Book Review: Cradle to Cradle

>> Monday, June 29, 2009

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

Rating: **** (would have given it five stars but I felt like the book might be dated)

Synopsis:

The first thing you notice when you pick up this book is that it's really heavy. It's less than 200 pages and slightly larger than an average paperback, yet it weighs as much as a small textbook. That's because it's not printed on paper...it's made of plastic.

Now before you go all Fake Plastic Fish on me, let me explain why.

McDonough, an architect and designer, and Braungart, a chemist, met in the early nineties and quickly discovered that they share a passion for rethinking bad design. Why not design a shoe with a biodegradable sole so that instead of adding toxic chemicals to the soil as you walked, you added nutrients to the soil? Why not design packaging out of materials that could safely be burned for fuel? Why not design buildings to use fuel and water effectively, like a tree? Why waste precious trees on books when you could print books on plastic that could be infinitely recycled into new books?

McDonough and Braungart envisioned a new school of design that eschewed the old "cradle to grave" philosophy and began instead to design objects for a cradle to cradle lifecycle. They explain that products should be designed so that "when their useful life is over, [they] do not become useless waste but can be tossed onto the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or, alternately, that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials for new products."

How could we achieve such smart design? (Or, as the authors prefer to call it, eco-effective design?) McDonough and Braungart offer a number of valuable ideas:

  • Resources should be divided into two categories and never the two shall mix. The first category is made up of biological resources such as trees, plants, food waste - or those that will biodegrade and return to the earth. The other category they call technical resources, including metals, glass, and plastic. At the end of their useful life, biological materials should be returned to the soil to decompose and create new biological resources, whereas technical resources should be recycled.
  • When they say recycled, they really mean recycled. Not downcycled. Products should be designed so that when they are disassembled, their original technical resources maintain their integrity. That way steel always remains steel, aluminum remains aluminum, copper remains copper - not a mixed and inferior composite metal.
  • McDonough and Braungart suggest that this system could only be practical if we introduce a concept they call the "product of service." They explain that customers would "purchase the service of a product for a defined user period - say, ten thousand hours of television viewing, rather than the television itself. They would not be paying for complex materials that they won't be able to use after a product's current life. When they finish with the product, or are simply ready to upgrade to a newer version, the manufacturer replaces it, taking the old model back, breaking it down, and using its complex materials as food for new products."
Throughout the book, McDonough and Braungart provide examples of projects they've worked on that exemplify the ideas they explain in the book: furniture upholstery that is so safe, you could eat it; carpeting that can be infintely recycled into new carpeting; buildings that clean and recycle their water.

But the most visual example of their philosophy is the book itself. A book made out of "polymers that are infinitely recyclable at the same level of quality - that have been designed with their future life foremost in mind, rather than as an afterthought...The inks are nontoxic and can be washed off the polymer with a simple and safe chemical process...The cover is made from a heavier grade of the same polymer as the rest of the book, and the glues are made of compatible ingredients, so that once the materials are no longer needed in their present form, the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a simple one-step recycling process....Books become books become books over and over again, each incarnation a sparkling new vehicle for fresh images and ideas."

Such a radical idea, and yet so simple and absolutely right.

My Opinion:

I loved this book. I would say that anyone in business, art, architecture, design, agriculture - pretty much anyone - should read this book, except that it's kind of old, and I don't know how much of what they say has changed in the past seven years. For example, they say that aluminum cans are downcycled, but I was under the impression that aluminum cans are highly recyclable and can be made right back into an aluminum can. McDonough and Braungart, maybe it's time for a new edition?

(Maybe this would be a great opportunity to put that "product of service" idea into practice and have everyone who bought a copy of this book upgrade to a new edition...)


Next up on my reading list...The Creative Family by Amanda Soule


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5 comments:

Green Bean June 30, 2009 at 11:05 AM  

Great review. My husband read this book several months ago and had a similar take away. If you've not already, you should pop over to The Blogging Bookworm and share a link to your review. They'll add it to their list of links.

cpcable June 30, 2009 at 1:17 PM  

I also recently finished this book and enjoyed it. The most remarkable and useful concept that I took away was that of the Product of Service System. I love that it proposes a system that both fits within capitalism, but also provides an alternative to it. For it to work, our society would have to abandon our death-grip on notions of ownership of "stuff," which would be fantastic, but I see this as being a hard transition for many to make. What I like least about this book, however, was that their vision of the future seemed to revel in continuing, and even accelerating, our current levels of consumption and waste. Their justification is that there will no longer be any such thing as "waste." They go so far as to fantasize about a time when people can take delight in throwing things away (as if that isn't already the case). In my opinion, even if a perfect Cradle-to-Cradle system were to ever be put in place, values of frugality and conservation should still be stressed. Just because our stuff can be made from other recycled stuff doesn't mean that we shouldn't cut down on making all that stuff in the first place.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 1, 2009 at 8:23 PM  

cpcable - Totally agree with your critique of the book. No matter what system we have, there are limits to how much stuff we can create, and frugality and conservation are important solutions that need to be pushed.

Going Crunchy July 1, 2009 at 9:52 PM  

Hi Erin, That is awesome! Could we reprint it for this week - and cite link and credit to your blog?

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 1, 2009 at 10:33 PM  

Going Crunchy - Sure, that would be great.

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