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April 18, 2014  |  Login
Cradle to Cradle: Designing Like Nature
By Eric Corey Freed

The term cradle to cradle (often abbreviated as C2C) describes a new way of looking at resources following the principles of natural systems. The concept was developed by German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, and they outlined their concept in a 2002 book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The book calls for the transformation of industry and manufacturing through what the authors call “ecologically intelligent design.”

Most industry follows a simple model: Extract and consume resources, and discard the resources when they’re finished with them. This consumption of natural resources follows cradle-to-grave thinking (see Building Construction Waste), what Braungart and McDonough refer to as a take-make-waste model.

Although many industries have tried to change their manufacturing to incorporate recycling, minimize waste, and lower consumption of natural resources, this approach, known as eco-efficiency, is not a formula for long-term success. Eco-efficiency simply seeks to make the current, destructive system sustainable and palatable — it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the best possible approach.

Cradle to cradle is an alternative way to look at industry, following the example of nature. As opposed to eco-efficiency, C2C calls for new, more-intelligent materials designed to be recirculated back into use.

In recycling, unhealthy materials are processed back into useful materials. This process usually requires a lot of energy and, often, the recycled materials end up being “downgraded” into some lesser form. For example, new plastic water bottles get recycled into gray plastic trashcans. None of these materials was originally designed to be recycled, which is why it takes so much effort and energy to do it. A C2C material starts out as a healthy material, designed to be reused and recirculated back into the same thing it originally was. For example, a chair made from healthy plastics made from corn (not oil) can be recirculated to make that same chair — again and again.

As Braungart and McDonough explain it, if you’re trying to drive north to Canada, but you’re headed 100 miles per hour south to Mexico, slowing down to 20 mph won’t help — you’re still headed the wrong way. We can’t recycle our way to a healthy environment and economy. Recycling is simply reinforcing the use of unintelligent, unhealthy materials.

Cradle to cradle is designed based on the systems found in nature, where there is no such thing as waste. C2C calls for eliminating the concept of waste entirely. This is Braungart and McDonough’s most wonderful innovation and it’s changing how people look at materials. In nature, any by-products of waste become food for some other organism. In the book, the authors declare that “waste equals food” (see Selecting Building Materials). Cradle-to-cradle products have relatively no negative impact on the environment and can be returned safely to the earth in a perpetual nutrient cycle.

Products can now get certified in the cradle-to-cradle process, demonstrating their environmental responsibility. Today, nearly 100 products — from waterproof concrete to biodegradable diapers — bear this certification, with hundreds more lined up and ready to be certified. The list of currently certified products is varied and extensive, demonstrating a larger movement toward healthier and more sustainable materials. You can find it online at more



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