Cradle To Cradle Summary

William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Cradle To Cradle

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Cradle To Cradle Summary

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The combined efforts of a chemist and an architect, Cradle to Cradle is an environmental manifesto that seeks to change the reader’s perspective of eco-friendly design, industrial recycling, and sustainable production. Specifically, it seeks to break society’s acceptance of the long-standing “cradle to grave” design model in which waste products and pollutants are accepted as inevitable aspects of the design and production process. In place of this, the book puts forward arguments and directions for creating a “cradle to cradle” model in which, instead of eventually becoming some form of waste product, all materials continue to circulate within healthy, sustainable cycles.

In the introduction, the authors explain how the book itself is an example of the cradle to cradle design model. Traditionally, books are made from paper, produced from wood fibers from trees. However, the authors argue that given the vital ecological role trees play in the world’s ecosystems and the destructive effects of deforestation, this is a wasteful use of a precious resource. Accordingly, they printed their book on synthetic paper made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. This not only resembles extremely high-quality paper but is actually more durable and even waterproof. Additionally, unlike paper which may be recycled a number of times but will eventually become a waste product to be disposed of, a book made from synthetic paper can be recycled into new books almost indefinitely.

Our existing design model takes materials from the natural world—from nature’s “cradle”—manufactures them into a saleable product, and then, when they are no longer usable or wanted, deposits them into the “grave” of a landfill or incinerator. A great many of the products dumped in this manner contain toxic substances that have a hugely detrimental effect on the environment.

Even society’s growing awareness of recycling does not greatly reduce this damage. In fact, the authors argue that recycling as we currently practice it actually maintains the destructive cradle to grave system by convincing us that damage limitation is sufficient. For example, while plastic bottles may be recycled into other products such as fabrics for clothing, these products are not generally recycled again and the materials are eventually destined for an incinerator or landfill. This slows down our negative impact on the environment but does not stop it and does not lead to us questioning the whole destructive model. What is required is a complete overhaul of our approach, beginning at the design stage.

One aspect of this involves designing products to work in line with nature and natural forces. A good example is designing buildings with turf roofing. Unlike standard roofing materials, turf roofs regulate the temperature inside the building making climate control more efficient and protecting the building’s other materials from thermal damage and weathering. It also absorbs rainfall, reducing the need for storm drains and other facilities, and provides natural habitats for a variety of plants and animals. As such, the building is already, right from the design stage, considerably more efficient and environmentally-friendly in several ways.

As well as working with nature, effective designs can also follow the example of nature. Natural systems do not have waste products. Instead, materials become food for other organisms within an ecosystem (for example, leaves from a tree are eaten by animals or decompose and provide nutrients in the soil). In this sense, ecosystems are the original cradle to cradle system, where no materials are “thrown away” and taken out of circulation. This can be mimicked by designing products that can be reduced to “biological nutrients” or “technical nutrients.” Biological nutrients are materials such as biodegradable fabrics that can safely decompose to feed biological cycles. Technical nutrients are materials such as the book’s synthetic paper which can safely reenter industrial cycles and be used to make more products.

Importantly, if a product is designed to be easily disassembled, then it can contain parts that will become biological nutrients and parts that will become technical nutrients. For example, a shoe designed to be easily separated into its components at the end of its useful life can be separated into cloth components to be composted and rubber components that can be recycled to make more rubber components. Currently, however, many such products are what the authors call “monstrous hybrids” that can neither decompose to feed biological cycles nor be properly reused in industrial cycles and so become toxic refuse dumped in landfills.

Another important way of following nature is making products that are appropriate to local environments rather than attempting a “one size fits all” solution. This is particularly significant when the “one size fits all” solution is designed to suit the most extreme circumstances that the product may face as this means that the product will be overdesigned for most standard circumstances. Designing products to be in line with the local environments makes them more efficient and more effective, especially if the production process employs local energy sources and materials.

The book closes with pointers to guide anyone attempting put these design principles into practice. One of the key ideas proposed is that one must commit to radically redesigning a product rather than simply tweaking it, as this is both more effective for solving problems and can lead to larger markets. Another key suggestion is that designers should ensure that the product being designed supports and nurtures the environment and community in which it is produced and placed. This point should be considered not only in immediate terms but also in terms of how it will affect future generations. Finally, the authors observe that designers and innovators should be prepared to face difficulties and a steep learning curve along the way.