KIA Open Road
Cradle-To-Cradle, An Interview With William McDonough
Architect William McDonough, along with his co-author and chemist Michael Braungart, are leading an environmental movement and design strategy called “cradle-to-cradle,” which offers a far more intelligent solution to recycling than the very harmful and outdated “cradle to grave” model we inherited from the Industrial Revolution.
“At its deepest foundation,” they write in their book Cradle To Cradle, “the industrial infrastructure we have today is linear: it is focused on making a product and getting it to a customer as quickly and cheaply without considering much else.”
When the consumer is done with the product, they throw it away. And where is “away?” Even “away” has gone away. And recycling, which they call “down-cycling,” isn’t very effective in its current state. In most cases it merely postpones a material’s arrival at a landfill. “Being less bad,” they write, “is no good.”
In the cradle-to-cradle strategy, the concept of waste is eliminated—“not reduce, minimize, or avoid waste as environmentalists were propounding, but eliminate the very concept, by design.” This means creating circular systems of manufacturing that are fed materials that are either “biological nutrients” (natural materials that can be returned to nature without harming the environment) and “technical nutrients” (materials that cause no harm to the environment to create, and can be returned to the manufacturing process infinitely).
The book itself is a perfect example of the cradle-to-cradle strategy at work: it is not made of paper. No trees were used to create it. Its cover and pages are all made of plastic. It feels slightly different, smoother, and perhaps a little heavier, but there’s nothing unpleasant about it. It’s a book. It’s waterproof, even. And unlike down-cycling a traditional book, which requires a lot of energy and toxic chemicals to extract the useable materials from in a downgraded form, the plastic book can be recycled infinitely. It can be returned to the printer, who can melt it down and make another book with the material and not lose any quality in the process. That book, in turn, can also be recycled and returned the system, ad infinitum.
It’s high time we look at what we’ve done and what we’re doing and try to correct the mistakes we’ve made and vigorously implement the strategies outlined in Cradle To Cradle. Because we’re not getting any better.
“One might say that the Titanic was not only a product of the Industrial Revolution,” they write, “but remains an apt metaphor for the industrial infrastructure that revolution created. Like that famous ship, this infrastructure is powered by brutish and artificial sources of energy that are environmentally depleting. It pours waste into the water and smoke into the sky. It attempts to work by its own rules, which are contrary to those of nature. And although it may seem invincible, the fundamental flaws in its design presage tragedy and disaster.”
Let’s talk about the book itself first because I think it’s—as you intended—emblematic of the ideas within it. I showed it to a friend and kind of explained that it’s made of plastics that can be recycled an endless number of times. “Isn’t that great?” I asked. To which she responded, “Well why don’t you just recycle normal books?” How would you explain how your book and its “technical nutrients” are different?
The idea of the book was to stimulate people’s thinking and it begged exactly the kind of question your friend asked. Which is, “Well what is it about a book that would make it cradle-to-cradle?” And what we’re saying is this book is a technical nutrient. It’s designed to be part of industry forever at some level. Or on your bookshelf. The other model, because cradle-to-cradle has two metabolisms, would be the biodegradable book, the biological nutrient book. If we look back at books in history, you can go into a crusty old library and find a whole bunch of biological nutrient books: leather covers, vellum pages, very simple inks with no heavy metals. So books can be either biological or technical nutrients. We chose to make this a technical nutrient book to stimulate the conversation. But we could just as easily have a biological nutrient book, but we’d want to design it for safe combustion. And that’s why the whole issue of recycled paper involves chlorine. One of the problems we see with recycled paper is that the system isn’t optimized yet and we see things like chlorine and river pollution occurring as a result of recycling paper.
Yeah, I’ve got my little bags of bottles and paper recyclables in my kitchen, but about halfway through your book, I started feeling kind of useless putting things in there.
Well you shouldn’t. I think that one of the really important messages that we’re giving is that coherent recycling is an essential part of human dignity. Because if we’re all going to have fairness and share prosperity, we’re going to need materials in biological and technical cycles. So what you’re doing at home is critical to creating the systems that will celebrate that agenda.
Even though I’m just postponing those materials’ journey to the landfill?
Well under the present system. We end up with down-cycling. And that’s where things are losing their quality as they go through the system. In the end that won’t save us as a species. It does not portend prosperity, it portends lower degradation.
The other thing that’s interesting about the book is that its made out of plastics, basically, right? But members of the green movement would hear that word, plastic, and think, “Well that’s not very environmentally friendly.”
Right. Well it’s ironic that Mr. McGuire in The Graduate was actually making an important statement to Benjamin Braddock. Because the way we see plastics is that the human species can be supported on the planet at the level of hunter/gatherer to about 400 million, roughly. And we have 6.4 billion people. So we’re going to need biological and technical nutrition of the human artifice, made by humans for humans that is in closed cycles in order for all of us to enjoy, say, clothing. If you take cotton, for example, and you recycle it—you know cotton can only be recycled a certain number of times, and then it wants to go back to soil. But if you look at polymers, we can depolymerize and get our long chains back through chemical recycling. And so plastics are going to play a very important role in our future. So we look at plastics as a very valuable technical nutrient that needs to become coherent. They need to be seen as a positive material that can be infinitely recycled. Then the question becomes, where is the energy source for the plastic? Is it from fossil fuels? Is it from biological material, polymers? And then that would be the next design assignment to make the plastics coherent.
