Cradle to Cradle


by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
ISBN: 1101903597
Finished 2/11/16
Amazon page for details and reviews


While the industrial revolution has enabled a more equitable standard of living, its byproduct is waste that hinders our progress toward optimal health and happiness. This waste is debt that future generations must bear. Recycling (downcycling) and eco-effiency are only solutions that are less bad. The cradle to cradle model is different: our products, factories, and lifestyles can have a positive impact on the local and global environment, with waste serving as food for future products and the ecosystem as a whole. This is eco-effectiveness.

The systems that we have developed are harmful because their full impact was not considered during the design process. Although the systems we create will likely never be quite as complex and integral as nature, we can look to nature as inspiration for the processes of the future. Cradle to Cradle urges us to build two streams that remain distinct: biological nutrients that can biodegrade and technical nutrients that can be reused endlessly within closed-loop industrial cycles. This latter stream is also known as “upcycling.”

Cradle to Cradle provides numerous examples of how to implement these new cycles of production, from factories that output cleaner water than was supplied to shoes that can be dismantled into their biological and technical components. The physical version of the book itself is an example of the state of the art in technical production, with materials that are not only higher quality than regular books, but also available for upcycling into different products down the road.

While it is not immediately obvious how we can make every process and product more eco-effective, the book takes a realistic approach by urging us to make the best choices available and to transition from existing methods into new ones gradually. In that way, it is a manifesto for anyone who has influence over the design, production, use, disposal, and/or recycling of any consumable. Namely, everyone.


Hazardous materials are all around us, in most products

Recycling can be energy-intensive and still environmentally unsound

This book is not a tree. Made of no wood fibers and recyclable

The next industrial revolution

Traditionally, we think industry must be regulated

Difficult to apply universal solutions to local problems

Solutions don’t often work in isolation, really need to be part of a larger system

Eliminate the concept of waste by design

Industrial revolution began with textiles in England. Expanded to many industries
– Resulted in a more equitable standard of living for the middle class
– Similar story for cars. Were expensive and custom until Henry Ford came along

Churchill: manufacturing was “the arsenal of democracy”
– Better health, wealth, productivity, and social mobility

Formerly, people believed nature was a force to be controlled and civilized. But now we realize natural systems’ delicacy, complexity, and interconnectedness.

Cradle to Grave model: many usable materials end up in a landfill

Often it is easier and cheaper to buy a new product instead of fixing or upgrading it

Last century, many attempts were made to standardize production
– In architecture, this manifested in the International Style
– Standards were meant to equalize, but were not human-centric
– They do not take into account regional differences
– Chemical force often was used to wipe out differences in circumstance

Motto of the Industrial revolution could have been: “If brute force isn’t working, you’re not using enough of it”

Climate change and pollutants are the main reasons to consider switching from fossil fuel sources
– These should really only be used for emergencies. Otherwise, solar etc. are needed

Similar situation in agriculture: instead of taking advantage of natural resources, we douse things with chemicals to keep them stable

GDP only takes activity into account, but is an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez really considered progress?
– Local Alaska GDP actually went up during this time

Product+ : The product you wanted with additives you didn’t
– What way too many products are today

Average indoor air more is toxic than outdoor air

Stressors can weaken the immune system and potentially damage cells
– Opportunity to strengthen, not challenge, the immune system

Natural alternatives needed to meet the current society’s needs do not exist. E.g. natural indigo for jeans would be unsustainable if it was used exclusively

Environmental damage is not intentional wrongdoing, but the product of outdated and unintelligent design

Intergenerational Remote Tyranny: Our tyranny over future generations as a result of our actions today

Strategy of tragedy vs. strategy of change

Being less bad is no good

Silent Spring: first book combining environmentalism and science

70s notion: Our consumption desires are fueling environmental disasters, and recycling is just a continuation

Eco-Efficiency: doing more with less. Idea to make tools of industry use less energy
– Has been adopted with extraordinary success
– Can have economic benefits as well

But reduction does not halt destruction and depletion. Eco-efficiency is really only a tool on the path to eco-effectiveness.

Incineration (waste to energy) can spread unsafe pollutants because these should have been recycled

Even composting can be harmful

Recycling – more correctly downcycling – results in lower-quality materials
– Can actually increase biosphere contamination. E.g. processes to separate toxic paints from metals
– Downcycled plastic may contain more chemicals than virgin plastic. Same for paper

Blindly adopting environmental strategies without fully understanding their consequences can be no better, and potentially even worse, than traditional approaches. Ecological agenda can be a burden for industry with no environmental or economic advantage

Regulations can prevent short-term deleterious effects but are symbol of bad design

Efficient destruction is harder to detect and thus harder to stop

Plus, an efficient world is no fun and not delightful. But it can be a valuable tool.

