transit, car-sharing and bicycle use!
Chapter 3: Eco-effectiveness
The authors suggest new products be designed to align with existing natural services. A grass roof on a factory will temporarily soak up 1 inch of rainfall, meaning the builders may not need to design a storm water drainage system. It will also insulate the roof, reducing heating/cooling costs, and provide food & habitat for various species. How do they know this? Remember in the introductory bio how I mentioned they redesigned Ford’s River Rouge factory…?
This idea of aligning products with their local environment appeals to me, perhaps because I enjoy the whole “flow with nature” ethos of east Asian philosophy (and product design!). Unfortunately, the side effect is that the more customization you offer, the harder it is to scale your solution. (There’s a reason the Model T Ford was only offered in black!)
So there’s a creative tension there, between one-size-fits-all and tailored-to-fit. That said, mastering that tension is where humans’ genius shines through.
Chapter 4: Waste equals food
In nature, waste equals food. So the authors propose designing products which easily separate into biological nutrients (food for natural systems) or technical nutrients (food for industrial systems).
They worked with a fabric company (DesignTex) to create a seat material made entirely from wool and plant-based polymers and additives, so it could fully biodegrade at end of life. Regulators discovered the factory effuent was cleaner than the influent: it inherently did not need regulation! So, the next time your right-wing uncle talks about how terrible regulations are, use DesignTex as an example of how DesignTex made regulation obsolete. Maybe that’ll make him look upon the green economy with new eyes!
An important lesson they learned was that in the textile sector, additives are often needed to counter the side effects of other additives. Using a cheap dye meant adding a UV-blocker to prevent fading, and another additive was needed to avoid the negative side-effects of the UV-blocker, etc. Like the mythical hydra, solving one problem the wrong way, often created another.
In the modern context, adding ever-more lanes of traffic in California didn’t solve congestion, and has recently prompted the idea of kluging on an extensive, expensive tunnel network to counter the additional single-occupant-vehicle traffic caused by the prior highways expansions. Having just been in Tokyo, commuting during rush hour, let me emphasize that you’d need dozens — maybe hundreds — of levels of underground tunnels to replace commuter trains. And then dozens more levels of parking above or below those!
The authors write that until the 19th century, people (i.e. Londoners) threw their wastes into the street, being unaware of sanitation principles. But 4500 years ago the Harappa settlement in India already had covered sewers! How exactly did the British colonize the world, again? 🤔
Chapter 5: Respect diversity
This chapter builds on Chapter 3, arguing that the best solutions are those which are adapted to the local environment. If you design for the worst-case, you wind up totally overdesigning for the other 99% of cases. And while that might be a smart strategy for smartphones, it might not be smart for, say, standards.
I haven’t looked at them for years, but LEED standards used to give out points for planting drought-resistant plants. That’s a smart thing to do in the US sun belt and many other parts of the world, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for cities in the Pacific Northwest, which are generally situated in rainforests! I’m sure that when the standards get revised, this oversight will be corrected, if it hasn’t been already.
As a former fuel cell engineer, I have to beg your indulgence for mentioning that cogeneration fuel cells – on which I worked for several years, and which sell 50,000+ units per year in Japan — get a mention on page 133.
Chapter 6: Putting eco-effectiveness into practice
Here, the authors offer five guiding principles for leading redesign efforts. So if ever you’ve got the good fortune of being able to lead a redesign effort (or even if you just happen to be on a team working on a product redesign), sister, this chapter’s for you!
– Signal your intention: make clear that a redesign will happen, and not just tweaking
– Restore: ensure products, buildings and communities nourish the locale
– Innovate further: radical redesign can create bigger markets than tweaking
– Prepare for the learning curve: expect potholes
– Exert intergenerational responsibility: take the long view
That’s all for now. Next up will be a summary of probably the awesomest business autobiography you will ever have a chance to read (or have summarized for you)!