Joel Makower talks to Bill McDonough about 'The Upcycle'

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This week marks the publication of The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. It’s their first book since their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a bestseller that helped change the conversation about designing and manufacturing, envisioning a closed-loop system where every material was returned to the soil, or back into the manufacturing process with no harm or loss of quality. 

The Upcycle takes the next step, envisioning what’s possible through a series of “evocations,” as McDonough calls them. (You can read an excerpt here.) The book ties together the impressive contributions McDonough and Braungart have made over the past quarter century, individually and together, toward the goal of re-envisioning commerce.

I took the opportunity of the book’s publication to catch up with McDonough, a longtime colleague and friend, to hear more about this next-gen view of the world of business. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Tell me about the title of this book, how you came to The Upcycle from Cradle to Cradle.

William McDonough: In Cradle to Cradle, we talked about the fact that often what we currently call recycling could be revisited, because of various issues around it, one of which was what we characterized as downcycling, where things are actually being hybridized with other materials, losing quality in the process of reuse. A food-grade clear plastic, for example, might be mixed with other plastics and become a flower pot, or a park bench, or a speed bump. It’s really a material losing quality on its way to a landfill or incinerator. Recycling should mean that you’ve been able to recycle it at the same level of quality.

That begs the question, “What is it you are recycling?” If you’re recycling something that’s carcinogenic or an endocrine disrupter, then you’re actually recycling something that’s highly problematic. So you’re technically recycling it, but is it something we really wanted in the first place?

The third level is upcycling. We talked about that in Cradle to Cradle and I think people found that quite entrancing. Downcycling surprised them a bit, and upcycling surprised them a bit more.

That would be our context: a quality improvement. So, a plastic water bottle, for example, contains residues from a catalytic reaction that produces antinomy, a heavy metal. We can actual purify those bottles as they come back through the system and remove that substance of concern and make the polyester even better.

On top of that, the chemical companies have found ways to repair the polymers. Through the process of recycling, they often become short fibers that compromise the integrity of the polymer. We’ve found ways in the chemical industry to actually repair the polymer so that it can be continually reused. It used to be the polyesters might get used two or three times and then they lost their ability to become high quality and confident as a raw material.

So, the idea that a plastic could be purified in the context of human or ecological health, could be repaired in terms of mechanical properties, and could be endlessly available to humans as a resource — that’s what we call upcycling. Things that were not optimized get optimized in the process.

Next page: Will “upcycling” become greenwash?

Makower: I’m concerned that the way this term has been used by others in the past could be problematic. For example, some people will think upcycling is what Terracycle is doing, even though they’re only turning used packaging into things like umbrellas and backpacks. That’s what you would call downcycling, but they call upcycling.

McDonough: That’s okay. We can have a dialogue in society about it.

I think it begs a big question of design. What is our intentionality? Is it to take sub-optimal things like a complex juice box and just reuse it for another purpose? If we’re going to call that “better,” it would be worth asking the question, “What if we could design those objects in the first place so they could be continuously reused.” Or, put back into the soil safely, like we just did with Puma’s shoes.

Makower: It sounds like upcycling is possible now more so than before, largely because of technological advancement — for example, the ability to purify used plastic resins. Is that part of what’s going on here?

McDonough: Yes. We know more things than we used to know. What if we use that knowledge to make things better? There’s a lot of knowledge coming up because people have been concerned about these issues for human health.

Makower: In your book, you talk about upcycling energy. How does that fit in? It seems counter to the laws of thermodynamics.

McDonough: Oh, heavens, no. How so?

Makower: Well, energy can’t be upcycled, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It always moves toward entropy. So, how does energy fit into the upcycling equation?

McDonough: When we talk about upcycling energy, in the context of the book, we talk about things like “wind equals food.” These are evocations.

I’ve been asked in China, for example, to look at this issue of the western plains, where they have lots of wind. They have turbines that are not connected to the grid, because they’re building a wind industry, but they don’t have the infrastructure part. And so we started to think about that, about LEDs. And we started to think about the fact that the Dutch have found that a lot of plants, because of their intense growing seasons, can work from just a few frequencies of light. I think the strawberry likes two reds and three blues. It doesn’t need yellow light at all.

So all of a sudden, we can actually design the light, and that reduces the energy consumption dramatically. And all of a sudden, we can start to imagine that we could be growing food under artificial light very cost effectively with renewable power. That’s why there’s a little section called “Wind Equals Food,” kind of for fun.

It’s just an evocation, Joel. It’s like, “Let’s think about these things differently.”

Next page: A material in the wrong place is a toxin

Makower: So, it’s not about creating more energy?

McDonough: People talk about having an energy problem. That’s interesting, but we also essentially can look at it as a materials problem. We have carbon — which we know and love, and which we’re made out of — in the atmosphere. It’s a material-in-the-wrong-place problem. A material in the wrong place is a toxin.

To sort of simplify it to help make a point, if I have lead in my kid’s porridge, we definitely have a real neurotoxin on our hands. Because it’s lead in the biosphere against the kid’s brain, and that’s highly problematic. That is frightening.

