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.

"The whole idea that you could accept certain standards of exposure to chemicals as if that's okay became really questionable when you stop and think about exposure to children and their various pathways, which are much more open than ours to toxins. And you realize the whole system is toxic and that's really stupid! And it's time for a overall redesign."

This concern lead him to look for someone who not only understood the seriousness of the toxins all around us, but could help rethink the way we make things so that they wouldn't be just less toxic, but that they wouldn't be toxic at all. He met that individual in the person of Michael Braungart, one of the founding members of Germany's Green Party and the founder of EPEA, the Environment Protection Encouragement Agency, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.

McDonough explains that when he heard Braungart was opening an EPEA office in New York City, he made a point to meet him, arriving early at a party celebrating the opening. The two men spent the entire evening discussing their ideas and shared vision. The result was the creation of MBDC.

Recycling Revamped
In McDonough's view, current recycling efforts are fatally flawed, though he emphasizes that recycling has be what he calls "a critical part of the human agenda." What he takes issue with are the underlying materials that make up the process.

"What we are saying is that what is typically being called 'recycling' is not. It is typically what we call 'down-cycling'. A milk jug goes off to become a park bench on its way to a landfill. That's still cradle to grave. It's still the down-cycling of a material. It's losing quality alone the way. It's becoming a pretty nasty piece of plastic lumber that's not great to work with [and] doesn't really hold up; and then it's on its way to a landfill. It's still cradle-to-grave topology. It's not truly recycling. So what we're calling for is real recycling."

He sees New York City's recent decision to stop recycling plastic and glass as a grave mistake, but one that could lead to a productive discourse and re-analysis of what we call recycling, in the first place.

"The real question is, What is our strategy for the future? Not how am I reacting to this issue today or that issue tomorrow. But what is my long-term strategy for prosperity?"

Polymer Instead of Paper
To demonstrate in a very practical way the essence of cradle to cradle, McDonough and Braungart came up with a polymer material as a substitute for paper. This is the material on which North Point Press printed their book.

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"It is an indication of our intention toward the idea of a 'technical nutrient,'" he explained. For McDonough there are just two types of 'nutrients': biological, which can safely returned to the soil and decomposed; and 'technical' nutrients which are used endlessly in industrial processes.

He points out that the typical book printed on virgin paper so it's free of chlorine uses heavy metals and petrochemical inks. This not only results in the destruction of forests but the tainting of the paper with heavy metals and the eventual contamination of the soil or air when the paper is either buried or burned. He doesn't think recycled paper is much better because it includes chlorine.

Instead, his matte white polymer 'paper' is not only waterproof but also can be infinitely recycled as 'paper' for future books. Although the materials used in Cradle To Cradle still needs refinement, the book itself does clearly illustrate the premise of "up-cycling." Instead of "down-cycling."

The Lesser of Evils?
"The problem with current decision making processes is they usually offer us the lesser of evils," McDonough contends. "So, what we're saying with our book is, here's a book that's infinitely recyclable. It's a polymer. It's designed to be recycled. It's waterproof."

McDonough said he and his colleagues learned a lot in developing a plastic book. He noted that it's not completely "optimized" yet. MBDC didn't have time to look at the inks or improve the paper, but he views it as a marvelous way to "put the issue in your hands."

The 1996 recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development sees little point at this stage of development for mankind to smash trees into pulp wood to make paper when better alternatives exist.

Cellulose paper is, in his words, "such a low-grade, prosaic use of something so beautiful and valuable as a tree. If you look at what a tree can do compared to human design. . . I mean, how many things do you know make oxygen, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, water, provide habitat for hundreds of species, make microclimates, change colors with the seasons and self-replicate? Why would you want to smash that and write on it?" he asked.

Instead, he thinks modern polymers can be designed to be infinitely recyclable.

"Imagine if you went to your office and you had ten thousand sheets of white . . . waterproof paper and you could use that . . . in your copier and make anything you wanted in your printer and then when you're finished with it, you could put it back in the copier and erase it." The ink could be reclaimed and reused and new documents printed on the same polymer paper, over and over again.

McDonough thinks this is not only we can "aspire to", but is also technically achievable. He sees it being used in almost any print venue including magazines, catalogs, brochures and more.

Profits Essential
A critical part of McDonough's proposition is that his solutions must be profitable for the client.

"The key ingredient for us is that we have to make sure that at every step of the way we are intensely profitable because that's what gets businesses to do this. I think that's a really important story and I think that's. . . part of our success."

In the case of the polymer paper used in his book, he estimated it added a couple extra dollars to its cost, but that at scales of manufacture he sees the cost difference between it and virgin paper disappearing.

Filtering Our Heads Instead of Our Pipes
One of the observations found in Cradle To Cradle is that increasingly we are surrounded by thousands of toxic substances. The authors use the example of the common shoe to illustrate this point.

For most of man's history, the shoe making was relatively benign. Plant tannins were used to tan leather, which was biodegradable. Then in the last fifty years chromium was substituted for tannin because it was cheaper and faster. But the final product now contains a heavy metal so toxic that one European tanner will not hire anyone to work in their tanning process unless they are over 50 years of age because of the increased risk of cancer. Shoe are no longer biodegradable.

"This is where we say it's time to put the filters in our heads instead on the ends of pipes," McDonough asserts.

"We're now databasing thousands of chemicals and the chemical industry is working very closely with us to identify those materials we consider safe and propitious in the industrial cycle. So if the containers did say 'hazardous' it would be a reagent or something that is actually going to combine with something else completely benign and intelligent, and be manufactured through some safe process.

"So there will be certain things that are necessary to production that [enable] us to enjoy the quality of life that we try to strive and imagine." He cited the example of formaldehyde, which by itself is a very noxious substance but when combined with something else creates a safe and useful product.

"There will be the need for the intelligent manipulation of molecules, but there is no reason for us to be producing toxic environments or products. We've gone deep into the chemistry to articulate how this would happen and develop a materials pallet so designers can start to select from a menu that will allow them to make safe, delightful products that are infinitely reusable."


Times Article Viewed: 13583
Published: 06-Jul-2002


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