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June 11, 2002
Book Review: Cradle to Cradle
    by William Baue

William McDonough and Michael Braungart propose a paradigm shift for how the world views product lifespans, moving from a "cradle-to-grave" mentality where products die in a landfill to a "cradle-to-cradle" mentality where they continue to feed production.


Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things initially illustrates the authors' main proposition not through print but through physical touch. The book feels heftier and sturdier than traditional paperbacks, in part because it is not made of paper but of plastic resins. Besides being waterproof and durable, the book itself serves as the prototype of a truly recyclable product in which materials are reused without degradation of quality.

"[The book] celebrates its materials instead of apologizing for them," write the authors, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart.

This may be the most radical proposal of a book filled with radical but eminently practical proposals. Mr. McDonough and Mr. Braungart conceive of a paradigm shift that removes the guilt from environmentalism. Most environmentalists point out the negative apects of certain practices, such as bleaching paper. They rely on guilt to motivate people to employ less harmful practices such as using recycled paper. However, when this paper can no longer be recycled it will end up in a landfill, where it will leech the chlorine that was used to bleach the original paper.

This form of recycling, which the authors define as "downcycling," merely postpones the consequences of the problem. "Upcycling," on the other hand, completely reuses materials in ways that do not degrade their quality. The authors call the upcycling approach "eco-effective," as opposed to the "eco-efficient" approach of conventional recycling. With more and more corporations considering their products' complete life cycles, the application of the cradle-to-cradle model could have profound implications not only for the environment but also for investors. Eco-effective companies can potentially lower their raw material costs and generate more sustainable returns.

Cradle to Cradle reads easily and is peppered with abundant examples and lively language. Indeed, the authors contribute many new terms to the lexicon and new theories to the collective conscious. They distinguish between "biological nutrients," or any material that can biodegrade safely, such as leather, and "technical nutrients," or any material that feeds the industrial processes, such as copper. The authors also seek to obliterate the concept of waste, replacing it with the notion that "waste equals food." The key to economic nutrition is keeping biological and technical nutrients separate, so that each can be fully upcycled to remain in the economic food chain.

Mr. McDonough and Mr. Braungart borrow the term "monstrous hybrids" to describe products that combine biological and technical nutrients in ways that prevent their being completely recycled. For example, books combine biological nutrients (paper) with technical nutrients (adhesives) that prevent them from being fully recycled. Monstrous hybrids also include the cross-breeding of technical nutrients. In automobile production, for example, the melting of highly valuable metals results in much less useful amalgamations at the end of the product's lifespan.

The authors see at present a world where valuable raw materials are thrown into the "grave" of landfills simply because the designers did not have enough foresight to plan for their reuse. They envision a world where intelligent design results in the perpetual reuse of materials, and where the concept of waste becomes obsolete.

While traditional environmentalism chants a reduction mantra (reduce, reuse, recycle), the cradle-to-cradle theory is rooted in capitalism, which encourages growth. Environmentalists often focus on how products degrade the environment. The authors reconcile growth with environmental preservation by envisioning products that are in harmony with the earth's cycles of regeneration.

The cradle-to-cradle theory almost conveys a sense of inevitability. Investors with foresight can support the transformation from an economy that presages its own funeral (cradle-to-grave) to an economy that celebrates its perpetual reincarnation (cradle-to-cradle). And these investors can profit financially while encouraging the adaptation of what the authors claim is a truly sustainable form of capitalism.

Buy this book at Amazon.com

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. North Point Press, New York: 2002.

 

 
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