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William A. McDonough

William A. McDonough believes we've got recycling all wrong. Taking his cue from nature, he believes all industrial waste should be a nutrient instead of a pollutant in a cradle-to-cradle circle of life.

Cradle to Cradle

Exclusive interview with internationally renowned designer and author, William A. McDonough.

By Bill Moore

It is the central thesis of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, his business partner and co-author of Cradle To Cradle, that waste equals food. The founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) contend this is how the natural world operates, so why can't we emulate this in our industrial society?

Instead, most of the products we develop are based on a "cradle to grave" approach in which nearly everything we buy ends up as a pollutant in a landfill or incinerator. The tiny percentage of goods that do get recycled are usually turned into something of less intrinsic value that also eventually gets discarded as waste. Little of what we make actually gets recycled back into the natural world or is endlessly reincarnated into products of value.

So, McDonough and Braungart set out to rethink the way we design things. The result of that collaboration is not only a refreshingly hopeful book, printed on a unique polymer "paper" that can be reused endlessly, but also of a growing list of revolutionary products and designs.

EV World was fortunate to be able to talk with Bill McDonough as he headed out on his latest business trip from his company's headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia. He talked to us by cell phone. (An associate was driving the car). So, if you listen to the audio of our interview, you'll notice the quality isn't that of a typical land line call. Still, what he has to say makes putting up with the static and fade worth the effort.

Cradle to Cradle Concept
"Wouldn't it be marvelous if instead of buying or burning all of the materials that we move through our system for our enjoyment," McDonough explained, "that we think of them as nutrition for other systems, and that they continuously cycle and reincarnate, in effect, instead of [being] buried and forgotten?

"So, the idea is 'cradle to cradle' lifecycle. Things should be designed to go back to soil safely or back to industry forever, and nothing else should be made."

As an architect and designer who Time magazine picked as one of nine "Heroes of the planet" in 1999, McDonough said he was concerned about the materials we use in our industrial society. He didn't think they were designed well if they poisoned the planet and made us ill.

"I had been looking for an eco-toxicologist because I am an architect and I've been very concerned about what is the quality of design, and how can something be designed well if it makes you sick or destroys the planet? It seems to me it's a quality question."

This issue moved center stage for McDonough after winning a design competition for a day care center in Germany. Given childrens' nature to put things in their mouth, he wondered why we are willing to allow a certain amount of toxic exposure.

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