Designing the Future
In a new interview series, NEWSWEEK talks to a leading ecological architect whose goal is nothing less than eliminating waste and pollution.
Newsweek | May 16, 2005 issue
Imagine buildings that generate more energy than they consume and factories whose waste water is clean enough to drink. William McDonough has accomplished these tasks and more. Architect, industrial designer and founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Va., he's not your traditional environmentalist. Others may expend their energy fighting for stricter environmental regulations and repeating the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle." McDonough's vision for the future includes factories so safe they need no regulation, and novel, safe materials that can be totally reprocessed into new goods, so there's no reason to scale back consumption (or lose jobs). In short, he wants to overhaul the Industrial Revolution—which would sound crazy if he weren't working with Fortune 500 companies and the government of China to make it happen. The recipient of two U.S. presidential honors and the National Design Award, McDonough is the former dean of architecture at the University of Virginia and co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. He spoke in New York recently with NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood.
UNDERWOOD: Why do we need a new industrial revolution?
MCDONOUGH: The Industrial Revolution as a whole was not designed. It took shape gradually as industrialists and engineers figured out how to make things. The result is that we put billions of pounds of toxic materials in the air, water and soil every year and generate gigantic amounts of waste. If our goal is to destroy the world—to produce global warming and toxicity and endocrine disruption—we're doing great. But if the goal isn't global warming, what is? I want to crank the wheel of industry in a different direction to produce a world of abundance and good design—a delightful, safe world that our children can play in.
You say that recycling, as it's currently practiced, is "downcycling."
What we call recycling is typically the product losing its quality. Paper gets mixed with other papers, re-chlorinated and contaminated with toxic inks. The fiber length gets shorter, allowing more particles to abrade into the air, where they get into your lungs and nasal passages, and cause irritation. And you end up with gray, fuzzy stuff that doesn't really work for you. That's downcycling.
[My mentor and colleague] Michael Braungart and I coined the term upcycling, meaning that the product could actually get better as it comes through the system. For example, some plastic bottles contain the resi-dues of heavy-metal catalysts. We can remove those residues as the bottles come back to be upcycled.
Not all products lend themselves to that.
Most manufacturers take resources out of the ground and convert them to products that are designed to be thrown away or incinerated within months. We call these "cradle to grave" product flows. Our answer to that is "cradle to cradle" design. Everything is reused—either returned to the soil as nontoxic "biological nutrients" that will biodegrade safely, or returned to industry as "technical nutrients" that can be infinitely recycled. Aluminum is a technical nutrient. It takes tremendous energy to make, but it's easy to recapture and reuse. Since 1880, the human species has made 660 million tons of it. We still know where 440 million tons are today.
Are there products already that meet cradle-to-cradle goals? If so, how do we find them?
Within the month, we will be branding cradle to cradle. Products that meet our criteria for biological and technical nutrients can be certified to use our logo. A note on the packaging will tell you how to recycle it. You'll know: this one goes into my tomato plot when I'm finished or this one goes back to industry forever. We have already approved a nylon, some polyester textiles, running tracks, window shades, chairs from Herman Miller and Steelcase, and carpets from Shaw, which is part of Berkshire Hathaway. The first was a Steelcase fabric that can go back to the soil. We're now working on electronics on a global scale.
How do paper products like magazines fit into this picture?
Why take something as exquisite as a tree and knock it down? Trees make oxygen, sequester carbon, distill water, build soils, convert solar energy to fuel, change colors with the seasons, create microclimates and provide habitat.
My book "Cradle to Cradle," which I wrote with Michael Braungart, is printed on pages made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers that are infinitely recyclable. They're too heavy, but we're working with companies now to develop lightweight plastic papers. We have safe, lightweight inks designed to float off the paper in a bath of 180 degrees—hotter than you would encounter under normal circumstances. We can recapture the inks and reuse them without adding chlorine and dioxins to the environment. And the pages are clean, smooth and white.
So we can keep our trees and have newspapers, too.
Most environmentalists feel guilty about how society behaves, so they say we should make longer-lasting products—for example, a car that lasts 25 years. That car will still use compound epoxies and toxic adhesives, but the ecological footprint is reduced because you've amortized it over a longer time. But what's the result? You lose jobs because people aren't buying as much, and you're using the wrong technology longer. I want five-year cars. Then you can always be getting the newest car—more solar-powered, cleaner, with the newest air bags and safety features. The old car gets upcycled into new cars, so there are still plenty of jobs. And you don't feel guilty about throwing the old one away. People want new technology. You're not typing on an Underwood, if you know what I mean.
