A New Approach to Sustainable Design

Let’s imagine you’re a fairly prolific recycler. You religiously separate your plastics, glass, metal, paper, and you even live in a place where your separated trash is collected and disposed of accordingly. You also compost, ride your bike to work, and eat local dairy and produce. You were so moved by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, that you have since tweaked your daily behaviors in an attempt to reduce your energy consumption and carbon footprint. You use your purchasing power as a consumer to buy from eco-friendly enterprise and occasionally your heart bleeds when thinking about the depletion and destruction of the earth and her natural resources.

While your efforts are commendable, environmentalist Richard Luov would diagnose you with “nature-deficit disorder.” In all of your empathy and romantic compassion for Mother Nature, he would argue that you have alienated yourself from her, and forfeited the intimate connection between humanity and nature. Humans and nature coexist in what William McDonough and Michael Braungart define as, the Life Upcycle. This is the symbiotic relationship between the two towards exponential growth; a precondition to life!

When your waste and disposed products are recycled, the process of breaking these materials down to their basic components to then be reused in new materials or products degrades their quality and value. When plastic bottles are recycled, the plastic is eventually mixed with different plastics to produce a low-grade hybrid used to create something weaker and less useful. This consistent downcycling occurs with many other valuable materials, both organic and synthetic, such as aluminum. While the act of recycling is justified in its contribution to the reduction of energy and carbon dioxide emissions, it does little to maintain the integrity of the resource. With each iteration of the cycle, the materials deteriorate. Recycling is so 1998.

In their most recent book, The Upcycle, McDonough and Braungart propose an alternative solution; Cradle to Cradle, based on the German concept of Upcycling. Upcycling is the opposite of recycling; it is a regenerative process based on the flow of nutrients, both technical and biological, in a closed loop cycle:

© Cradle to Cradle™

Biological nutrients, such as animal waste, serves as food for the entire Animal Kingdom. Technical nutrients are the polymers and synthetic elements not produced by the biosphere, which can become “food” for another product.

To compensate for our excessive consumption of natural resources, we have developed the notion of “zero emissions”; diminishing our carbon footprint, and reducing fossil fuel consumption. Let’s think about carbon, arguably the most essential element to life sustenance. It is the basis of all living things, as well as polymers and metal alloys. How do we consume it? We burn it. We burn a lot of this resource, which makes up only .02% of the Earth’s crust. Rather than focusing on burning less carbon, we should focus on design products, behavior, lifestyles, and cities, which replenish these nutrients. We can work to have a positive footprint by designing products whose pure nutrients are easily fed back into the metabolic life cycle of the virgin material. (Upcycled materials are also surprisingly cheaper to source!)

Now I’m not tasking you with sourcing these upcycled materials as part of your submissions. Rather, think of this post and the information herein, as inspiration in your ideation workflow. How can household products, for example, be repurposed to create new and innovative products which not only maintain the value and the integrity of their materials, but also create positive environmental impact?

This article originally appeared on Quirky.