Single poppy in wheat field

The ecological age – thinking outside the square

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Our existing industrial model has been described as ‘cradle-to-grave’, a linear process running through the stages of production, use and disposal. Under such an approach, waste automatically becomes a form of pollution, and until recent decades nobody was particularly worried about it. Factory chimneys belching out smoke were once a symbol of employment and prosperity, but with increased environmental awareness, values have long moved on.

In recent decades, recycling has become a central strategy to ameliorate the global environmental crisis, but its attendant energy and resource requirements make it feel like a compromise, inferior to waste avoidance and minimisation. We rarely consider that most recyclable materials were never originally designed to be recycled.

Much recycling has been criticised as ‘downcycling’ because materials are usually downgraded in the process and cannot be recovered. A good example is the mixing of PET from soft drink bottles with other plastics to make recycled plastic park benches. With existing technologies, it is impossible to recover the PET component from such a bench to use as a recycled feedstock material in further soft drink production.

Although the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was regarded by many as a disappointment, it introduced the term ‘eco-efficiency’ into popular usage. Environmental gains within industry could be achieved incrementally through more intelligent design and reduced resource use. However, some argue that a more fundamental change is needed, and that we need to climb out of the existing industrial mindset altogether. It comes as a surprise that such a view is expressed by a businessman who has worked with several of the world’s largest corporations.

An ‘out-of-the-box’ designer

For several years, manufacturing has been under the scrutiny of Bill McDonough, Dean and Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia, and widely regarded as America’s foremost green designer. The implementation of his radical, ‘out of the box’ approach has been trumpeted as the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’, and his mission is to redesign the human-created world without toxicity or waste.

Bill McDonough believes we have been putting our energies into alleviating industrial problems rather than solving them; an estimated 90% of materials extracted for durable goods almost immediately becomes waste, suggesting the need for a radical overhaul. Eco-efficiency is a step in the right direction, but, in Bill McDonough’s view, working within the old paradigm isn’t a long-term solution. Instead, he believes that at the outset we need to design materials for recycling in a closed-loop, ‘cradle-to-cradle’ cycle.

No waste exists anywhere in nature, and  Bill McDonough has a revolutionary biomimicry approach that has been inspired by natural cycles to be regenerative rather than depletive. Everything can be designed not to pollute, and one promising avenue is to begin at the molecular level.

Linking up with a radical chemist

Michael Braungart is a German chemist with a 1980’s background as an environmental activist and founder of Germany’s Green Party. His early achievements include inventing an oxygen technique for paper bleaching, and designing the non-CFC refrigerator.

While protesting at a Ciba-Geigy chemical plant that was polluting the Rhine near the Swiss city of Basel, a dialogue with the factory manager turned his thinking towards solutions in the form of benign industrial processes. Later he met Bill McDonough, with whom he teamed up in 1995 to form a company called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), specialising in environmentally safe manufacturing.

In 2002, the pair presented their ideas in the book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’. Aside from its content, the book is also remarkable for being printed on a synthetic recycled material largely made from plastic resins. It is durable, waterproof, and capable of being remanufactured without any loss of material quality.

Toxic chemicals are pervasive in the stuff we surround ourselves with, and McDonough gives as an example the TV set with its heavy metals. When working with clients, his first step is to remove toxic substances and replace them with more benign alternatives in the shape of biological ‘technical nutrients’ that harmlessly enter the environment, and are safe enough to compost, or even eat. In McDonough’s concise terminology “waste equals food”.

Interested in seeing their product innovations become the global standard, McDonough and Braungart have created a non-profit corporation called Green Blue. This institute owns the pair’s intellectual property, and is prepared to give away designs free of charge to achieve a wider dissemination.

Reinventing the world’s fibres

Abrasion of sneakers against the ground releases tiny particles, and McDonough has successfully worked with Nike to make an ecological sports shoe that is virtually free from PVC and volatile organic compounds. Its soles biodegrade into the soil, and the uppers can be remanufactured into new shoes.

As part of his views on downcycling, McDonough has a particular dislike of recycling PET plastic into fleece jackets, and he believes that plastic fibres were never meant to be worn against the skin. Some of these are brushed off while others may be inhaled. In addition, small quantities of the toxic metal antimony are used in PET production.

A New York company called DesignTex was interested in giving its fabrics an environmental overhaul that went far beyond simply removing toxic dyes and using recycled fibres, prompting it to approach McDonough. It had considered using a mixture of organic cotton and recycled PET, which unsurprisingly he believed was a bad choice.

Among the many requirements of the new fabric was suitability for wheelchair users, who tend to be adversely affected by moisture absorption. Airborne filaments would also need to be harmless. After much searching, the solution was eventually found in a mixture of worsted wool and ramie (a plant fibre similar to linen). While the wool absorbs moisture, the ramie, a strong structural fibre, disperses it away. This natural textile is available under the brand name Climatex Lifecycle, and can be turned into garden mulch after composting.