Are you working on that?
Yes, part of our cradle-to-cradle certification is that we look at all these plastics through these lenses and then determine their effects on human and ecological health and their energy and the water and the social fairness that are involved.
I think it’s in the beginning that you paint this picture of plastics, like this phone I’m talking on, as being comprised of all these evil chemicals that are leaking into my skin and giving me cancer.
Right. What we’re trying to say is that the current design of many products is not optimal, based on human and ecological health.
One of the interesting things about your ideas is that they’re pro business. You’re not some dirty hippie that’s saying, don’t buy anything, don’t consume anything. But I wonder how do you get business to abandon the obsolescence they build into their products? Skateboard shoes, for instance, fall apart rather quickly. But the shoe manufacturers are in no hurry to make a shoe that actually lasts. How would you destroy this obsolescence when it is so profitable?
Oh no, we can celebrate it if it has a cradle-to-cradle design. Because you see if I look at a skateboard shoe and I say this is going to break dramatically, then what if I design the shoe sole out of nutrients for soil? And then the uppers you bring back to the shoe company and turn them in for a new pair, because you want the latest technology or whatever. Then those shoes, which are polyesters, go back into polyesters and I can celebrate your consumption of shoe soles and your celebration of wanting the latest in design without bemoaning the fact that you’re destroying the planet. In a pure cradle-to-cradle world we would celebrate consumption because it rebuilds soil and feeds industry back its feed stocks. So you can change your carpet from pink to blue and you don’t have to destroy the planet if the manufacturing is solar powered, and the water that comes in, goes out drinkable, and if social fairness is being practiced at every level, and all your materials are in a coherent protocol, then I can celebrate the fact that you want to change your carpet. All you did was create jobs. It’s a beautiful thing.
And what a shocking phrase to the ears of environmentalists everywhere, “Celebrate consumption!” But I bet the business sector loves that.
Well I think the business sector has understood better than many what we’re trying to point out here. Because it’s in everybody’s interest that this occur and so they are one of the parties of interest.
I wonder how you look at CFL lights. They’re great, they save money, but from a design perspective, they have mercury in them and I’d imagine most people won’t take the time to dispose of them properly. How would you design a light bulb?
Well we’re very excited about the LED. Very low wattage, very high color rendition now. And when you look at the issue of toxic materials, they’re very clean. But mercury we consider a real problem. It’s a design question: do we want toxic heavy metals in our products? And if it’s not necessary, then why should we do that?
You mention space exploration in your book and you kind of suggest that space is not really where we should be spending our research money because we live here, not up there. I think most of what NASA does is a complete waste. What things in the world make you mad, that you see as completely wasteful?
Well it’s funny because one of the reasons I was delighted to talk to you was that I’m really excited in working with Toyota at some point. I’m waiting for them to invite me. But I’m really disappointed in the auto industry. Not everybody and not all the time. But here is an industry that at the turn of the century launched itself with such vigor and had the potentials to be leaders of industry itself. With all of the ideas of mass production and ecumenical distribution, you know? Amazing. And if you look at the promise of that kind of mass marketed object of industrial design and human creativity and the opportunities apparent on that scale of enterprise, you know I’m really sad that it hasn’t risen to its occasion. But it could affect the whole culture very dramatically. So I’m very excited about the future of mobility. So that would be the source of my disappointment, because the promise is so great, but the delivery is so wanting.
There was a quote in the book from a Native Indian who said something about how they, as a people, have never lost their connection to the earth and its cycles. It’s obvious we, as a society, have, but when do you think that happened?
I think that this century has been particularly hard on the natural world because our tools have become so effective. And our population, obviously, has expanded. I think the fundamental question of our time is, at what point do we once again become native to place? Because we dominate the entire planet. I think that if you look at it from a design perspective, and you go back to the 1830s, go back to Emerson, you see the steamship arriving and all of a sudden we can run counter to natural flows. Emerson—when his wife died—he went to Europe in a sailboat, he came back in a steamship. All of a sudden we could cut across natural systems. I think it’s really at the turn of the century that we see the force of human artifice take over. But we’ve always been gardeners—1491, did you read that? Interesting book about pre-Columbian South America. Great title. Anyway, the point that was made there was that even the rainforests were affected by humans because they went around snipping the heads off of trees they didn’t want to encourage and leaving the brazil nuts to grow, for example. So humans have affected the planet wherever they’ve been. The question is, when do we become native to it? We dominate the entire planet now. Ninety nine percent of the large mammals in the world are under human management at this point. We have a question as a species, what are our intentions? Because we can affect the whole place. We control the whole planet. It’s a giant instrument at this point. And so the question is, what do we want to say and what do we want to play on that instrument? And if design is the signal of human intention, we have to ask, did we intend for all these tragedies to occur? And if we don’t intend for them to occur, then what is our design strategy? What is our plan? Because it doesn’t appear that we have a new plan.