In their book Cradle to Cradle, sustainability writers William (Bill) McDonough and Michael Braungart argued that we should be thinking not in terms of Cradle to Grave — birth to death — for products. Instead, we should be thinking of reuse. Their second book along those lines, Upcycle, goes further. Their basic argument is that we should be eliminating the concept of waste.
What Is Waste?
The authors want us to stop thinking of waste. We should be thinking of things that remain after use as a potential nutrient for something else. This is how nature works. When a plant or animal dies it isn’t waste. It is a vital ingredient for some other types of life. We don’t see lots of waste animals lying around. (I do have a lot of dead plants in my garden but I’m hoping if I ignore them nature will take care of them in its own mysterious way).
The authors talk of biological nutrients, e.g., organic materials, that get reused by nature. If we are to eliminate the concept of waste we can think of inorganic materials as technical nutrients. They can feed other non-organic systems when their current configuration comes to the end of its current ‘life’.
Designing Away Waste
Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem.McDonough and Braungart (2013) page 7
The authors want to see a world where designers think through what happens after ‘life’. What ends will the product be put to after its current use? How can the parts be reused and how can the current product be designed to make reuse easier? How can the materials be recombined to create something else? This is taking a Cradle to Cradle Perspective.
McDonough and Braungart want us to think about our actions as not so much focused on reducing the harm that we cause. Instead, they want you to think of the benefits that you can generate. A tree doesn’t produce zero emissions. It produces positive emissions. Trees are a lot better for life on the planet than just doing no harm. Humans can be that too.
Eliminating The Concept Of Waste To Create Abundance
Overall, I appreciated the positive tone of the book. It is clear that human beings have made a number of significant mistakes in the way that we have treated the world. That said, the key thing is getting better going forward. Progress is good, however small.
Upcycling is moving positively forward, no matter how small the steps.McDonough and Braungart (2013) page 204
Wanting Doesn’t Make You Bad
The authors also don’t object to people wanting stuff. Humans like stuff and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Instead, the hope is that we can get to a world of abundance where everyone has what they need and even stuff that they just want. We just need things to be better designed so the things we want have a positive, rather than negative, impact.
Desire for these things [cars, washing machines etc..] is not decadent but a perfectly legitimate preference for more ease and enjoyment in life.McDonough and Braungart (2013) page 147
I personally have always been suspicious of puritanical people. (My dad was from Plymouth, England, a place that successfully got rid of its buzzkills). The point is to design products that give people joy but don’t destroy the world while doing it. The ‘good thing’ about the wastefulness of a lot of what we currently do is that there are pretty obvious ways to get better.
In such a world humans aren’t the pestilence that some people, for mysterious reasons, seem to think that we all are. A better-designed world can support all the people living on the planet perfectly well.
The authors use the word “usufruct”. This means to benefit from property owned by someone else as long as you don’t reduce its value. Apparently, this was a term used by Thomas Jefferson. It is a great term even if it hasn’t proved as popular outside sustainability circles as some of Jefferson’s other turns of phrase.
Read: William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013) The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance, North Point Press