The Upcycle – Book Review

The Upcycle Book CoverI bought The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, to find out what happened next in the story they began with their first book Cradle to Cradle.

The full title of the book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability–Designing for Abundance, gave me pause. I pictured a wide gulf of uncharted territory between sustainability and abundance and was intrigued to learn how the authors would bridge it.

On a mostly blank page, just before the table of contents, readers will find one sentence that succinctly expresses what The Upcycle is all about.

“The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

This would make a fitting credo for our society.

Book Review

In their 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle, McDonough, and Braungart shared their vision of an alternative to our industrial system of designing and making products destined for the dump at the end of their useful life.

Using Cradle to Cradle concepts designers create products that can be broken down or dismantled into biological and technical resources and infinitely reused in new products. They select materials that are good for people and the environment versus those that are less bad and view waste from one process as food for another.

Over the past decade, forward-thinking designers and makers of products, buildings, and even cities embraced Cradle to Cradle and spread the word.

The Upcycle continues the story and provides real life examples of Cradle to Cradle in action at such diverse organizations as NASA, office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, and the United States Postal Service. Readers will learn how retail store “goodbyers” might contribute to the upcycle and how a building inspired by butterflies could create abundance.

McDonough and Braungart turn the sustainability mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle on its head and ask us to reimagine the world where products are safe, useful, beautiful, and can be indefinitely upcycled.

  1. We Don’t Have an Energy Problem. We Have a Materials-in-the-Wrong-Place Problem.
  2. Get “Out of Sight” Out of Mind
  3. Always Be Asking What’s Next
  4. You Are Alive. Your Toaster Is Not
  5. Optimize, Optimize, Optimize
  6. You Can and You Will
  7. Add Good on Top of Subtracting Bad
  8. Gaze at the World Right Around You…Then Begin
  9. The Time is Now
  10. Go Forward Beneficially

The Bottom Line

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart met in the early 1990s and formed McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) in 1995. Since the publication of Cradle to Cradle in 2002, McDonough and Braungart have consulted with organizations all over the world, created the Cradle to Cradle Certified Program, and founded the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The Upcycle is an easy to read book chock full of ideas that interrupt our thinking about how things are designed and made. It raises questions and possibilities. Examples from the real world show us what is being done now and others give us a glimpse of the future.

I recommend The Upcycle to anyone interested in looking at the glass as not half full or empty, but as McDonough and Braungart do, as always full.

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Cradle to Cradle — Book Review

Cradle to Cradle Book CoverCradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, offers an alternative to the linear cradle-to-grave industrial model of extract, manufacture, use, and dispose of.

It introduces the concept of cradle-to-cradle where at the end of their useful life, products are not thrown away but become input for new products.

Book Review

The authors convey their vision of an industrial re-revolution through bits of history, stories, and examples.

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Introduction: This Book is Not a Tree

The book itself embodies its theme of cradle-to-cradle. It is made of synthetic “paper” that is waterproof, durable and can be broken down and remade as “paper” or other products again and again.

Chapter 1: A Question of Design

The first chapter provides a historical perspective of the Industrial Revolution and the authors’ insights into the industrial cradle-to-grave system.

Chapter 2: Why Being “Less Bad” Is No Good

Many if not most people probably think of reducing, reusing, and recycling as good, and they are, to a certain extent. Being “less bad” is not the same as doing good. Reducing toxic emissions isn’t the same as eliminating them.

Chapter 3: Eco-Effectiveness

Eco-effectiveness is going beyond efficiency and eco-friendliness, and reimagining not only products themselves, but the way they are made, and what they will become in the future.

Chapter 4: Waste Equals Food

In nature, the concept of waste does not exist or as the authors put it “waste equals food.” For example, a leaf falls from a tree on the ground and becomes food for the organisms that live in the soil which in turn nourish the tree.

Chapter 5: Respect Diversity

Using the “triple bottom line” approach to ecology, economy, and equity, a business executive might ask the following about a new product idea, “Will it impact the local river?”, “How much will it cost to make?”, and “Are the people making it being paid a living wage?”

Chapter 6: Putting Eco-Effectiveness into Practice

In the final chapter, William McDonough talks about his work with Ford Motor Company to redesign and renovate their gigantic River Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Bottom Line

The authors, William McDonough, an architect by trade, and Michael Braungart, a chemist, met in New York in 1991, and immediately struck up a working relationship which later led to forming McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. Both are recognized as experts in their fields and have hands on experience putting cradle-to-cradle concepts into practice.

One won’t find a step-by-step guide to eco-effectiveness in Cradle to Cradle.

Everyone can find inspiration and hope in this book.

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