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June 26, 2014 / or4green

The Upcycle

The UpcycleI recently finished reading The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  It is the follow-up to their inspiring 2002 book Cradle to Cradle, which I wrote about in one of the first posts on this blog in 2007.

The Upcycle extends some of the key concepts from Cradle to Cradle such as its critical take on recycling as “downcycling”, the elegant notion of designing materials to be easily separated back into “biological nutrients” and “technical nutrients”, and more.  It takes the philosophy of the earlier book about solving sustainability challenges through design further and deeper.  And it also delves into new areas especially energy usage.  The authors reject a common tenet of many sustainability thinkers that we must consume less, focus on polluting less, and generally veer towards a more ascetic lifestyle.  McDonough and Braungart write optimistically about utilizing the plentiful energy from the sun to meet the needs as well as the nice-to-haves (the new housing complex, the long hot shower, etc.) of the current and future generations, and do so in a way that not only does not hurt the planet, but that benefits it.

Below are a number of interesting bits from the book.  I’ve roughly categorized them as “problem”, “solutions”, “philosophy”, and “follow-ups”.


  • Burning fossil fuels moves valuable carbon from the ground into the atmosphere.  There it is effectively out of reach and it is hard to get it to cycle back to land and sea at its natural rate.  “It would be like sending gold dust into the sky, or diamonds,” they say.  p38
  • On the large and costly ($1 billion/year) regulatory structure in place for nuclear power:  “Regulation is an indicator of the need to redesign.”  p97


  • “Imagine a building that uses renewable energy for its operations and to offset the energy used to make the building, contributes extra energy to the grid!”  p69
  • A nice connection to multiple-objective optimization:  a company called Steelcase, wanted to swap out PVC (polyvinyl chloride) for something less toxic in the production of their “Think Chair”.  Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is an option but has greater embodied energy.  Embodied energy measures the total lifecycle energy associated with a material from production to transportation to usage through to disposal.  Steelcase made the call that toxicity was of greater concern.  The logic there is that it is easier to make energy renewable than to detoxify what has been polluted.  (This adds an interesting perspective to the incandescent versus CFL light bulb debate, to be made moot by LEDs in the near future.)    p75
  • Thanks to large supplies of geothermal and hyrdo energy, Iceland has the potential to export renewable energy.  But transmission is a problem.  Instead the energy could be embodied in materials.  Materials function as batteries (effectively, not literally).  In other words, use that excess energy to produce materials that are then efficiently exported in a way that energy could not be.  Iceland went with this concept applied to producing aluminum.  Unfortunately there ended up being some sustainability issues in that, such as the construction of a huge dam and others. p101
  • Chapter 4 “Soil not Oil” closes with a very interesting discussion on converting wind energy to light to grow produce in greenhouses.  The greenhouses can be anywhere (on roofs, underground, etc.) since they are relying on artificial light.  The LED lights would be tailored to the light frequency requirements of the particular fruits and vegetables.  The system can take advantage of wind gusts occurring in the middle of the night, a time when there is generally not much demand for energy.  Roughly, I interpret the idea like this – in nature, if you rely on rain, it can be sporadic.  But it is normally useful when it does come.  If it is windy but irregularly so, and that wind translates to light, then the light comes and goes like the rain.  As long as there is enough light (as there also needs to be enough rain), then the plant will grow.  If not, additional energy can be added to the system.   p142
  • IBM Building atrium by Matthew Bisanz via wikipedia

    IBM Building atrium by Matthew Bisanz via wikipedia

    When I lived in Manhattan several years ago, I would sometimes spend time in public spaces of huge buildings like the Sony, IBM, and Citicorp buildings in midtown.  I enjoyed these spaces and at first assumed the companies altruistically offered them to the public.  In fact, they are usually part of a deal between the company and city, provided in exchange for certain building rights (e.g. the right to build higher).  McDonough and Braungart refer to this in Chapter 5:  “It is not uncommon for real estate developers to be asked to provide public benefits in exchange for permission to develop building projects in sought-after locations.”  The authors put a different spin on this idea.  Instead of providing public space, the builders might be asked to provide energy, in a manner of speaking.  They give an example of a developer building 400 new apartments in Beijing and having to “mine the old city for energy” in return.  So instead of a new building having to build a park, the builders would have to upgrade aging inefficient energy generation in existing buildings.  And ideally the overall outcome is that more people are accommodated in housing using less total energy – the new building is highly efficient while the old ones are made significantly more energy efficient than they were. p174

