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Cradle to Cradle 406

Posted by timothy
from the integration dept.
Logic Bomb writes: "Human progress since the Industrial Revolution has been one big design error. Really. In 'Cradle to Cradle,' architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart have crafted a compelling explanation for why humans need a completely new framework for how we interact with the world around us. Our model of technology and development is completely counter to the natural cycles and principles that worked for millions of years to create the environment we so cleverly manipulate. Sound like typical 'environmentalist' rhetoric? Not by half. This book actually contains reasonable explanations and practical solutions." Read on for the rest of Logic Bomb's review.
Cradle to Crade: Remaking the Way We Make Things
author William McDonough & Michael Braungart
pages 186 plus notes
publisher North Point Press
rating 10/10
reviewer Matt Rosenberg
ISBN 0-86547-587-3
summary Changing how humans relate to our environment

According to the authors, current human technology is a product of "cradle to grave" design. We pull resources from the Earth, shape them into a product, use it, and throw it away. The problem, we've noticed as we've spread all over the planet, is that there really isn't any "away." This is certainly not the first time our endless cycle of resource destruction and waste creation has been brought to light. But the whole point of this book is to show why the usual responses we've developed are useless, and what to do instead.

Consider the typical "recycling" program. What is presented to the public as a way to endlessly reuse raw materials is in fact a downward spiral of degradation in material quality until, just as before, it becomes unusable. Sometimes the recycling process itself produces additional toxic waste. Most Americans have probably heard of "the 3 Rs": Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle (to which the authors add a fourth, Regulate). These are measures that only aim to slow the destructive cycle. In the end, the result is the same. As the authors put it, Less Bad is No Good.

McDonough and Braungart's proposed strategy is called "eco-effectiveness". It revolves around the idea that in nature, waste equals food. Other than incoming energy from the sun, our environment is basically a closed system. Whenever (non-human) life on our planet uses a resource, it is left in a form readily useable to other life. Humans must do the same. The authors envision a world where, when a material item gets worn out, you simply throw it on the ground to decompose. Buildings should produce more energy than they use. Eliminate the concept of "waste" entirely.

The authors put their money where their mouths are. In 1994 they started a design firm that puts these principles into practice. Examples of their work are downright astonishing. The firm was once hired to design a compostable upholstery fabric. According to their principles, not only did the finished product have to be environmentally neutral, so did the production process. In the end, an entire line of fabrics was put into production using a total of 38 chemicals (selected from a list of almost 8,000 commonly used in the industry). Water leaving the factory, originally drawn from the local water supply, tested cleaner than when it went in. And the fabric, of course, could be readily disposed of by tossing it onto the ground where it would decompose back into the soil without leaving toxic chemicals behind. They include plenty of other cases that illustrate how eco-effectiveness can both improve the quality of life and make for a more profitable business.

We live in a complex world, and it is absurd to think that every product and production process could be converted to produce similar results overnight. What about items that consist of metals and other elements that organic life doesn't usually process? There is a whole section of the book to address such issues. The authors also go beyond pure chemistry and physical health to discuss how environment affects the intangible quality of human life, and how applying these same philosophies to architecture and urban planning can produce amazing results. Unlike many environmental advocates, McDonough and Braungart both acknowledge the difficulties and provide a clear path for reform. They include a framework for eco-effective planning and decision-making so their ideas can be implemented as much as is practically possible at any given time, always with an eye for continued improvement down the road.

The writing in this book is extremely clear and articulate. The authors provide explanations of their ideas from historical, scientific, and business perspectives. They even manage to rip apart typical corporate and environmentalist thinking without pushing blame on anyone. And of course, the book is far more detailed and comprehensive than I could cover in a short review. It's hard to read it and not come away convinced, and I think that's a good thing.

One final note for anyone thinking it hypocritical to waste trees so these ideas could be distributed: the book is not made out of paper or printed using a conventional process. It's plastic -- waterproof, resilient, eligible for recycling in most locales, and an early step towards what the authors hope will be infinitely recyclable synthetic book-making materials.

Links: McDonough's architectural firm; the design firm mentioned in the review; a webcast of NPR's National Press Club at which McDonough talked about their ideas far more eloquently than I have."



To go through your own hard times, you can from Crade to Cradle from bn.com Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit yours, read the book review guidelines, then hit the submission page.

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Cradle to Cradle

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  • Yes, but... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ceejayoz (567949) <cj@ceejayoz.com> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:42AM (#3645312) Homepage Journal
    In 1994 they started a design firm that puts these principles into practice. Examples of their work are downright astonishing. The firm was once hired to design a compostable upholstery fabric. According to their principles, not only did the finished product have to be environmentally neutral, so did the production process. In the end, an entire line of fabrics was put into production using a total of 38 chemicals (selected from a list of almost 8,000 commonly used in the industry). Water leaving the factory, originally drawn from the local water supply, tested cleaner than when it went in. And the fabric, of course, could be readily disposed of by tossing it onto the ground where it would decompose back into the soil without leaving toxic chemicals behind.

    Wonderful... but people aren't going to jump for it unless it costs the same or less. Look at how hard factories fight things like filters on smokestacks, because it'll raise prices a few cents per item.
  • replenishable energy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Alien54 (180860) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:06PM (#3645513) Journal
    Why is energy an issue? We get lots of energy every day... from the sun.

    actually, there is some evidence that oil reserves may be self replenishing [radiofreenation.net] if you wait a reasonable period of time.

    The source would be microbes buried deep in the hot rocks of the earth.

  • by ciaohound (118419) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:15PM (#3645591)
    Damn, I wanted to review this book. Oh well, I'll just say that while anyone can enjoy reading it, it is clearly aimed at the designers of products, not merely at consumers. The whole premise is that we can't solve the problem by just consuming less -- we need products that behave as nature does.

