From Cradle to Cradle

Notes From



Five steps to eco-effectiveness

How did Ford begin to remake itself (Rouge plant)? It’s not possible to sweep away long-established methods of working, designing, decision-making.

Most change begins with a specific product, system, or problem. Driven by a commitment to putting eco-effective principles into action, change grows incrementally.

Step 1: Get “free of” known culprits.

Begin to turn away from substances that are widely recognized as harmful. (We are so used to seeing things labeled “phosphate free” that we don’t see the absurdity. What if you told people you made arsenic-free dinners?)

It is important to acknowledge the potential absurdity of the approach and the less visible problems it may conceal. The detergent may be “free of phosphates” but what if they were replaced by something worse?

Positive selection of the ingredients, and how they are combined, is the goal—not just to take away bad ingredients.

[Story—Asked to make “chlorine free” containers: the decision to make chlorine free paper products means harvesting virgin pulp, and the product may still have problematic substances (like polyurethane coating)]

However, there are some substances that do bioaccumulate, and so getting rid of them is always a productive step. IE: PVC, lead, cadmium, mercury. Designing a mercury-free thermometer is a good thing; getting auto manufacturers to phase mercury out is important.

The decision to create products that are free of obviously harmful substances is part of a “design filter”: a filter that is in the designer’s head. It’s a crude filter, but it’s a start.

Step 2: Follow informed personal preferences.

Many real-life decisions come down to comparing two things that are both less than ideal, as in the case of chlorine-free versus recycled paper. The chooser may feel helpless and frustrated by having to pick between the frying pan and the fire, so a profound approach to redesign is critical. There ARE ways to do the best with what we have, to make better choices.

Prefer ecological intelligence. Be as sure as you can that a product does not contain substances or support practices that are blatantly harmful. In working on a building, architects may prefer to use sustainably harvested wood, and buy wood with an FSC seal on it. They decide to go with the product based on what they know now, and the results are better than not thinking about it at all. A product seemingly made with care and consciousness (even if it’s a “free of” product) points to a maker that has these issues as a mission.

From working with auto industry: rubbers, new polymers, and foam metals, “safer” metals like magnesium, coatings and paints have been found to have positive qualities. Products that can be taken back to the manufacturer and disassembled for reuse (or at least returned to industrial metabolism at a lower level) are preferable. (Downcycled)

You can opt for chemical products with fewer additives, especially stabilizers, antioxidants, antibacterial substances, and etc. (Only a surgeon needs that level of protection—otherwise microorganisms are just becoming stronger). So few things have been designed for indoor use, so try to choose ingredients that will off-gas less.

Prefer respect.

The issue of respect is at the heart of eco-effective design. Search for material that respects those who made it, those who transport it, and those who use it (the consumer).

However, people’s reasons for making choices (the consumer that is) aren’t rational and are easily manipulated. (In one study, people chose to buy lotion in a non-eco-package overwhelmingly instead of the unattractive eco package for the same product.)

Prefer delight, celebration, and fun.

Express design creativity!

Step 3. Creating a “passive positive” list.

Here design becomes eco-effective. Going beyond exisintg, readily available information as to the contents of a given product, they conduct a detailed inventory of all materials used in a given product, and what it will give off. Toxins? Carcinogens? What is the end state?

Once screened, substances are placed on the following lists in a kind of technical triage (assigns greater or less urgency)

The X List.

Teratogenic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, otherwise harmful substances, and substances suspected to be those things. Includes asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, antimony trioxide, chromium, etc. See the list compiled by the Intl Agency for Research on Cancer and Germany’s Maximum Workplace Concentration list. These are highest priority for phaseout.

The gray list.

The gray list contains problematic substances essential for manufacture, which may or may not have viable substitutes. Cadmium is highly toxic, but is used in photovoltaic solar collectors. If the ownership of the cadmium molecules remained with the manufacturer (using the products of service marketing paradigm), then this might be considered an appropriate use of the material (a technical nutrient). Cadmium in the context of trashed batteries is much more problematic.

The P List.

“Positive list”. These are actively defined as healthy and safe substances, considering:

· Oral/ inhalative toxicity,

· chronic toxicity,

· whether it’s a sensitizer,

· whether it’s a known or suspected carcinogen,

· whether it bioaccumulates, toxicity to water organisms,

· biodegradability,

· potential for ozone layer depletion,

· whether by-products meet the above critera.

Passive redesign meets we simply analyze ingredients and make substitutions.

Step 4. Activiate the P list.

Instead of being less bad, we figure out how to be good.

The product is designed from the beginning (using eco-effective principles) to be either biological or technical food. (Like building a car to be disassembled.)

Step 5. Reinvent.

Recast the design assignment: like designing cars to have positive emissions and positive impacts. Or design a new transportation infrastructure.

Transformation to an eco-effective vision requires time, effort, money, creativity.

To help steer the transition:

Signal your intention: commit to a new paradigm, from employees “on the ground” to the top.

Restore: Strive for “good growth”, not just economic growth. (A dilapidated neighborhood can be planted with seeds of ideas like a new transit system, ways or providing services that aren’t linked to sprawl and waste, water purification, increase of green space, etc. Buildings can be restorative: ones that give back to the environment.

Understand and prepare for the learning curve: Change is difficult, messy, and takes extra materials and time—but leave room for change and development, and build something new alongside what’s already there!

Exert intergenerational Responsibility!

3 Es

Ecology economy equity

Economy/Economy: Can you make a profit on the product or the service? If not, don’t do it. (It’s a commercial company’s responsibility to provide shareholder value and create wealth.)

Economy/Equity: Are employees earning a living wage? (From a local perspective—a living wage will differ depending on the area)

Equity/Economy: Are men and women being paid the same?

Equity/Equity: Are people treating each other with respect?

Equity/Ecology: Is it fair to expose people to toxins in the workplace or in the products? Is it fair to have workers in offices where undefined materials are off-gassing and exposing them to health risks? How will the product affect future generations’ health?

Ecology/Equity: Is it fair to pollute a river or poison the air?

Ecology/Ecology: Are we obeying nature’s laws? Does waste equal food? Are we using current solar income? Are we sustaining not only our own species but all species?

Ecology/Economy: Is our ecological strategy economically fecund too?

Economy/Ecology: (eco-efficiency) Are we doing more with less while continuing to work within the existing economic paradigm? (Eco-efficiencyàeco-effective)


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