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William McDonough

William
McDonough

Architect, designer, thought leader and advisor, he is the co-author of Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle.

Circular economy expert
William McDonough

Cradle to Cradle Design and the Circular Economy

 

As designers, we promote a positive vision of the future; based upon the belief that many of the environmental problems we face are, at root, design challenges. There is no end game—there is only the infinite game, where materials are kept in safe and healthy closed-loop flows within effective material recovery systems generation after generation. We call it Cradle to Cradle® and our goal is very simple:

 

A delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, soil, water, and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.

 

Rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, Cradle to Cradle reframes design as a beneficial, regenerative force—one that seeks to create ecological footprints to delight in, not lament. It expands the definition of design quality to include positive effects on economic, ecological, and social health, in addition to the traditional architectural standards of commodity, firmness and delight.

 

Cradle to Cradle has five characteristics that are in order, not necessarily of importance, but as a set of applications.

 

First is healthy and safe materials designed for biological and technical cycles. Ideally, everything that goes into a product is beneficial not just for the product itself, but also for human and ecological health. Industry would no longer have to work at reducing harmful inputs because they wouldn’t include those inputs to begin with. In Cradle to Cradle-inspired designs, instead of seeing materials as a waste management problem, we see materials as nutrients within two safe metabolisms: biological and technical. Materials designed as biological nutrients can biodegrade safely and restore the soil after use. Materials designed as technical nutrients can provide high-quality, high-tech ingredients endlessly reused generation after generation.

 

Once you have defined, high-quality, safe and healthy ingredients, the second characterization of Cradle to Cradle is material reutilization, or what is now known as the Circular Economy. In nature, there is no such thing as “waste”- the waste of one system becomes food for another. If we apply this concept to commerce, a product is broken up into valued resources flowing in a continuous loop of natural and human activity at the end of its use or reuse. The entire concept of waste is eliminated.

 

For technical nutrients, the idea of Products-of-Service has become an important concept for Cradle to Cradle and the Circular Economy. It changes the language from what was conventionally referred to as “end-of-life,” or lifecycle design, to “end-of-use,” because a lot of materials, especially technical nutrition, aren’t alive.

 

As designers, we should always ask ourselves, “What’s next?” What is going to happen to this design after it’s used? What will be its next use? Can it be endlessly reused? Will it return to the earth safely and contribute to healthy soil? Rather than designing for end-of-life, which typically means a product will end up in a landfill or incinerator, you’re actually saying, « I’m designing for next use. »

 

The third aspect of Cradle to Cradle is clean and renewable carbon-free energy. The goal is to rely on energy that sustains resources rather than consumes them or endangers people. Instead of fossil fuels, which take carbon from the ground and release it into the atmosphere, or nuclear power that generates harmful byproducts, industry can use renewable sources that leave the world as well-endowed as before.

 

The fourth characteristic is clean water. Processes leave water supplies as good as or better than they were when production started, ideally at drinking water quality. Each process stage uses only readily available water, and effluent is so clean that it can be continually reused within the factory or released for the benefit of the surrounding community or ecosystem.

 

Finally, we have shared and fair abundance for all. Our economies are good not just in the quality of materials being circulated, but also in how the people who make them function are treated. Individual human dignity and creativity are promoted, with safe working conditions and accommodation for family living circumstances. Fairness is also promoted, so groups of laborers or suppliers aren’t exploited with dangerously low wages or prices along the entire value chain.

 

The Cradle to Cradle Design Framework provides a set of quality-based guidelines for designers: « Let’s do the right things, let’s do the them over and over again, let’s power it with clean energy, and let’s make sure we have clean water and social benefit for everyone, everywhere, for all time. »

 

The questions around Cradle to Cradle are really quite simple, and the end goals are quite clear. Getting from here to there presents great opportunities for design innovation, creativity, and revolution.

 

©2017 William McDonough. All rights reserved.

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