Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

According to the Dictionary of Sustainable Management [], “Cradle to Cradle” is, “a phrase invented by Walter R. Stahel in the 1970s and popularized by William McDonough (pictured below) and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book of the same name. This framework seeks to create production techniques that are not just efficient but are essentially waste free. In cradle to cradle production all material inputs and outputs are seen either as technical or biological nutrients. Technical nutrients can be recycled or reused with no loss of quality and biological nutrients composted or consumed. By contrast cradle to grave refers to a company taking responsibility for the disposal of goods it has produced, but not necessarily putting products’ constiuent components back into service.”

This is summarized more succinctly in McDonough & Braungart’s book as “waste = food” — we touched on it when discussing upcycling []. Essentially, according to their model, everything we surround ourselves with — homes, cars, books, computers, coffee cups and so on — should have life beyond its original intended purpose; it shouldn’t go from its origins as raw materials and a design — the “cradle” — to the landfill, where it takes up space and doesn’t do anyone any good — the “grave.” Instead, everything we interact with should have multiple, or, more accurately, unending, cycles through the product stream, eschewing the wastebasket and landfill for more useful functions that we can all actually use.

This all starts with design, at the very beginning of a new products’ cycle. Again, to cite the book, the authors argue that “when designers employ the intelligence of natural systems — the effectiveness of nutrient cycling, the abundance of the sun’s energy — they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist.”

For example, the book itself is made from synthetic “paper,” made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, essentially making it upcycled plastic. Instead of paper, old plastic bottles are “recycled” and turned into two covers and bunch of pages, which are amazingly pliable and tactile, just like paper. In addition to being waterproof — yep, you can read it in the bath, no problem — and more rugged and durable than paper, the book can be effectively recycled by municipalities that accept polypropylene (that’s number 5 plastic), so it can go make more yogurt containers, or books. Not that we’d recommend ever getting rid of the book…but the point remains: it’s a new way of designing the world.

As it turns out, everything is subject to this new paradigm; this week, we’ll take a closer look at some of the incredible opportunities available to us when putting Cradle-to-Cradle at the top of our lists.