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Illustration by Robert Hunter

A decade ago, William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote Cradle to Cradle, a book that environmentalist David Suzuki called “groundbreaking” and a “Bible for the Second Industrial Revolution.” Since then it has become an industry, with a certification system and an independent Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The premise was straightforward:

“Human beings don’t have a pollution problem, they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse and pleasure.”

Now, with their new work The Upcycle, McDonough and Braungart attempt to apply cradle-to-cradle principles to larger societal issues. “The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed,” they write.

There is a lot to digest in this book. You can do it literally; it’s all carefully printed on non-toxic paper with vegetable inks. Technically, one could shred it, add milk and eat it for breakfast as a source of dietary fibre. That is a point of cradle-to-cradle design – everything is a nutrient, either biological or technically, either compostable or reusable.

It’s an approach that isn’t just good for the planet; it’s also good for business. Furniture manufacturer Herman Miller found that when it designed its Aeron chair according to such principles, the chair not only could be taken apart more easily at the end of its life, but it went together more quickly when it was made in the first place. When toxic chemicals were removed from the production processes, the need for safety measures and ventilation decreased, reducing costs. It’s an approach that makes money for Herman Miller, and that’s the point.

As the authors write, “The most effective transformational foundation of Cradle to Cradle is, to the surprise of some, not environmental. Nor is it ethical. If Cradle to Cradle fails as a business concept and innovation engine, then it fails, period. It succeeds when it celebrates economic growth, which in turn grows ecological and social revenue.”

Perhaps the most important business concept in The Upcycle is that waste is a wasted opportunity. It is what McDonough calls a “materials-in-the-wrong-place problem.” A simple example is human waste: with conventional technology, it is a huge cost and liability, a waste of money as well as materials. Yet if it was treated as a nutrient management system, valuable phosphorus could be recovered. Solids could be turned into compost or biogas. It becomes an asset providing income. And there are some innovative cleantech companies out there doing just that.

In an upcycle world, there is no such thing as garbage. Your waste bin is a nutrient rest stop. However, for these nutrients to be useful and economically viable, they need to be designed with disassembly in mind. Instead, many products are what McDonough calls “monstrous hybrids,” designed almost as if to make life purposefully difficult.

A good example is the plastic spout on the top of a cardboard milk or juice container. We used to know how to open and close a carton of milk simply by unfolding the flaps. Adding the plastic spout is an inconsequential convenience, but it turns it into a monstrous hybrid. Removing the plastic from the cardboard requires extra effort – that is, more energy.

Not to say the cradle-to-cradle philosophy is not without controversy. The certification system has been called opaque and proprietary. It rejects most of what is called recycling as “downcycling,” meaning a material is turned into a lower grade material and loses value each step of the way.

The Upcycle book sometimes seems like Bill McDonough himself: occasionally repetitive and self-absorbed, sometimes treating other people’s ideas as his own, but in an overly simplistic way. The authors often sound more like a Tony Robbins-style motivational speaker than an architect and a chemist.

However, sometimes we all need a little religion. McDonough and Braungart see sustainability as a design problem, something that can be solved. It is a positive and uplifting view of a cleaner and healthier world without waste, made of renewable materials, powered by clean energy, based on plausible economics.

That’s a motivating thought. And if you don’t like the book, you can always eat it.

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