Green Design: What is Cradle to Cradle?



You know those Little Free Libraries? They’re the “take one, leave one” free book exchanges, usually housed in cute wooden boxes on residential streets. They’re a really good idea. 

This post isn’t about Little Free Libraries, but I felt they warrant a mention because it was in a Little Free Library that I found Cradle to Cradle, a book which is also a really good idea. 

One evening, I stopped to thumb through my local library- mostly a collection of obscure paperbacks- and pulled out a blue and green and unusually heavy book. The plain front cover read “remaking the way we make things” and under that, “Cradle to Cradle.”

The description on the back began with the words I say with so much frequency that they’d become my personal mantra: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Hooked. I tucked the book under my arm. 

Only once at home did I read the next sentence, which made the provocative claim that “reduce, reuse, recycle” perpetuates our wasteful manufacturing model. How could this be?

Well, reduce, reuse, recycle just tells us to do less bad, instead of good. But I didn’t know that yet. 

If reduce, reuse, recycle wasn’t good, I wanted to know what was. 

What is Cradle to Cradle?

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) is a set of design principles that explains how consumer products can be manufactured so that at the end of their useful lives, they provide nourishment for something new.

C2C was laid out by William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart, an architect and a chemist, who synergized their knowledge of design and raw elements to come up with an entirely new way of thinking about manufacturing, one which mimics the waste-lessness of nature. 

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem, we do.” 

Think about a tree, which excretes CO2 and drops leaves all over the ground. None of this is waste. The leaves break down and nourish new life, as does everything else in nature. If all of our products are made with what the earth gives us, why can’t our products have the same fate as those leaves? 

Well, because we extract and chemically change certain materials, making them impossible to put back into the earth. Like plastic. 

But this book is made of plastic. 

The Cradle to Cradle book is made of plastic. Entirely of plastic, which explains why it’s so heavy. As someone resolutely anti-plastic, who has tried to banish most forms of it from my household, I was taken aback by such sneakiness. 

But the book rebutted my stamp of disapproval. Made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers rather than wood pulp and cotton fiber, this book is waterproof, durable, and recyclable by conventional means. 

Still, how could making a book of plastic be more environmentally friendly than making a book out of paper?

Consider that our familiar paperback book isn’t good for the environment. In actuality, it's a Frankensteinien blend of materials that when put together, are extremely difficult to recycle. The front cover is a mix of wood pulp, polymers, and coatings, it’s bound with chemical adhesives, and the entirety of text is printed with carbon based inks, containing heavy metals and halogenated hydrocarbons. 

Therefore, a paperback book cannot be composted, as it is not made only of trees. It cannot be burned, because doing so would release toxic dioxins. And, paper gets weaker every time it gets recycled, so a recycled book is in fact a downcycled book. 

This plastic book can be upcycled, meaning that it can get recycled many times over without the polymer losing strength. Recycling the plastic book is a one step process because the front cover of the book is made of the same polymer as the “paper” pages. The ink will even wash off in extremely hot water for reuse. 

Understanding why this book is made of plastic is the foundation for understanding the framework of Cradle to Cradle thinking: 

Waste is just a valuable material in the wrong place.

What we consider waste could actually be a valuable resource. Even plastic, the scourge of the oceans, doesn't have to become plastic pollution.

Biological & Technical Nutrients

Cradle to Cradle says that the world we live in has two metabolisms - the biological and the technical. Biological nutrients are useful to the biosphere- they can be taken from and reenter the soil.

Technical nutrients - like plastic- are of the technosphere. They are manmade extractions which cannot be returned to the soil but which can remain indefinitely in industrial processes. 

Monstrous Hybrids

Most goods are produced without regard for the differences in biological and technical nutrients, thus creating “monstrous hybrids” which cannot be salvaged after their current lives. 

Take a leather shoe. Leather is of course a biological nutrient, but today is tanned with carcinogenic chromium and bound with a mishmash of lead-containing plastics and rubber.

This shoe is a monstrous hybrid. In combining the biological nutrients of leather and the technical nutrients of plastic and rubber, these otherwise valuable materials are fated for the landfill. The shoe is a cradle-to-grave product. 

