William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
The environmental movement has invested significant time and energy over the last few decades trying to move us to a “sustainable” way of life; much of that effort can be summed up in the slogan “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” William McDonough and Michael Braungart find the goal of sustainability flat and uninspiring—they ask us to imagine our reaction if someone described his marriage as “sustainable.” Their book is an invitation to think in a radically different way about environmental issues, starting (but by no means ending) with conventional recycling efforts.
The basic problem with conventional recycling is that it would often be better described as “downcycling”: products that were never designed to be recycled are transformed into inferior products which are themselves only one step away from the landfill anyway. Moreover, the process of transformation often uses chemical processes with harmful byproducts and consumes a significant amount of energy.
Because it was not designed with recycling in mind, paper requires extensive bleaching and other chemical processes to make it blank again for reuse. The result is a mixture of chemicals, pulp, and in some cases toxic inks that are not really appropriate for handling and use. The fibers are shorter and the paper less smooth than virgin paper, allowing an even higher proportion of particles to abrade into the air, where they can be inhaled and can irritate the nasal passages and lungs. Some people have developed allergies to newspapers, which are often made from recycled paper.
The creative use of downcycled materials for new products can be misguided, despite good intentions. For example, people may feel that they are making an ecologically sound choice by buying and wearing clothing made of fibers from recycled plastic bottles. But the fibers from plastic bottles contain toxins such as antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants, which were never designed to lie next to human skin.
And so on. The moral is that recycling—or downcycling, rather—shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, we should design products from the start with the expectation that they will be reused. This is certainly possible—the book is filled with examples—but it does require a radical rethinking of the process of industrial design. M and B also challenge the idea that this needs to be especially expensive, claiming that a careful design process can actually help companies make money at the same time that they benefit the environment. M and B, it seems, never met a cake without dreaming up some way to have and eat it at the same time.
In an interesting twist, M and B have decided to make this point using the very materials on which their book is printed.
Imagine if we were to rethink the entire concept of a book, considering not only the practicalities of manufacture and use but the pleasures that might be brought to both . . . .
Is it an electronic book? Perhaps—that form is still in its infancy [Cradle to Cradle was published in 2002]. Or perhaps it takes another form as yet unimagined by us. But many people find the form of the traditional book both convenient and delightful. What if we reconceived not the shape of the object but the materials of which it is made, in the context of its relationship to the natural world? How could it be a boon to both people and the environment?
We might begin by considering whether paper itself is a proper vehicle for reading matter . . . Let’s imagine a book that is not a tree. It is not even paper. Instead, it is made of plastics developed around a completely different paradigm for materials, 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 awkward afterthought. This “paper” doesn’t require cutting down trees or leaching chlorine into waterways. The inks are nontoxic and can be washed off the polymer with a simple and safe chemical process or an extremely hot water bath, from either of which they can be recovered and reused. 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 single one-step recycling process.
This passage nicely captures the refreshingly creative approach the author’s take to their subjects. The inspired choice of their own book’s materials to illustrate the principles inscribed on it ensures that the lesson is never far from the reader’s mind. Unless you’re reading it on a Kindle, Cradle to Cradle doesn’t feel like an ordinary book. The plastic pages feel smooth; it smells nice, in my opinion; it’s surprisingly heavy.
Just as they urge us to reconsider conventional recycling, M and B also try to get us to do the same with a host of related concepts that have been an important part of the conventional wisdom among environmentalists for decades. Too much legislation, too much activism, has been dominated by the notion of harm reduction, when in fact we should be trying to dream up ways in which products might benefit the larger ecology to which they belong. And they tell us about buildings that produce more energy than they consume and factories which pump out water used in the industrial process cleaner than it entered the factory. (If you find this all very cool but don’t have time to read the book, you should check out M’s TED talk. Very cool.)
Cradle to Cradle is strongest when it descends from abstractions to the description of actual projects undertaken by M and B—the former is an architect and the latter a chemist. It’s a pity, then, that they don’t do this more often. Instead, much of the book is taken up with an extraordinarily repetitive account of its general principles. This book could and should have been much less tedious, and much shorter. It could also have been better written. I was surprised to read that the book was actually ghostwritten by a poet. The prose was often so awkward, and the material so poorly organized, that the book actually read as exactly the sort of earnest but flawed effort you might expect from two people with great ideas and little ability to write.
Back to the physical materials in the book for a moment. The idea, recall, is that these materials are technical nutrients. This means that when the world no longer needs Cradle to Cradle, the publisher can simply wash the pages clean and publish a new book. But as I mulled the idea over (and discussed it with a friend, who added a nice helping of sceptical mockery), it started to bother me even more than the sheer weight of the book (even I, with my massively powerful upper body, would not want to carry around a knapsack of such books). Eventually I clued in to the fact that nowhere on the book is there any information about where to return unwanted copies. In other words, after putting an enormous amount of effort into making the ideas in their book concrete, and then telling us over and over about how awesome this all is, M and B appear to have completely neglected to actually implement the idea, or rather, to implement to the idea past the point of gimmickry.
Not yet willing to give up, I called the office of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They put me through to someone in the production department who sounded thoroughly stumped when I asked her if it was possible to actually return the book to them for reprinting. “Oh, we get calls asking about the material,” she told me, “but no one has ever asked about returning it.” She promised to get back to me after looking into the matter. After a bit of back and forth by email, I confirmed my hunch that when M and B say that “the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a single one-step recycling process,” the “can” here refers to the theoretical possibility of reuse, and does not imply that anyone will ever actually bother to do it.
I don’t want to be a dick about this, so let me just say that I think it’s ok that this reconceptualization of the traditional book has its problems. I bring it up because it illustrates how difficult it is to reconceptualize something traditional without broader and far-reaching changes in consumer habits and patterns of distribution. But if this cheeky takedown of M has anything to it, it also illustrates a general problem M has translating his visionary ideas into actual practice.
So that’s my impression of this book: visionary, provocative, necessary, flawed, and pretty badly written. On balance, I think it’s worth reading and wrestling with in spite of its faults. You can hardly escape it without a fresh perspective on traditional environmentalism and the sense of a whole world of possibilities awaiting us if we approach it the right way.
(If you just can’t get enough about this book, Steve’s review is much friendlier (and more informative, actually).
Howls of outrage (3)