We are at a critical crossroads of human history. Our increasingly-industrialized world that has been heavily reliant upon the continual extraction of natural resources and the use of chemicals to meet our needs is now faced with critical natural resource limitations and depletion and the destruction of the ecosystems upon which life depends.
Much of what has been driving this destruction of the environment has been a global industrial system that is largely based upon the assumption that there will always be an infinite amount of natural resources despite a finite planet. The design of products in the traditional economy simply fails to take into account “externalities” such as environmental destruction or the negative impacts of industrial production on individual people or communities. This is especially true in developing nations where there are very few protections in place to protect human health and the environment. In our quest for infinite growth and development, we have forgotten our true dependence upon the ecosystems that support life on Earth and on our interconnections with the rest of humanity.
With the realization that such an industrial and consumptive model is unsustainable, there has been a great deal of emphasis in recent years upon increasing efficiencies (such as increasing water and energy efficiencies), pollution regulations, waste reduction, and recycling. While all of these things are certainly beneficial and do indeed help to reduce our ecological footprint, we still end up with a great deal of waste and industrial and toxic pollution.
We also spend a lot of our energy, time, and money, “fighting the Environmental Evildoers” to keep them in line and trying to educate the public to do the right thing and to recycle, save, and to reduce this or that. And yet, we still end up with environmental destruction and some people that just don’t care to do the right thing for the environment and humanity.
Cradle-to-Cradle design: A different approach for industry
What if we shifted our consumption and industry from something that is extractive and wasteful to something that is regenerative? What if learning from and working with nature to make things were not just the right things to do, but what the market actually expected and demanded?
The cradle-to-grave global industrial system that has dominated our economy for so long now produces wastes of various kinds that must be managed, or at best, recycled. The lifecycle of products in this system generally ends at disposal, usually as an after-thought. The burden of waste in such a system is typically placed upon individuals and communities to figure out what to do with it.
In contrast, the process of cradle-to-cradle design begins before products are even made. Everything in this process begins with intention and utilizes designs that consider the human and environmental impacts of a product at each step of its existence: from the sourcing of the resources and materials that the product will be made from, to its production, to its use, and then finally to the disposal and reuse of the materials that will then be made into new products or returned to the earth.
Cradle-to-cradle design does include the recycling of materials that can be remade into new things, but at its very core, it incorporates principles found in nature, where what is waste for one organism ends up as “food” for another organism. There is no “away” in nature, and there is truly no waste.
To incorporate such principles in our industrial systems, we must reuse everything, and never make any toxic waste that cannot be safely incorporated back into the system in some way. Therefore, the creation and use of biodegradable materials and materials that are perpetually recyclable are essential to making products that conform to cradle-to-cradle design standards. At the end of their usable life, all products are taken back by their manufacturers to be reused and remade into new products or are returned safely to the earth. Such products are also produced by renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power that do not rely on extractive resources and polluting technologies[sc:1].
A cradle-to-cradle design system essentially consists of two “metabolisms,” with the first as “biological nutrients” such as biodegradable packaging that can safely be returned to the environment, and the second as a closed loop cycle of “technical nutrients” consisting of high-quality synthetic and mineral resources that are perpetually recovered and remanufactured[sc:1].
The concept of cradle-to-cradle design is already being implemented in a number of products in various industries. Electronic device and appliance takeback programs, biodegradable fabrics, and high-quality carpeting materials that can be perpetually recycled into new carpets, such as the Zeftron Savant carpet produced by the Honeywell corporation, are all examples of where such principles are being applied. Nations such as China are also creating standards for industrial sectors that require cradle-to-cradle principles to be applied during production[sc:1].
With the implementation of sustainable systems such as cradle-to-cradle design, we no longer need to choose between a healthy economy or a healthy environment. With such intention and design, it may be possible for us to have both.