"This book is not a tree" and it is waterproof, durable, and pleasing to
the touch and to the eye. It is made from plastic resins and inorganic
fillers, which can be recirculated indefinitely -- made and remade into
"paper" and other products. It epitomizes the theories of architect
William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, advocates of a design
that "upcycles" safe materials in the manufacturing process, rather than
"downcycling" toxins into landfills, as in today's "cradle-to-grave"
In their arresting introduction, they depict a scene with:
Powerful incentives to read on and learn more about the authors'
- your favorite armchair -- the fabric containing mutagenic materials,
heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, and dyes that, as you move, are
- your child's computer -- comprised of toxic gases, metals, acids,
plastics and other additives.
- your baby's rattle -- of PVC plastic, containing phthalates, known to
cause liver cancer in animals and possibly endocrine disruption, along
with toxic dyes, etc.
- your carpet and your shoes that dispense toxins with every step you
They maintain that "reduce, reuse and recycle" are not enough; they just
perpetuate the "cradle-to-grave" model. They feel "biological nutrients,"
which nourish the earth, and "technical nutrients," recycled in a closed
manufacturing loop, are an answer to many of our toxic problems.
During the Industrial Revolution, nature was viewed as boundless and
renewable "capital." Today we know it is not, but most of our industrial
processes still assume it is.
"...you may be referred to as a consumer," the authors write, "but there
is very little that you actually consume...Everything else is designed
for you to throw away...But where is 'away'? ...'away' does not really
exist." Of the approximately 80,000 defined chemical substances and mixes
produced today, only about 3,000 have been studied for effects on living
systems. "The immune system, constantly exposed to such toxins...can only
handle so much."
These powerful arguments and others buttress the authors' appeal for an
Industrial Re-Evolution with a shift in perspective and an eco-approach
to design. Some paradigms are already shifting. Braungart saw his mother fined for
her "wild garden" in 1982. Ten years later, she won an award for creating
this "habitat for songbirds." The authors' firms have contracts with
some of the leading manufacturers to start designing more "cradle to
cradle" processes, on an incremental basis. Henry Ford was always said to
be ahead of his time, and he "upcycled" his shipping crates into
floorboards for his Model A trucks when they reached their destination.
"We're initiating a similar practice that is a modest beginning: Korean
rice husks used as packing for ... electronics sent to Europe, then
reused as material for making bricks," the authors said. Are you old
enough to remember the jelly jars designed to be used as glasses after
they were emptied? No more. But "upcycling" can be as simple as that.
They advocate designing with "upcycling" in mind, integrating solar
collecting with existing power sources, and innovative sewage treatment
to turn it into an asset. In China, where Styrofoam creates "white
pollution," the authors suggest packaging made from biodegradable rice
husks, which are now burned. They advocate non-polluting, naturally based
renewable products -- "biological nutrients" which will be reabsorbed
into water or soil and "technical nutrients" which will recirculate in a
closed loop, rather than be recycled down.
They conclude with a chapter on "Putting Eco-Effectiveness Into
"Ask: How can we support and perpetuate the rights of all living things
to share in a world of abundance? How can we love the children of all
species -- not just our own -- for all time? Imagine what a world of
prosperity and health in the future will look like, and begin designing
for it right now.... "
McDonough in 1996 received the Presidential Award for Sustainable
Development and was a Time Magazine "Hero for the Planet" in 1999.
Braungart, a former director of the chemistry section for Greenpeace and
world lecturer on ecological chemistry and materials flow management, has
won numerous awards.
The authors have skillfully managed to invest vital, but potentially dry,
subject matter with color, interest and clarity. It is a very readable
book and, if heeded, has great potential impact on our toxic society with
its growing pollution, "sick" buildings, and depleting resources.