Zero is a good goal if human beings are regarded as bad. This is the epitome of the “be less bad” approach

Tale of 3 books
1. Solid, substantial, readable but environmentally unsound
2. Recycled but flimsy, unpleasant, and not long lasting
3. Use of polymers that are high quality, substantial, waterproof, and infinitely recyclable

Eco-effective design – good for the environment and its occupants

We will want more, not less, of eco-effective designs

Side effects can be deliberate and sustaining instead of unintended and pernicious. Focus on positive side effects instead of a linear means to an end

Impervious surfaces – roofs, parking lots, sidewalks – cause flooding, create heat, and shrink habitats
– Soil-covered roofs with plants solve all of these problems

Even if we figure out how to populate another planet, let’s not use this as an excuse to trash this planet

For forestry, there are no absolutes about method. What works in one place might not be universal

Strive for a world of abundance, not limits, pollution, and waste

Major goal of eco-effectiveness: Waste = food

Two types of material flows:
– Biological mass
– Technical mass

Monstrous hybrids: mixtures of technical and biological materials that cannot be salvaged

Cradle to grave: typical product life cycle

If humans are truly to prosper we must eliminate waste. Cradle to cradle means waste as food for the next thing and the whole ecosystem

With the right design, both the biosphere and technosphere can be fed
– Biological materials are biodegrade
– Technical materials are reused in closed-loop cycles
– These must be kept separate

– Occupies up to 50% of the municipal waste streaam
– Can be designed to biodegrade

Ford Model As were shipped in crates that were turned into car floorboards upon arrival

Korean rice husks can be used as packing material for stereos, then turned into bricks upon arrival in Europe

Introducing concept of the product of service

E.g. Using (licensing) a TV for a set number of hours, then returning to the manufacturer

Rent-a-solvent – tools to separate solvent from grease for continuous reuse, despite higher upfront cost

With these processes, people could indulge their desire for new products while enhancing the environment, industry, and quality of life

Because nutrients for new products are continually circulated, we minimize extracting and mining for new materials

De-evolution: simplification on a mass scale

The fittest survive, the fittingest thrive
– We strive for an energetic and material engagement with place, and an interdependent relationship to it

The vitality of ecosystems depends on relationships

All sustainability is local, but also global

Connection to natural flows allows us to rethink everything under the sun

Doesn’t mean to become independent or off-grid

Using existing systems is a sensible transition strategy

Diversity plays a key role in optimizing energy production and use

Wind farms are not always eco-effective

Form follows evolution

People desire diversity. E.g. 400 French cheeses preferable to American singles

Rachel Carson promoted a new agenda: ecologism

Isms can neglect social, cultural, and ecological concerns to the detriment of the whole system

Eco-efficiency is a valuable tool in ooptimizing the broader eco-effective approach

The triple top line
– Conventional: cost, aesthetics, performance
– New: Ecology, equity, economy
– Social and ecological benefits normally considered an afterthought, after economy

Natural systems take and give back

Instead of nature being a tool, we can strive to become tools of nature

Einstein: If we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place

Steps to eco-effectiveness
1. Get rid of known culprits
– Make choices based on best available information, not necessarily on authority.
– E.g. certified organic or fair trade doesn’t necessarily make non certified products bad. Do not strive for perfection
2. Follow informed personal preferences
– Prefer ecological intelligence. Results will probably be better than not having any thought about it at all
– Prefer respect
– Prefer delight (pleasure), celebration, and fun
3. Create a passive-positive list
– Detail of entire palate of substances used in the creation of product
– The X-list: most problematic substances, including suspected substances
– Highest priority for complete phase-out and replacement
– The gray list: substances not urgently in need of a phaseout, and products for which we have no substitutes
– E.g. Cadmium: used for solar PV but also for household NiCad batteries
– The P-list: positive/preferred. Healthy and safe
4. Activate the passive-positive list
– Designed from beginning to end for the product to become food for the environment
5. Reinvent
– Recasting design to the whole system level.
– E.g. cars that give back to the environment and rethinking the whole road infrastructure

Buckminster Fuller: if extraterrestrial beings came, they would think the earth is inhabited by cars

Transformation would create or reinvent multiple new industries

In high-tech industries, innovation has success rate of 10-15%. We must be aware that many new ideas will not take off.

Signal your intention to commit to a new paradigm
– Transformation not only of physical materials but also of values

Strive for good growth, not just economic growth

Innovation requires openness to signals outside the company itself