So growth is good?
Yes, if you use nature as a model and mentor, if you use modern designs and chemicals that are safe. Growth is destructive if you use energy not from the sun and a system of chemicals that is toxic, so it's anti-life.
Given that industry today fits your definition of anti-life, why aren't you fighting for stricter environmental regulations?
If coal plants release mercury—and mercury is a neurotoxin that damages children's brains—then reducing the amount of mercury in emissions doesn't stop that. It just says, "We'll tell you at what rate you can dispense death." Being less bad is not being good. Our idea is to make production so clean, there's nothing bad left to regulate. This is extremely interesting to people of all political persuasions—those who love the environment and those who want commerce free of regulation.
Can you really have industry so clean it requires no controls?
[At the Rohner textile plant in Switzerland] we designed a fabric safe enough to eat. The manufacturing process uses no mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, heavy-metal contaminants or chemicals that cause ozone depletion, allergies, skin desensitization or plant and fish toxicity. We screened 8,000 commonly used chemicals and ended up with 38. When inspectors measured the effluent water, they thought their instruments were broken. The water was as clean as Swiss drinking water. A garden club started using the waste trimmings as mulch. Workers no longer had to wear protective clothing. And it eliminated regulatory paperwork, so they've reduced the cost of production by 20 percent. Why spend money on paperwork, when you can spend it delivering service or paying your workers a living wage?
Where would I find this fabric?
It was selected for upholstery on the new Airbus 380. It's made of worsted wool to keep you at the right temperature—cool when it's hot and warm when it's cold—and [a plant fiber called] ramie to wick away moisture. It's a high-performance-design product. Going ecological doesn't mean downgrading performance criteria.
How do you get more industries to adopt these ideals?
Industries don't change unless they have to or there's some commercial benefit. At Herman Miller [the furniture company], we designed a factory full of daylight and fresh air. Productivity soared. And because of all the natural light, they cut lighting costs by 50 percent—overall energy by 30 percent. We've been doing this a long time. But now that China has taken it up, it portends exciting things.
What are you doing in China?
The China Housing Industry Association has the responsibility for building housing for 400 million people in the next 12 years. We're working with them to design seven new cities. We're identifying building materials of the future, such as a new polystyrene from BASF [with no noxious chemicals]. It can be used to build walls that are strong, lightweight and superinsulating. The building can be heated and cooled for next to nothing. And it's silent. If there are 13 people in the apartment upstairs, you won't hear them.
We've designed a luxurious new toilet. The bowl is like a lotus leaf—so smooth, axle grease slips right off. Nothing sticks to it, including bacteria. A light mist when you're done will be enough to flush it, so you won't use lots of water. We'll have bamboo wetlands nearby to purify the waste—and the bamboo, which grows a foot a day, can be harvested and used for wood.
The Chinese are afraid urbanization will reduce productive farmland, so we'll move farms onto rooftops. At least, that's what I'm proposing. The farmers can live downstairs. And when you look at the city from a distance, it will look like part of the landscape.
Is it practical to put farms on roofs?
Traditional roofs aren't practical. They degrade from thermal shock and ultraviolet radiation and have to be replaced in 20 years. For the Gap's corporate campus in San Bruno, Calif., we planted a "green roof" of ancient grasses. The roof now damps the sounds of jets from the San Francisco airport. It absorbs storm water, which is important because they have serious issues with storm water there. It makes oxygen, provides habitat, and it's beautiful. We also made a green roof for Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge plant. It saved Ford millions of dollars in storm-water equipment.
How will you fuel the Chinese cities?
I want to see solar power cheaper than coal, but to get the speed and scale to do that fast, you need a place like China. We're not talking about dinky solar collectors on roofs. Think of square miles of marginal land covered with them. This could drop the cost of solar energy an order of magnitude. And for every job making solar panels, there are four jobs putting them in place and maintaining them. We could import these panels, and for every job the Chinese give themselves, we get four. What a gift. And I guarantee you, China will never be able to capture an American photon. We would have indigenous energy and energy security. And we wouldn't be throwing our money into holes in the ground.
And we wouldn't need nuclear energy.
I love nuclear energy. I just want to make sure it stays where God put it—93 million miles away, in the sun.
Your ideas are really catching on.
It's an amazing moment in history. We also have two huge new projects in England—working with the cities of Greenwich and Wembley. The developer, Adrian Wyatt, has asked us to conceive the meta-framework for the project.
We won't get everything right the first time. Change requires experimentation. But no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. Our job is to dream—and to make those dreams happen.