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August 12, 2007 / or4green

Cradle to Cradle

Book: Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

cradleCover The key idea in this book is a design philosophy called eco-effective, in which products, systems, etc. are designed with all of their present and future impacts on human and environmental health in mind. In particular, the idea is for these systems to enrich the Earth and its inhabitants, not deplete and harm them as many current industrial systems do.

While acknowledging the good intentions behind mainstream environmentalism including the popular notion of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, the authors claim this type of approach only slows down the harmful effects of industry, but does not eliminate them. They are critical of much recycling, labeling it “down-cycling” to emphasize that the materials in a good typically go from a higher-end to a lower-end product. For example, plastic bottles are recycled to a lower-grade plastic. In addition, the recycled product may become something the original material was never intended to be. Recycled plastic bottles, some of which release toxins according to the book, can become decks of suburban homes. Another problem with recycling is that it can lock up valuable materials instead of extracting them and returning them to the manufacturer in pure form. As an example of this, the authors describe how when a car is scrapped for its steel, the copper cables in the car are not extracted. This is unfortunate, they point out, because copper is valuable on its own, but weakens the recycled steel in which it is contained.

Following the eco-effective principles, products should be designed to be recycled or up-cycled but not down-cycled. They should consist of biological components (termed “nutrients”) and technological nutrients. Ideally, products should be manufactured in a way that allows these two types of nutrients to be separated. The biological nutrients could be left to biodegrade, while the technological nutrients would flow back to factories to be reused.

The book includes several interesting examples of successful eco-effective design (roof gardens, buildings that function as air ducts, Ford auto factory redesign, etc.), many of which were led by the authors’ company. At times, the book takes on an alarmist tone without providing evidence on some of the claims being made. One example of this is the opening passage about the reader settling into a common chair to read the book while hazardous particles from the chair’s fabric become airborne and make their way to reader’s lungs. In all though, the book is highly thought-provoking and quite interesting.

Though the book is about design, its fundamental philosophy relates to all stages in the life-cycle of a good. As a result, it could impact any models used to develop and recycle products in this way. From an Operations Research perspective, one could aim towards optimal recycling in which down-cycling and the trapping of precious materials are minimized, among other goals. Eco-effective principles are an ideal way to close the supply chain loop. An earlier post here mentioned an upcoming EJOR paper with this feel. It is likely that others of the references on this site include eco-effective ideas as well. I plan to add more about them in the future.

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