Cradle to Cradle

'Cradle to Cradle'I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, looking for some kind of consensus about what kind of future we’re facing, and exactly what sort of thing we should be doing in order to deal with that. Sadly, while there is general consensus that the environment and human society are in sad shape, there’s not a lot of definitive advice beyond the usual ‘lobby your government to be better’.

So I approached Cradle to Cradle with enthusiasm, thinking, Finally, a book with prescriptive advice, instead of another one describing the problems – a book about how our society should be restructured! (I realise there are a few around, but I find most books with ideas about how to actually change things are usually twenty years out-of-date, think Who Owns the Sun?).

And to be fair, Cradle to Cradle is about precisely that. The central thesis of the book is that we currently have a society where products are developed from a source, are consumed and produce waste, but we ought to have a society where the components of products are infinitely recyclable. Instead of goods running from cradle to grave, they should run cradle to cradle.

Because mostly, they don’t. When a plastic bottle is recycled, it doesn’t become another plastic bottle; it becomes a speed bump or sound deflector on a freeway. When cars are recycled, they’re not taken apart; they’re melted into an amorphous metallic mess with little value. And that’s without factoring in the large number of toxic chemicals melted into that metal from the plastic car furnishings.

The idea is that instead of creating goods with all these nasty hidden chemicals and problems, we should start building products out of things that can be decomposed within short timeframes, or recycled indefinitely as the basic components.

So rather than recycling paper that wasn’t designed to be recycled, we print our newspapers on plastic sheets with plant-based dyes. Then, when we’re done with them, we can wipe off the dye and print a new newspaper, which is infinitely simpler than the wetting, shredding, bleaching and reconstructing of paper fibres that’s needed to recycle regular paper. (Also, people are apparently developing allergies to recycled paper, so watch out for that.)

I very much like this sort of idea. I really do, and I don’t want to be the girl who kicks this sandcastle in. But I just don’t know how realistic this sort of thing is. One idea given a lot of space is decomposable detergents. Rather than release unpleasant chemicals into the environment every time we do dishes, the plan is to design detergents that both break down and deliver new nutrients to the watercourses in which they will eventually run. It’s a very nice idea. However, has anyone stopped to consider the problems of eutrophication? It’s what happens when you dump too many nutrients into a water environment; algae plants get too much food, go nuts, and suffocate everything else in the water. How sustainable is that?

But maybe that’s just picking at nits.

So here’s a bigger concern: if we design all our products into the future on the grounds that we’re recycling them indefinitely, what are we going to do with all the old ones? There aren’t any useful ideas presented on what we should do with everything already in landfill, or the million or so bottles and plastic cups disposed of in America and India every day (a fat total of none of which are recycled).

Authors Braungart and McDonough argue that the course we’re on today is all about efficiency, and being less bad, and why being less bad is no good. And yes, I agree, and yes, I get it. But I also think we’re trying efficiency first for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s cheaper so meets less resistance (a weak reason). Secondly, we know we have a problem, and we’re trying to deal with it on the existing terms. Einstein would disapprove, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Here’s my real issue with this idea: if we’re going to start creating goods that are infinitely recyclable, we’re going to need to extract new resources to do it. Because, as has been beaten into you by the last page of the book, the products we’ve already used aren’t recyclable. So we can’t reuse those to do new things. We’ve got to go back to that rainforest, degraded paddock, overused fishery and get new stuff to start again. And that sounds like an especially bad idea to me.

I really feel we should be using what we’ve already got, not pretending we can start all over again from the word go. It’s a nice idea. It’s just not realistic.

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  1. I own this book but haven’t read it yet. But why can’t we do both? Use what we have but start implementing new systems and new designs into society? Obviously changing the way we think about stuff and how we use it isn’t going to happen overnight so that one day the recycling programs just stop, right? It’s going to be a slower change.

    The resources are going to be consumed anyway if we keep on this path. They just have a different life journey…

    But like I said, I haven’t read it am I missing something?

    • I actually agree with you pretty well entirely. I think we need to do this sort of thing, and grade it into society gradually. However, I also think the most important emphasis should be to recycle what goods we already have to the greatest extent possible. There already millions upon millions of tons of plastic floating in our oceans; rather than developing a new plastic that can be used forever, why don’t we go collect that plastic and come up with news ways to use things we have already used once? Why start again with all new resources, when we’ve already used a considerable chunk of them?

      I want more emphasis on where we are in the life cycle, rather than some clean slate idea. It’s not practical. But that is what Cradle to Cradle promotes, an idea that we walk away from the garbage we’ve already produced, and start over. I can’t believe in it.

  2. I haven’t read the book. But I do think there’s a general tendency to look at these issues as if they’re simply technological rather than social, so that, for instance, the solution to climate change becomes the discovery of a new kind of fuel. It’s stating the obvious but the environmental crisis is less about technology than how we choose to use that technology. In other words, it’s first and foremost a political problem.

    • Jeff – I think this is a very valid point. I don’t believe anyone in the scientific community truly doubts the evidence any more. The kind of consensus we have on climate change is virtually unprecedented. So yes, it has become a political problem – how acceptable is it to change?

      As for changing the way we use products and developing recyclable ones… it’s not really about is it possible, because there are many ways in which it’s possible. It’s more about is it politically justified… how many people care enough to want to change? And while we’re fighting a valiant rearguard, I do think we’re losing that battle.

  3. I believe that humans are only capable of great action when the motivation is really strong. For example, if we have completely run out of tin, then every effort would be made to recycle existing forms of tin and we would succeed in doing just that. There is no current motivation to recycle everything – the health of the planet is not the motivation it should be. There is almost the mentality that if we bugger up the world we can just move to another one (and they are looking for one – and have found a suitable candidate just 40 light years away).

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