Redesigning instead of Reducing

After reading Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things four years ago, my thoughts about environmentalism were uprooted and new thoughts began to sprout. Just this month, I read The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance to find new ideas the same authors had to share. Radiating environmental optimism, the books describe just-crazy-enough-to-work ideas that only emerged after the figurative drawing board was completely erased. Authors William McDonough (an architect) and Michael Braungart (a chemist) quote Albert Einstein: “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”


Redesigning instead of Reducing

McDonough and Braungart wrote the Hannover Principles in 1992 and incorporated them into Cradle to Cradle (2002) and The Upcycle (2013) to describe how to design products and services that make a positive impact on the planet and allow for sustainable growth. One of the nine Hannover principles is “Eliminate the concept of waste.” To achieve this, the authors explain that our strategy should involve completely redesigning products themselves instead of just consuming less, reducing landfill waste, and recycling more of our current products.

Their mantra is “be good instead of being less bad.” It’s important that we try to reduce our carbon footprints and waste generation (i.e., be “less bad”). But even if everyone does this, doesn’t it simply delay the undesirable consequences of our resource use? Instead of extreme reducing, they argue that we need to be redesigning.

Redesigning does not mean making products better/safer/eco-friendlier than their current states, but rather going back to square one with the novel goal to “eliminate the concept of waste.” They envision products that create a positive impact on the planet by contributing to cycles of either biological or technical nutrients at the end of their lifetime, instead of ending up in a landfill or as non-degradable litter. They look to nature and biological processes as models of these nutrient cycles. A synopsis of the cradle to cradle ideas can also be read in their short publication about  green engineering principles.

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Is this possible?

Look at all of the things around you and imagine all of the places that produce these things- are McDonough and Braungart’s ideas really feasible or is this a far-fetched utopia? Cradle to Cradle leaves readers’ minds buzzing with new solutions for engineering products and services that will create sustainable industrial growth while helping the environment thrive. The steps to these solutions are broadly outlined and seem difficult to accomplish.

Cue The Upcycle, the authors’ latest addition to the Cradle to Cradle family which gives readers concrete examples of companies that are incorporating cradle to cradle design. “Upcycle” is a term intended to replace “recycle.” When products are recycled they are combined with products made from the same materials, including additives like dyes, adhesives, and chemicals used to make the products. Because plastic polymers and paper fibers shorten in each round of recycling, and because of product additives, recycled products are of lesser quality and eventually cannot be recycled further. If the product is not wholly biodegradable, eventually it becomes waste. Upcycling, on the other hand, refers to an indefinite process in which products can easily be disassembled and remanufactured into high-quality products, the use of which creates positive environmental impacts.


Environmental Strategy meets Economic Strategy

In The Upcycle, the authors reaffirm the Hannover principles and question the view that everyone needs to shrink their impact: “is modern environmental strategy simply to tell people what not to do?” The book describes many companies who have joined the C2C certification program, which helps companies begin the process of redesigning their products and services so that they are not only environmentally benign but also beneficial. The C2C Products Innovation Institute marks these companies with the C2C logo to let consumers know about their efforts, which ultimately lead to economic advantages.

The redesign process starts by re-evaluating the purpose of the product and by planning how it can be reused to make another high-quality product at the end of its lifetime. Companies list every material and energy source that goes into making a product- a complicated feat given that many suppliers won’t tell their sources. The material list is greatly trimmed or started from scratch. Unsafe and unwarranted ingredients are nixed and safe replacements are found or created. Facilities begin to rely on wind and solar energy, and take advantage of weather patterns for water, heating, and cooling.

Other initiatives include manufacturers being responsible for products by effectively leasing them to consumers. Consumers can return products to the manufacturer at the end of the product’s usable lifetime and receive discounts on replacements. The manufacturer can easily disassemble the product and recover all of its technical nutrients for use in the manufacture of new products.


Design to make the old model obsolete

A relevant quote that I think fits the essence of cradle to cradle design is “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller. The realization of cradle to cradle ideas may seem a long way off, but a new model is needed and ideas like these spur such a model in which upcycling replaces recycling and nutrients replace waste. Consumers would not need to be persuaded to make environmentally ethical purchasing decisions because products would be both economically and environmentally favorable.

In a Solid Waste Engineering class in college, my peers and I learned the logistics of different waste fates (e.g., landfilling, composting, incineration, recycling). Our professor said that landfills would always be needed because the ash from incineration needs to be landfilled, not to mention hazardous wastes that need to be stored to prevent environmental contamination. At the time, I thought of cradle to cradle design and wondered if there would become a time when nothing is sent to a landfill anymore. Source reduction, composting, and recycling are ways to decrease the amount of waste sent to landfills, but a continuous cycle of biological and technical nutrients that is the hallmark of cradle to cradle design can go beyond reduction and make the concept of waste itself obsolete.

2 thoughts on “Redesigning instead of Reducing

  1. Hi Sarah,
    While I eat my lunch here at NSOE, I take a few minutes to read the blogs that are posted. I must take the time to commend you on an excellent blog. I had never heard of upcycle and given my current position in the Nic School as Administrative Services Manager this given me new insight to my job and what products we should look for in the near future.

    I love your blog and thought you did an excellent and professional job and it was well written. Thanks so much for being a part of our community and for what you wrote. I found it very educational for me and informative.


    1. Hi Anne- I really appreciate your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading our blogs!

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