Cradle to Cradle

Can I eat that book when you’re done with it?

(First published in The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2002 )

When you finish reading this newspaper, you’ll probably put it in the recycling bin for a trip to a paper mill. There, your old newspaper will be bleached and treated with chemicals so that it can be added to the fresh wood pulp used to make tomorrow’s newspaper. It can also be turned into a lower grade of paper, such as toilet tissue. What the paper mill cannot do, though, is take used newsprint and turn it directly into new newsprint. The fibers are not sturdy enough.

Recycling a book is more complicated, even though books are printed on a higher grade of paper. Books and their covers are produced with a wide variety of inks and papers containing polymers, heavy metals, and chemical coatings that are neither safe to compost nor simple to recycle.

“Cradle to Cradle” is different. It is what it preaches: The smooth, white pages look like paper, but they are not made of wood fiber. The book is printed on waterproof “paper” made from plastic resins developed by chemist Charlie Melcher and printed with a nontoxic ink designed for easy removal in recycling plants.

Books made this way will, according to the authors, last as long as or longer than books printed on the finest paper. They can also be recycled. Not that books ought to be recycled as a general thing, but if, say, celebrity autobiographies were printed this way, they could be recycled into books of high and lasting quality.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart want us to design everything so that it can be composted safely and rapidly or turned into industrial feedstock.

Readers who have kept posted on the havoc that our manufacturing and consuming economy has wreaked on the planet can save time by starting on page 103, where McDonough and Braungart give us their credo:

“If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of ‘waste’ does not exist. To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging and systems – from the very beginning on the assumption that waste does not exist.”

Packaging, they remind us, makes up 50 percent of garbage. Shampoo bottles, yogurt containers, and candy wrappers could be made of material that would biodegrade in the compost heap, becoming fertile soil. Products themselves should be reengineered so that everything that we buy, wear, and use can be either composted or disassembled for easy manufacture into new products.

Ecologically designed running shoes, for example, would have biodegradable soles and uppers composed of a fabric easily recyclable into new running shoes. Cars would be designed for easy disassembly into steel, chrome, and plastic ready to melt down and mold into new cars.

It sounds like pie in the sky until the authors begin to recount tales of products that they have already redesigned. They were once asked to come up with a sturdy, comfortable, ecologically correct upholstery fabric for a manufacturer who expressed a preference for fiber made from recycled plastic bottles.

But after studying the textile industry, they realized that fabrics made of old bottles require processing by myriad harmful chemicals. What they came up with instead is a fabric made from pesticide-free wool and ramie. It’s sturdy, it’s comfortable, it wicks moisture away, and it’s now the upholstery of choice for covering the seats of wheelchairs in Europe. Best of all, the air and water at the textile plant are far cleaner than when the plant wove artificial fibers.

The pioneering brilliance of McDonough, a ecologically conscious architect, and Braungart, a chemical engineer, is widely recognized by people concerned for the future of the planet. With such stellar achievements to their credit, it’s unfortunate that “Cradle to Cradle” often reads with all the elegance that might be expected of a book written by an engineer.

Still, McDonough and Braungart deserve our admiration as men of action who have reformulated manufacturing processes and designed buildings that make the world a cleaner, healthier place. In “Cradle to Cradle,” they share with us a vision of a better future that is at once realistic and prophetic.

Diana Muir is the author of “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England” (University Press of New England).