Cradle-to-cradle: Desirable but Difficult

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by: John Caddell

I had been puzzling about the implications of cradle-to-cradle manufacture before my friend Sara Kaplaniak’s op-ed in our local paper yesterday, but reading it helped crystallize my opinion that, while very desirable, cradle-to-cradle requires a significant culture change among those who would be early adopters of the products.

And that’s going to slow down, perhaps by a lot, the growth of cradle-to-cradle products.

A brief definition: cradle-to-cradle is a mindset to construct goods from materials that can be completely reused or returned to the earth; i.e., there is no long-term disposal issue. This mindset has been promoted recently by the architect William McDonough.

An example of a cradle-to-cradle product is the Herman Miller’s Celle chair, which according to the manufacturer can be disassembled into components that are 99% recyclable.

The most thought-provoking piece I’ve read on the subject is "The Biosphere Rules" by Gregory Unruh in the February 2008 Harvard Business Review. Unruh writes about how businesses can be transformed by biomimicry–the imitation of nature, a view McDonough also believes in strongly. Unruh’s rules for manufacturers are:

  1. Use a parsimonious palette
  2. Cycle up–virtuously
  3. Exploit the power of platforms

#1 implies using a smaller number of materials, in manufacture, and in limiting (eliminating?) the compounding of materials. This is an issue for manufacturers–historically, they’ve started with a design and located or created materials to fulfill that design. Now they will be starting with a materials list to begin with and say "What can we make from this?"

The benefit is that the simpler materials are more easily reused, recycled or composted. And a fewer number will make the process to collect and sort them more economical.

#2 says in part that items should be made to wear out. (The limitations of #1 may help matters here–the alchemy required to create super-long-lasting materials may lead to unacceptable waste.) This is the most difficult part for me. My whole nature tells me to buy things that are long-lasting in order to consume as little as possible. And that old things have mana and should be retained. (I have three coats I love that are each more than 20 years old.)

Cradle-to-cradle says that things that wear out are OK and, as long as the manufacturers have good processes for collecting and recycling/rehabbing/

refurbishing them, it’s even desirable.

I may be the only one who will have to have a culture transplant to fall in love with this concept. But if I’m not, cradle-to-cradle may take quite a while to catch on.