Cradle to Cradle

It's time to rethink recycling

May 29, 2013: 6:46 AM ET

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart are refining the ideas they set out in their seminal work, Cradle to Cradle.

By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large

upcycleFORTUNE -- In 2002, the renowned green architect Bill McDonough and his German business partner, Michael Braungart, an environmental chemist and former Greenpeace activist, wrote the groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Since its publication, the book has influenced not only an entire generation of industrial designers and chief sustainability officers but some notable CEOs. Cradle to Cradle argued that it's not enough for a company to become more efficient -- it must radially alter the way it designs products to make them more sustainable.

Despite the authors' impressive efforts, most products today are still designed to be "cradle to grave." They are made, used, and thrown away. By contrast, a cradle to cradle product is designed of materials that can be recycled or returned safely to earth. Waste is eliminated. A few forward thinking companies such as Herman Miller (MLHR), Ford (F), P&G (PG), and Shaw Carpets have adopted in part this radical approach. A few years back, Herman Miller designed a cradle-to-cradle office chair made of materials safe enough to eat. (I suppose you'd have to be really hungry.)

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Eleven years after the publication of Cradle to Cradle, the authors have written a sequel called The Upcycle. Those who haven't already read Cradle to Cradle will be rewarded with a refreshed retelling of the authors' philosophy. They will be exposed to important notions expounded upon in the first book such as "Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure" or "waste is food" or "less bad is no good."

Yet those already familiar with McDonough and Braungart's book will find little that's new here in terms of their overall philosophy. What you do get are insights into the progress they've made over the last decade. They've created the McDonough and Braungart certification process, which helps companies think through the steps of doing cradle to cradle design. They've also given away to industry their catalogue of safe, cradle to cradle chemicals, work that has taken years to compile.

And one does get a broader and updated examination of the concept of upcycling. The authors argue that instead of reusing materials in products that end up lower and lower on the value chain (think of the tree that goes to a table to toilet paper) materials should be repurposed into products of equal or greater value. That's the gist of upcycling. Such products are designed to be used and reused forever or safely be put back in the earth.

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Upcycling is hard to do, and the book presents a compelling case study that shows just how hard. When the furniture maker Steelcase (SCS) was looking to replace PVCs, which is a carcinogenic precursor and will off-gas toxins, it turned to a plastic called TPU which was safer and therefore could be upcycled. Upon further study Steelcase found that making TPUs ended up emitting more greenhouse gasses though its manufacturing and lifecycle than PVCs. What to do? Steelcase decided it was better to try to offset the carbon by using more renewable energy at its facilities than to stick with a more energy efficient, yet toxic material.

This was a valuable case study, and one wishes there were more of them in this book, especially examples examining the economics of cradle to cradle engineering. That said, one can't go wrong following the lively thought processes of these two radical thinkers. So buy this book and pass it on to a friend when you're done and engage in a little of your own upcycling.

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability -- Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, North Point Press, 2013 $24.00

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