  • “The US Postal Service committed to understanding every single material in its supply chain and to phasing out, right away, the highest priority substances – namely, anything teratogenic, mutagenic, or carcinogenic… advancing through a progression of inventory, assessment, and optimization…”  P192


  • “Crade to Cradle designers and manufacturers know that they are engaged in what Buddhists call “right livelihood”, a way of making a living within the framework of right behavior that allows them to happily present themselves to their children.” p20.
  • There is the story of McDonough’s childhood gardener in Japan, Oji-san, who cut the grass by hand with a sickle.  Oji-san’s face fell when he was brought a push mower.  “… the silence and the careful, constant tending are part of what makes Japanese gardens authentic.  Efficient, mechanical, quick mowing would change all of that and make Oji-san less valuable and necessary.  …  He practiced what the Japanese call shokunin – social obligation, physical, mental, and spiritual – to care for this beautiful place.”  This reminded me a little of the least popular of the suggestions I entered into the GreenGov Challenge in 2009 about raking leaves instead of using leaf blowers, etc.
  • There are many implicit OR connections in a book like this.  These are inherent in sustainability because of its competing objectives.  I was surprised by how many times the word “optimize” was used.  I counted at least ten but I am sure it was many more than that.  Here are a few examples:
    • On how people set their thermostats, p64: “There is no optimization occurring in terms of fuel use or anything else.”
    •  “Design could optimize systems and then let human hands have the control.”  This is connected to material about a NASA building and climate control within, people can open windows, etc … p155.
    • “We think always of the upcycle: Optimize materials or their ingredients.  Optimize product pathways.  Optimize nutrient management.”
    • About carpet, p163:  “A more optimal solution exists.”  Oops – “more optimal” doesn’t really make sense.  Reminds me of the O.R. talk (Jeff Camm?) in which the speaker mocked the Kia Optima, a plural vehicle.
    • The book ends with 10 points to take away, #5 of which is “Optimize, Optimize, Optimize” (p214).    “It doesn’t make us happy to see your downward-sloping lines of fewer carbon emissions, fewer toxins.  We want to see your rising lines of positive aspirations and beneficial commitments.”  In a way they are not really talking about optimization here, but about optimism versus pessimism.  Rather than reduce harmful emissions, let us increase beneficial ones, they say.  But on the other hand, there is the sense that a constraint or goal (meaning a “goal programming” type goal) is negatively or at least narrowly defined while an objective can have a more positive, wide open feel.  While constraining the bad stuff to be below some level is good, it is somehow limited in imagination.  Maximizing benefits on the other hand is more open-ended, has greater possibilities, or at least can feel that way.
  • “The most effective transformational foundation of Cradle to Cradle is, to the surprise of some, not environmental.  Nor is it ethical.  It is economic.  If Cradle to Cradle fails as a business concept and innovation engine, then it fails, period.  … It succeeds when it celebrates economic growth … when it upcycles the economy, and ecological and ethical benefits accrue.”  p189

Follow-ups (just a few of the many mentioned in the book, there are four pages of end notes)

  • Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament (1940) … led to beginnings of organic farming, composting, …
  • Kurosowa’s Dersu Uzala (film)  I watched it as a result of reading about it in The Upccyle.  I would highly recommend it.
  • – Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.  This website and organization accompanies the book.  It has a decent lookup tool for c2c products (I found some insulation there) and discussion forums.

All told, the book is filled with ideas and examples that feel like they could be part of a sustainable future, ideas that will one day be commonplace, though they may seem far-fetched today.  Like Cradle to Cradle it is an inspiring read.  I will follow up soon with a post about some action I took as a result of reading it.

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