But if we have lead as a solder in the telephone you’re talking to me with, and that telephone is designed to go back into technical cycles without that lead ever going back to the biosphere — that’s not to say that the lead mining or the existing systems for how these materials and products are manipulated on their next use is optimal. If it just sits there in the phone you and I are talking on, it is not exposed to you.

So, in a closed system that doesn’t release to the biosphere, lead is a nutrient. It’s not a good or a bad. It’s just doing a job.

It’s that way with carbon. You see, carbon over the millions of years has been accruing in soil, and some of that has been taken with heat and pressure and time, and has become fossil fuel. So that carbon that has been captured by soil over the eons in the way nature designed its system: carbon, from atmosphere into soil.

But for the last couple hundred years, we have been taking carbon from soil and putting it in the atmosphere. It’s just backwards.

So when we upcycle energy, conceptually and evocatively, it is to say, “Let’s not take carbon earthbound and put it in the atmosphere, because then it’s just like lead in the river.”

Makower: This all goes back to a longtime theme of yours, which is a thread throughout your book, about design being the first signal of human intention.

McDonough: In the first book, we talked about “being less bad” is not “being good.” In this one, we’re taking it a bit further and saying, “Being less bad is a good thing to do as part of your program,” because demand-side management is critical. So: Reduce your carbon-based energy, if it’s going to the atmosphere.

The real question is, what is the right thing to do? Right and wrong do matter, and that’s why this book talks about that we should look at our values first. What is good? What is bad? What do we want?

That brings us to design as an intention. Then we move from there, to principles, goals, strategies, tactics, and metrics. But if we just start with the metrics, it’s hard to get past goals. You can reduce your badness by 20 percent. But the real question might be, “What is it what is it we want? And then how do we drive towards it?”

So you have these two agendas. One would be manage your downside, the other is to increase your upside, and do the two together. But your goal is 100 percent upside, not zero.

I made little joke in the book about “going to zero” is like jumping in a taxi, and saying, “I’m not going to the airport.” You’re telling me what you don’t want. You haven’t told me what you want. You just said, “I want zero.” It’s nothing. Okay, fair enough, but that’s all you’re going to tell me?

Next page: Let’s be 100 percent fabulous

Makower: It’s kind of like jumping in a cab and saying, “I don’t want you to get into an accident.”

McDonough: Your point there is important, Joel. I think the zero goal came from industry’s very natural desire for zero accidents. There’s a whole history of that. Total quality management.

I think what we’re trying to do with the upside is just say, “Let’s raise the bar around the conversation. Let’s talk about how the world gets better instead of just less bad.” You don’t go to your kids and say, “Our goal is zero, kids. It’s better if Dad’s not here. It’s better if you’re not here. You’re goal is zero.” I find that just not as much fun as saying, “Let’s be 100 percent fabulous.”

Makower: You’ve talked a lot about evocations. Why is that important? Why is this a book of evocations?

McDonough: Leibniz said, “If it is possible, therefore it exists.” And there are whole books written about that statement. If we can render something visible, if we can make it exist, then for other people, it is possible. Take Sustainability Base. What we wanted to do there — when they asked me to work on the Mars station, I told them to come back to Earth first — is they went to space and they said, “We have to have power,” and they got it from the sun. Then they figured out how to do it, and we’re doing that now on Earth. And then they figured out how to get water recycling on the Space Station, because it’s $80,000 a gallon to bring water up to space. So they used forward osmosis, and the water is recirculated. It’s H2O.

You take those and then you start to bring them back to Earth. What if a building could convert renewable resources in a way that can benefit the world around it? That’s what we modeled.

So, it’s an evocation, putting forward the challenge for humans to enjoy. And that’s why I thought it was so important. There are so many books with all kinds of granular data about benchmarking against existing systems. Everybody can go look at that stuff; it’s everywhere.

I just thought it might be nice to take a walk in the garden and speculate, “Oh, there’s a flower. There’s a butterfly. There’s the sun.” As a designer, I just wondered if that would be useful to people, to dream a little bit, rather than getting all caught up in the numbers.

Michael and I felt it would be really good to give people a sense of what it would mean if we were beneficial creatures. How do you tell that story? Is it data? Or is it evocations? That’s why did it like that.

Makower: Cradle to Cradle became a brand, a certification and a meme. What’s your hope for The Upcycle?

McDonough: If there’s a meme in The Upcycle, it’s that we can do better, that we can always do better. It’s about constant improvement.

Yes, it’s good to reduce badness. But it’s not adequate in the task. It’s insufficient to the benefits humans could provide to our future children. We could look at what it would mean to design for 10 billion people, so that we don’t look at children any more as a population problem, but as a moment to honor the potential human creativity that is resident in those lovely children. It’s that attitude, instead of the shrill finger-wagging — We’re running out of everything! That kid is a population problem! If that’s the case, we’re hopeless.

I mean, I think we need another message that’s exciting.

You’ll notice that the book doesn’t say, “We must do this. We should do this.” There’s no finger-wagging. It says we can do this or could do this. But that means we have to go into the world with a message that’s possible or potential or poetic or exciting or evocative. So that’s what we did. I hope it’s okay. It’s one of the pieces missing in the puzzle today: the hopeful gesture.

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