From Eco Efficiency to Eco Effectiveness

Cradle-to-grave products are built for efficiency. They flow along a take-make-waste model, which benefits industry and the economy, but not the organisms that live within it. As it stands, the growth of industry drains and toxifies our world. 

Reduce and reuse are eco-efficient approaches- they don’t make industrial processes any less damaging. Eco efficiency says to mitigate the effects of industry by using and buying less. It implies that industry and a liveable planet are mutually exclusive. We can’t have them both. 

But in reality, mitigation won’t save us and it isn’t sustainable. 

Eco effectiveness says that industry can mimic the waste-lessness of nature, and can therefore be sustainable and even beneficial to the planet. 

An eco effective approach involves designing products so that technical nutrients can go back into a closed-loop cycle of industry, and biological nutrients can return to the soil. Eco effectiveness means doing good instead of less bad. 

“Eco effectiveness sees commerce as the engine of change, and it honors its need to function quickly and productively. But it also recognizes that if commerce shuns environmental, social, and cultural concerns, it will produce a large-scale tragedy of the commons, destroying valuable natural and human resources for generations to come.”

Necessity, greed, convenience, and so many other factors make human industry a nearly unstoppable force. Industry is growing, not shrinking, and to try to halt it or slow it down would be fighting our own nature. A more realistic approach to our industry problem is to use our ingenuity and creativity to make industry beneficial to the planet. 

We don’t have to shrink human industry. Instead, we have redesigned it so that it nourishes the planet and flows with natural energy cycles. 

Before we redesign our industry, we have to redesign our thinking. Reduce reuse recycle is only harmful if we pretend that it is all we can do to save the planet. Right now, we can give ourselves more time by using less and making more sustainable, eco efficient choices. But in the long run, we need to take an eco effective approach. 

Five guiding principles for eco effectiveness (for businesses)

1. Signal your intention.

Commit to a new eco effective paradigm, rather than continuing to slowly work on the old eco efficient paradigm.

For example, a shoe company can commit to developing shoes that are not monstrous hybrids and take slow, meaningful steps towards such an achievement.

2. Restore

Strive for good growth, not just economic growth.

Make business activities and products can nourish the planet and community. Strive for a triple top line, not just a triple bottom line.

3. Be ready to innovate further

Don’t stop at perfection. Instead, look forward and keep innovating.

A car manufacturer may have designed a perfect new internal combustion engine.

But with fuel cells, this ‘perfect’ product could soon become obsolete. Don’t stop at the current definition of perfection.

4. Understand and prepare for the learning curve. 

To move along the learning curve, you have to make mistakes.

You may have ideas that are not feasible today, but might be possible ten years down the road. Use these ideas in your design.

“The ability to adapt and innovate requires a ‘loose fit’ - room for growing in a new way.”

5. Exert intergenerational responsibility. 

Are the choices and innovations that you make today going to benefit future generations of all species?

    Cradle to Cradle Certified Products 
    As an individual, you can support eco effectiveness by supporting businesses that are eco effective. Cradle to Cradle now has a certification process for products that are safe and sustainable and designed for a circular economy. 

    Cradle to Cradle Certified products are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy and Carbon Management, Water Stewardship, and Social Fairness.

    Check out the C2C database of Cradle to Cradle certified products here. It's full of really good ideas. 

     Reincorporating nature

    Humans used to live in synch with nature. Our ancestors used their surrounding weather patterns and local ecology for survival and comfort. 

    Responding to ecological diversity gave way to cultural diversity. Diversity in every sense makes our world resilient, interesting, and beautiful.

    In contrast, modern civilization quite literally boxes out and paves over nature, effectively creating a monoculture. Our homes are closed off to natural energy flows, our products are made with zero consideration for how they will impact the planet when their useful lives are over. 

    “A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollution, and waste”

    Our world could look a lot different - and better- than it does right now. What if office buildings purified water and collected solar energy? What if books were made of plastic and trees were left to clean the air? What if we knew how to break down and repurpose everything we own? What if all of these things showed respect for where they came from and the people that make them?

    Going full Cradle to Cradle is not an easy feat. But we’re never going to start doing good if we only aim to do less bad.

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