Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, REDESIGN

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

"This book is not a tree." That's the title to the Introduction of this interesting, thought-inducing, and ultimately hopeful book that calls us to consider how we can move as a people from being "less bad" in terms of our relationship to the environment, to a state of actively promoting its health. Cradle to Cradle contains no wood or cotton fibers. Instead, it is printed on a synthetic paper made of plastic resins and is considered a "technical nutrient" - meaning that its materials can be broken down and used over and over again in an infinite industrial cycle that does not cause any chemical damage to the environment.

William McDonough is an architect, and Michael Braungart is a chemist. They have both devoted their careers to figuring out how to design and produce products that promote the planet's health - they were both involved in a completely "green" building at Oberlin College that has gained worldwide attention. What came clear to me me when I read Cradle to Cradle is that the old mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle" will only get us so far, and not very far at that. McDonough and Braungart point out that recycling substances like plastics and cardboard usually results in a less durable, inferior project from the original. Likewise, reusing something only postpones its eventual destination of the landfill. Reducing the amount of trash we produce, trees we cut down, and chemicals that we release into the atmosphere also only delays the day of reckoning.

McDonough and Braungart make a persuasive case for going back to square one - creating products that are either "biological nutrients," (meaning that they easily reenter the water, soil, and air without depositing toxins), or the previously mentioned "technical nutrients" that continually circulate and remain useful. Some of their proposals seem a little far fetched, but I am not an engineer, and architect, or a chemist. They are probably no more far fetched than an automobile was 150 years ago. I am glad there are people taking the long term view regarding how we can do better and leave the planet better than we found it.

On the one hand, Cradle to Cradle is overwhelming and scary. It wigs me out to think about the chemicals in clothing, furniture, cars, and food. But the book also makes me optimistic. There are phenomenally bright and creative people who are dedicating much of their energy and time to designing and making things that will lead to a brighter, healthier future for all of us. That is something to be excited about, and I look forward to learning more about their work.

Reverent Reader

P.S. I will say that the synthetic paper does not absorb the ink from highlighter pens as well as wood based paper, and it doesn't take ink from regular pens at all. So it is hard to make note of the best parts, but that is a small price to pay for saving some trees.


At 9/10/09, 6:43 PM , Blogger ssf said...

I read this one as part of my ecological design class at Oberlin and thought it was quite inspiring and hopeful as well. Pencil wrote pretty well on it. I did think the heaviness of the "paper" was a bit of a drawback though.

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