    Take textiles. Many textiles contain unwanted materials such as heavy metals or pesticides, what the authors refer to as "products-plus". Why are they included with the product? Did you the consumer ask for them? Such products can't be safely decomposed or recycled. The only safe place for them is a landfill (hence the term cradle-to-grave). Take the long, long-term view and it is clear that, if this cradle-to-grave model continues, we'll fill the planet with landfills.

    However, if you model the product on nature, then the waste from the textile production process and end-of-life product itself can be used safely as mulch: cradle-to-cradle. The challenge for the designers is to distinguish the biological nutrients from the technical nutrients, and provide a way for these nutrients to be reused, the way nature reuses them. This is not hypothetical: the authors provide many examples of companies that are doing this type of work.

    If you are a scientist, engineer, or designer, you will need to be familiar with the techniques these guys espouse. The MBA's willl need to recognize the value of this approach, but it's up to the designers to select the materials and techniques that achieve the results.

    Also, I was very impressed with the example the authors provide of Bill Ford at Ford Motor Company. He is transforming the ancient River Rouge plant into a model of these principles, and saving as much as $35 million in the process.

    In short, this is a really thought-provoking book.
  • Energy Entropy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nukeade (583009) <serpent11@h[ ]ail.com ['otm' in gap]> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:43PM (#3645796) Homepage
    There is indeed a lot of wasted energy as far as the Earth is concerned. We choose to use the most convenient and cheapest to harvest forms, i.e. fossil fuels. The big issue seems to be that we need some total amount of cost to do things. Therefore, I propose that

    Cost = Entropy used + Energy Used

    Saying that, for example, you could use a very fast process to extract oil from the ground that uses minimal energy (what you pay for) but increases entropy (makes a big environmental mess). At a greater energy cost, you could make it a lot cleaner. Fortunately, we have a saving grace:

    The sun provides us with an almost unlimited amount of energy.

    The problem here is that we choose to use the more inexpensive forms of energy, but if we did use forms that come from the sun rather than toxic entropy-increasing forms or non-renewable forms (possibly the same, considering the toxic by-products of fossil fuels, which I understand did come from the sun, but are toxic nonetheless. The sun's energy was expended so that these toxins could be trapped.)

    What a lot of people whose posts I am reading are forgetting is this:

    Plants (wood, food) = Solar, their energy to grow comes mostly from the sun, and what doesn't goes back to Earth
    Wind = Solar, pressure is due to heat from the sun
    And of course direct solar energy.

    Therefore, it is not hypocritical to make a book with paper. Paper is solar energy. Considering the vast amount of this energy that goes unharvested and unused, it is therefore not impractical to harness a virtually unlimited and safe energy source.

    ~Ben
  • plastic book (Score:2, Interesting)

    by oliverthered (187439) <olivertheredNO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:56PM (#3645912) Journal
    "the book is not made out of paper or printed using a conventional process. It's plastic -- waterproof, resilient, eligible for recycling in most locales, and an early step towards what the authors hope will be infinitely recyclable synthetic book-making materials. "

    Isn't that kinda against the opening few paragraphs of your review, isn't recycling degrading the materials, where as paper can be thrown on the ground....

    Anyhow, I'm a bit of an anti-wood pulp man, and think they should have printed the book on hemp paper, which will last a few hundred years, be recycleable, use less chemicals etc...
  • by nhavar (115351) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:13PM (#3646067) Homepage
    Cotton, hemp, wool, etc. are all natural fibers that decompose easily when left to the forces of nature. Yet when those same materials are used for durable goods and cared for or left in the right conditions they can last for thousands of years without decomposing. Therefore assuming that the couch will decompose in your living room the same as it would outside exposed is incorrect. Likewise the steak you have would decompose much differently inside than it would outside because of the lack of external forces speeding it's decomposition. A steak left on the floor of your living room might just dry up, get hard and become a peice of jerky, whereas a steak outside would attract wildlife, flies, and other insects that would convert the majority of it's mass into fuel for themselves.

    Some people have also scoffed at the idea that eco-friendly could be cost effective. But if you look at just the one example above - taking a material that could be made from thousands of chemicals and producing a similar product with only thirty eight - couldn't it easily be argued that the manufacturing equipment, cost of supplies, cost of training, cost of development, etc. would all go down using this methodology. While initial retooling and design costs might be up the end result is a product that costs less to produce and therefore provides a quick turn around on the initial investment.

    What's the lifecycle of the average polyester shirt? While I know that thrift stores are filled with 20 year old polyester shirts and pants, how many more went into landfills and are still there relatively intact today? We have the knowledge today to create buildings that use the environment itself to create a comfortable work and living environment inside - lessening the need for electricity and other utilities, yet most companies continue to build the same old environmentally unfriendly and people unfriendly buildings they always have. Twenty years later (sometimes only a year later) people end up gettng sick because of poor ventilation, carpet fumes, ceiling tiles, what have you. What's the cost when that happens?
  • by lythander (21981) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:20PM (#3646151)
    First, for those whining about cost, durability, etc., please listen to the webcast. The buildings designed for major companies (SONY, Norman Miller, Ford, et. al.) end up costing much less in operating costs and increasing productivity. The plant they are building for Ford will cost $13M more than a standard comparable plant, but will remediate $48M worth of ecological damage Ford was required to fix by the government. 1 factory, out of the box saved the $35M.

    Which brings my question -- how do I help. I do what I can. I'm a homeowner, so I avoid using chemicals where I can (no turfbuilder!), drive an efficient car, etc. Can someone suggest practical ways to implement on an individual or household level these very forward-thinking ideas?

Prototype designs always work. -- Don Vonada

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