From the Cradle to the Upcycle

Around here, we’re big fans of William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s 2002 book Cradle to CradleMcDonough (an architect) and Braungart (a chemist) completely re-imagine the manufacturing process—from design to end-of-life.

Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

The book espouses smart design, without the use of materials that are harmful to environment or to living creatures.  After that, re-manufacturing, recycling, and re-using continually reintroduce materials back into the resource stream.

Here’s the best part: when you read it, you get the feeling that McDonough and Braungart are onto something. That this crazy idea could actually work.

And we’re not the only ones who think so; Cradle to Cradle is up there with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in terms of influence. Concepts from Cradle to Cradle have found their way into think tanks, like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and into EU government policy.

Naturally, when Braungart and McDonough published a follow-up to Cradle to Cradle, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on it. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainbility—Designing for Abundance expands on ideas introduced in the first book. Braungart and McDonough even address electronics manufacturing—something we are particularly interested in.

Here’s a much-abridged version of what they had to say on the topic:

[R]are-earth and heavy metals are truly precious because they allow us to have the needed and valued goods, such as lifesaving devices, renewable power, computers, cars, and so on.

But if people keep designing for one material use and not reuse, we ‘use up’ clean forms of the technical nutrients needed to make the products for the future. This means we will all worry about ‘limits to growth’ because we feel we are running out of resources. Because of suboptimal design of virtually all current appliances from a material-reuse perspective, there’s a chance that the technical nutrients used to make them are being used up. The same goes for computers and cars and lawn mowers.

[…]Start with good intentions right from the beginning of the design process. Optimizing materials means choosing the fabrics or metals or polymers that begin with goodness in mind.

[…]So how could we change our actions to support the diverse desires of people now and in future generations? We don’t have to suppress our desire for newness, for abundance.

[…]We can create a system for the natural and effective proliferation of computers, of sneakers, of carpet…of anything we want or need.

Could this really be possible? Design for repair and disassembly would go a long way, but end-of-life is just one side of a product’s environmental footprint. Will it ever be possible to manufacture computers without materials that ravage the earth? Without toxic elements?

We certainly hope so. What do you think?