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Book Review and Highlights: Cradle to Cradle -William McDonough & Michael Braungart
My current focus is to learn as much as possible about sustainable design, share my explorations with Sherwood Institute Blog readers, and hopefully inspire those following my blog to travel down a similar path of learning and implementing green strategies in their work.
I heard William McDonough speak at West Coast Green 2010. His speech was one of the most inspiring of the conference and I knew that I wanted to read more about his and co-author Michael Braungart’s philosophies on design. I wasn’t disappointed! Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart should be required reading for anyone involved in design, if not for the general public.
This book on “re-making the way we make things” is a motivating reference that focuses on the necessity of designers to change their common approach to product development. It is possible – and even essential – that we begin creating products that are good for the environment, not just “less bad.”
For example, instead of just aspiring to create a car that has zero emissions, car makers could begin designing “nutri-vehicles” which would release emissions that are actually good for the environment and its inhabitants. The average car releases about four-fifths of a gallon of water vapor for every gallon of fuel the car burns. What if that water was captured and re-used?
I want to focus this post on my three favorite concepts from Cradle to Cradle: that we can create a world of abundance, that waste equals food, and that products of service can be a useful way to make goods which are more eco-conscious.
First of all, a world of abundance refers to a planet filled with products that celebrate culture, improve the economy, and have ecological benefits. How wonderful would it be if environmentalists and industrialists could both encourage vehicle production, because old cars could be 100% recycled, and new “nutri-vehicles” would not only not pollute, but would also purify the air and provide drinking water.
As someone who loves nature and wants to protect it, I really like the idea that I don’t necessarily need to make sacrifices such as driving less, buying less, and not having children. We need to foster a society where all professionals have the same aspirations so that skills can come together to create a world of economic prosperity while safeguarding our culture and resources for future generations.
Waste equals food refers to the re-using of materials so that all waste is used to make an improved product or is returned to earth where it can benefit natural systems. “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.” (Page 104). McDonough and Braungart suggest that this can be accomplished by dividing materials into two categories, biological nutrients and technical nutrients. Biological nutrients are all products that can safely biodegrade and even improve soil as it decomposes. Technical nutrients are all materials from old products that can be unassembled and reused as raw materials for improved goods. It is important that biological and technical nutrients be kept separate so that the entire product can be disposed of to enrich the planet, or returned to manufacturers who can “up-cycle” the product into a new product of the same nature.
The authors of Cradle to Cradle actually created a prototype of a technical nutrient in the printing of their book. It is printed on synthetic paper made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers with water-based ink. Not only were no trees harmed for the printing of this book, but the after products can also be recycled over and over again as “paper” for new books. Although paper made from trees is recyclable, it needs to undergo extensive chemical processes to make it ready for re-use; these often toxic procedures also produce a product which is not as high quality as the original.
In order for products to stay in their respective biological or technical cycles, the authors introduced the concept of products of service. I love this idea! Instead of companies selling products that are bought, used, and then disposed of, what if manufactures instead sold them as services?
For example, a washing machine could be bought for 2,000 wash-cycles, then returned to the manufacturer who would be happy to take it back to acquire the raw materials for newly-designed machines. The consumer would be excited to receive the latest machine and begin a new “lease.” This idea can be taken even further to include soap with the washing machine service. McDonough and Braungart inform us that only about 5% of soap used for washing clothes is actually used in the wash cycle. What if the soap could be re-used internally? Manufacturing, packaging and shipping new detergent would no longer be necessary. By developing products of service, technical nutrients could remain in the technical cycle instead of “dying” in a landfill. Designers would develop products that could be easily disassembled and re-used.
I would highly recommend Cradle to Cradle to anyone interested in sustainability. It’s an easy read that starts to get the mind’s gears turning and thinking about designing products that are truly positive for our planet and our own health. How cool would it be that if instead of leaving a detrimental ecological footprint, we instead left a footprint that actually helped our environment? It is indeed possible so let’s begin doing it!
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