Industrial Evolution

July 14, 2002

By Michael Jessen

There's nothing like a strike by garbage collectors to make one appreciate the absence of waste. When these dedicated workers don't gather our garbage and take it "away" we soon discover the stench of it all.

Two weeks of accumulated waste in Toronto streets, parking lots, and parks -- sweltering in a summer heat wave -- was enough for the medical health officer and Ontario's legislature to legislate trash collectors and 24,000 other civic workers back to the job at hand.

While we are thankful that Toronto's waste is once again being taken "away" and Canada's largest city is once again safe to visit, perhaps this strike is a wake-up call for all of us to revisit the issue of waste. Do we really have to make it just because we've been doing it in ever increasing amounts for the past 100 years? Isn't making a lot of waste just a sign of failure by a human society that can think of nothing better to do with rotting vegetables, paper packaging, and a plethora of plastic than to throw it in a hole in the ground? Or worse yet, to burn it in an incinerator? Perhaps environmental author Garrett Hardin was right when he said calling a product waste inhibits creative thought.

A Waste Diversion Task Force created by the City of Toronto last year recommended the city embark on a program to eliminate waste by the year 2010. (The report can be viewed at www.city.toronto.on.ca/taskforce2010/report.pdf.) Many Torontonians undoubtedly regret their city had not reached zero waste during the summer of 2002. But this Ontario city is not alone in pursuing zero waste. The government of New Zealand is dedicated to reaching this lofty goal and 36 (that's almost 50%) of the country's local councils declared themselves 'Zero Waste' authorities and hope to reach the target by the year 2015. Many other zero waste communities can be found at www.grrn.org/zerowaste/zw_world.html.

Just as the smell of Toronto's strike was about to come to an end, the World Wildlife Fund (www.wwfcanada.org/) issued a new report with an even more compelling reason to move toward zero waste. The "Living Planet Report 2002" (www.wwfcanada.org/en/news_room/pdf/02_07_09_Living%20Planet%20Report.pdf) predicts that standards of living and human development will start to plummet by 2030 unless humans stop using more natural resources than the planet can replace.

According to the report, humans are currently running a huge deficit with the Earth -- using over 20 percent more natural resources each year than can be regenerated -- and this figure is growing each year. Projections based on likely scenarios of population growth, economic development and technological change, show that by 2050, humans will consume between 180 percent and 220 percent of the Earth's biological capacity. The report says this means that unless governments take urgent action, by 2030, human welfare, as measured by average life expectancy, educational level, and world economic product will go into decline. The WWF believes that governments can reverse some of these negative trends and put humanity back on a path to sustainable development if they address some key issues such as improving the resource efficiency with which goods and services are produced.

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart have put a lot of creative thought into the idea of waste and the way our current production system "takes, makes, and wastes." Their solution is an industrial evolution to alter the design process so that the very concept of waste is eliminated. Their intriguing and thought provoking ideas are documented in their new book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" published by North Point Press. Even the book is innovative; it is not printed on paper but on synthetic waterproof plastic resins and inorganic fillers.

"If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature's highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of 'waste' does not exist," the authors write. "To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things -- products, packaging and systems -- from the very beginning on the assumption that waste does not exist."

McDonough and Braungart remind us that packaging constitutes about 50 percent of garbage. Things like shampoo bottles, yogurt containers, and candy wrappers could be made of material that would biodegrade in the compost heap and become fertile soil. Products should be reengineered so that every thing we buy, wear, and use can be either composted or disassembled for easy manufacture into new products.

Ecologically designed running shoes, for example, would have biodegradable soles and uppers composed of a fabric easily recyclable into new running shoes. Cars would be designed for easy disassembly into steel, chrome, and plastic ready to melt down and mould into new cars.

Now you might think that McDonough and Braungart are a couple of kooks when they start talking about fabrics you can eat, buildings that generate more energy than they consume, factories with wastewater clean enough to drink, and toxic-free products that decompose into the soil. But these two innovators have been there and done that. In fact their clients include industrial giants like Ford, BP, DuPont, Volvo, Herman Miller, Steelcase, DesignTex, Pendleton, Nike, and BASF. They are not only helping these companies make more environmentally sustainable products but also generating substantial savings in the process.

McDonough, the former dean at the University of Virginia's architecture school, and his partner, Braungart, a chemist and founder of Germany's Green Party, have spent the past 15 years launching their new industrial revolution. Their pioneering efforts are causing more and more corporate leaders to recognize the unsustainability of manufacturing as it's done today, using so many potentially toxic chemicals and producing so much toxic waste. Computers and CD players, for instance, contain chemicals that haven't been tested for human safety. The average water bottle or polyester shirt contains small amounts of antimony, a toxic heavy metal known to cause cancer.

McDonough and Braungart have devised manufacturing processes in which factories don't contribute to greenhouse gases and consumer products don't emit carcinogenic compounds. Peter Pestillo, chairman of auto-parts maker Visteon Corporation is convinced. "Bill is getting us to believe that if we start early enough, we can avoid environmental problems altogether rather than correcting them little by little," Pestillo told Business Week magazine. McDonough and Pestillo are now working on a toxin-free car interior.

The sneakers whose soles safely biodegrade into soil? Already a reality thanks to work McDonough and Braungart have done for Nike which is now marketing shoes that are virtually free of polyvinyl chloride plastic and volatile organic chemicals.

McDonough says today's industry functions on a linear, cradle-to-grave model that creates unnecessary waste. In fact, 90 percent of materials extracted for durable goods become garbage almost immediately. By completely remaking the industrial process -- from the way factories are built to their choice of materials -- McDonough is showing companies how to reinvent production from "cradle-to-cradle."

While some readers will find something in the book to criticize -- one reviewer lamented that it was nearly impossible to write on the book's pages -- it is clear that "Cradle to Cradle" provides a much needed injection of new thinking into the debate about the creation and handling of waste. Some readers may even object to the author's labelling of recycling as "doing less of a bad thing" but really do we all want to spend our precious free time sorting and recycling an ever increasing amount of stuff? I think a majority of people will embrace McDonough and Braungart's industrial evolution as a step in the right direction. More controversial perhaps is the authors' contention that growth can continue under their new industrial paradigm.

But no book is perfect and if nothing else, McDonough and Braungart have provided a blueprint for humanity to reign in its wasteful ways. More important they prove we have the talent and creativity to live in an eco-efficient manner. It may take a while for new industry to evolve to the level envisioned by McDonough and Braungart, but it is definitely worth the effort. Too bad it didn't happen soon enough for Toronto.

RESOURCES -- McDonough Braungart Design have a web site at www.mbdc.com/c2c_home.htm. William McDonough's web site is www.mcdonough.com. An example of a company dedicated to reducing waste is Easi-bind, The Document Presentation Company at http://www.easibind.com/environment/cradletocradle.htm. Excerpts from the book "Cradle to Cradle" can be found at www.sustainablebusiness.com and at www.barnesandnoble.com. Business Week (www.businessweek.com) magazine for April 8, 2002 contained an excellent article on McDonough by Michelle Conlin and Paul Raeburn. McDonough was dubbed the "Prophet of Bloom" in a February 2002 profile in Wired at www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.02/mcdonough.html?pg=1.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant helping businesses and communities profit by implementing sustainable practices. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.


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