Without exaggerating, I can say that this is probably the most important book I’ve read in a long time. And that’s not for lack of “important” books on my bookshelf. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is important because it introduces the reader to an entirely novel way of thinking about design, the relationship between the economy and the environment, and industrial production.
Rather than a general overview of the book or William McDonough‘s architecture firm or the amazing work it has done with everyone from Ford to the Chinese government, I’d rather talk about some of the conceptual distinctions that authors McDonough and Michael Braungart introduce.
Waste = Food
Outside of human activity, there is no such thing in nature as “waste”: every output of one natural process is the input for another. McDonough and Braungart urge us to “eliminate the concept of waste” and consider how things might be designed such that when we were done using them, their component parts and materials could be incorporated (ideally ad infinitum) into other processes, whether these are the organic processes of biodegradation or phyto/mycoremediation, or the technical processes of industrial upcycling.
Drawing on Jane Jacobs, McDonough and Braungart characterize products that do not adequately separate their biological components (e.g. wool, hemp, rice husk) from their technical components (e.g. metals, plastics). When materials are mixed in this way, it becomes difficult or impossible to separate the components out at the “end” of the product’s lifecycle, and the valuable materials (both biological and technical) are landfilled and lost to further reuse.
You want a plastic bottle, but you get a plastic bottle with antimony; you want some paint for your house, and you get paint with chromium. Such undesirable add-ons define a “product plus”: something you want, plus something you weren’t aware you were getting and definitely don’t want. Often such hazardous chemical are added to products in order to offset the detrimental effects of other component substances, but Cradle to Cradle advocates just not including them in the first place. The book shares several stories of companies who redesigned products to exclude such unwanted addons and found that the overall result was a cheaper production process, as the need for special toxic chemical management and storage regulations and storage policies were avoided.
There are a number of other such concepts, like “feedforward” (instead of feedback) and the idea of seeing industrial production as just another sort of nutrient metabolism process, that the book goes into, all of which I find fascinating and all of which lend themselves to application to other fields. I can’t recommend the book enough.