MBDC also worked with DesignTex’s manufacturer, a Swiss company called Rohner AG, which was motivated to get involved because its fabric trimmings had recently been declared toxic waste by the Swiss Government. Braungart persuaded Ciba-Geigy to allow 1,800 of its dyes to be tested for environmental purity, yielding a total of 16 that were considered environmentally safe. These could be combined to produce any colour other than black, and were used for Climatex. Later, inspectors measuring water quality at the Rohner textile mill thought their instruments were broken, because the water flowing out was cleaner than the factory’s intake. At this point, it makes sense to introduce closed loop water recycling.

Cradle-to-cradle carpets

The average carpet is made from nylon embedded in fibreglass and PVC, and over time it will slowly release small quantities of harmful materials. Working with the German chemical giant BASF, McDonough and Braungart discovered a process that allows nylon carpet fibre to be depolymerised into simple molecules and repolymerised back into nylon. The product made using this process is known as Savant, and consists of 90% recycled content (of which 50% is post-consumer waste).

During the late 90’s, an American carpet company called Interface was prompted by the same thinking to introduce cradle-to-cradle manufacturing. This innovation was doubly impressive for being devised in conjunction with a radical alternative to ownership and inevitable landfill disposal. Products traditionally required a petroleum feedstock, and had a limited lifespan before becoming garbage.

In 1998, Interface underwent an identity shift from a manufacturer to a company in the business of providing a floor covering. Instead of selling carpets, it would lease carpet tiles to a customer and take them back for replacement when worn down, under what is known as the Evergreen Lease program. It has been estimated that in an office environment about 10-20% of carpet tiles attract about 80-90% of the wear, making the replacement of an entire carpet unnecessary.

Tiles were designed so that both the fibre and backing components could be separately remanufactured as new in a virtually zero-waste process. Interface is hoping that the program will in time reduce the flow of materials by a hundred-fold; rather than mining resources from the Earth, they can be rotated in constant circulation between the user and remanufacturing plant.

An incentive for service industries

Cradle-to-cradle industrial processes have the added benefit of driving a strong economic argument in favour of the removal of toxic components and ease of recycling. They tie in well with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), the name given to a requirement for manufacturers to take back their products at the end of life. EPR is an increasingly influential waste minimisation tool employed in many areas of the world, particularly Western Europe.

If industry is required to take back a product when it is worn out, this encourages the development of Interface-style service industries in place of selling physical goods. Some commentators have gone further by referring to the ‘dematerialisation’ of the economy, a scenario where intelligence replaces product as the key commodity.

As an example, pest control services could be a substitute for selling physical pesticides. Because chemicals are expensive, a company offering a pest control service would automatically be attracted towards other techniques such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and would only resort to pesticides if all else failed. Unlike the sale of a product, such a service also guarantees an end result.

Similarly, if transport were provided as a service, it would remove the need for private car ownership and look instead at more innovative and efficient alternatives such as accessing a car from a local cooperative under a pay-per-kilometre arrangement.

The disassembly line

Perhaps Bill McDonough’s most impressive assignment to date was given to him by the Ford Motor Company, whose River Rouge plant at Dearborn, Michigan, is a symbol of early 20th century manufacturing. Covering about 1,200 acres, it is the world’s largest industrial complex, and the birthplace of the assembly line. Coal and iron ore were once delivered, and through many stages converted into Model T Fords. Some areas of the site are heavily polluted, and will require an expensive cleanup.

At the time of McDonough’s initial approach, the company was skeptical about environmental matters, but they shifted their thinking at the prospect of saving many millions of dollars. In 2000, his persistence paid off when he was hired to turn River Rouge into a state-of- the-art 21st century production complex. This process is likely to take 20 years, with a projected cost of US $2 billion. The whole site will be broken up using swales and hedgerows, and trees will line the avenues.

When completely redesigned, the truck assembly plant will have no garbage room and suppliers will be required to use returnable packaging. The plant already possesses a half-million square foot grass roof (the largest of its kind in North America), which absorbs rainwater and provides insulation. Skylights allow through daylight in place of artificial light.

In a corner of the complex, plants are used to absorb and break down toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the coke ovens through a process of phytoremediation. The local big bluestem and green ash that are used for this process also improve the plant’s aesthetics.

McDonough is interested in reinventing the way that vehicles are made and recycled, and refers to the ‘disassembly line’. When Bill Ford asked MBDC to be part of the design team for Ford’s sustainability showcase, the Model U, the company was pleased to see its vision a step closer to fruition.

The Model U features a hydrogen internal combustion engine and a hybrid electric transmission. Soya-based resins are used for body panels, soya foams provide the seating, and the lubricant is sunflower oil. The ‘technical nutrient’ used in the upholstery was developed by the US textile company Milliken in conjunction with MBDC, and the prototype also features a corn-derived biopolymer developed by Cargill Dow called Polylactide.

Curiously, Henry Ford himself was an early sustainability pioneer who trialled organic fibres made from soya and hemp. When he left the early soya-covered cars out in the rain, they melted. There is little chance of the Model U meeting the same fate.

A paradigm shift

Einstein once said ‘The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.’ In other words, the mess created by linear industrial thinking cannot be solved within the same mindset.

Fortunately McDonough and Braungart are among the many groups and individuals thinking outside the square, and who are pushing aside an old paradigm in favour of one that we can only dimly discern. As McDonough says “What are our intentions for our children, for the children of all species, for all time?”


Bill McDonough
McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

Share this post

Leave a Comment