Solid Waste & Recycling


Less bad is no good

A recent blog entry from the Athens, Georgia-based Product Policy Institute reminds me why the PPI is one of my favorite organizations taking on the “bleeding edge” of waste and recycling issues, talking — as it does — not so much about waste management but rather the redesign of how products are produced, packaged and distributed. For until we overhaul that (almost completely), all discussion over the problem with “garbage” is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We’ve done a good job separating and recycling or otherwise processing different waste streams (albeit mostly for a limited municipal slice of the larger waste pie) while the total generation of waste has gone steadily up and up.

And with the discovery that gyres in the world’s ocean currents are circulating increasing volumes of microscopic plastic that could stay in our environment forever — the importance of interrupting how we do things, and what we make stuff from, is more important than ever,

With that in mind, I enjoyed the post “Upcycling the Upcycle” by Matt Prindiville, Associate Director at PPI, which you can access here (or read below):

Prindiville reviews the new book the Upcycle by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of the popular tome Cradle-to-Cradle (the latter of which has become a standard book for people interested in design for the environment [DfE]).

I agree with his critique that public policy instruments need to bolster the shift to green design, and I share his enjoyment of the term “less bad is no good.” Those concepts are going to be important in the fight ahead on many fronts, especially the one to prevent plastics entering our oceans, which will require a combination of shift away from the use of certain plastics altogether, the replacement of others with truly biodegradable formulations, and the complete capture and recycling (or thermal destruction) of whatever society plastics chooses to allow in future.

Here’s the review:


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Upcycling the Upcycle: Thoughts on the new book by McDonough & Braungart

By Matt Prindiville, Associate Director

“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.” – excerpt from the Upcycle by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart

I recently read Bill McDonough’s and Michael Braungart’s new book, the Upcycle.  As someone who was profoundly affected by their first book,Cradle-to-Cradle, I looked forward to my long cross-country plane ride home where I eagerly devoured the book.  From the first pages, I was struck by what these two do best: inspire us to believe that environmental problems can be solved by new ways of thinking and doing.

Abundance versus Scarcity

The central message of the Upcycle is that our natural world is a thriving place full of abundance, and that we can design production and consumption systems that support nature’s tendency toward abundance rather than diminish it.  For folks familiar with the conventional definition of “upcycle,” which means converting waste materials into new materials or products of better quality or better environmental value, this is an expansion of that idea.  McDonough and Braungart’s focus is on green design as the core strategy to achieve this goal, and they cite numerous real-world and theoretical examples to confirm this position.

Where many environmental “solutions” are based on the premise of using less resources by becoming more “eco-efficient,” they argue that this focus is often misguided.  From their perspective, what is most important is becoming “eco-effective,” which I paraphrase to mean: getting what we want through either no negative impact or beneficial support to the natural world.  They use the example of people enjoying long, hot showers.  The conventional green wisdom is that long, hot showers are bad for the environment.  If you care, you should purchase a low-flow showerhead, set the temperature as cold as you can stand it, and get out as soon as possible.  They argue that if you have a closed-loop water circulation system that is heated by passive-solar technology, you can take a hot shower as long as you want with virtually no impact on the planet.  That’s an eco-effective solution.

“Less Bad is No Good”

This is my new favorite slogan.  Many of our environmentally regulations are focused on making things “less bad.”  For example, we set limits on the amount of harmful emissions that a power plant or industrial facility can pollute.  While these laws are important, McDonough and Braungart write that we should put greater focus on developing incentives for the creation and deployment of new technologies that can deliver the same goods and services without pollution or ecological harm.  “Not bad” is good for everyone.

A “Regulation” Means “Here is Something to Be Redesigned”

McDonough and Braungart use several examples to show where regulations are “alerts to design failures.”  We need laws protecting our air, water and land because of poor design around production and consumption and the subsequent waste and pollution created.  These regulations can be made moot through the widespread deployment of technologies and practices that deliver the same goods without pollution or waste.  While some would deride this as naïve or “happytalk,” it is a powerful reminder of what we can achieve with sufficient motivation and the right drivers in place.

Speaking of the Right Drivers…

If I have one criticism of the Upcyle, it’s that McDonough and Braungart are overly focused on green design and not enough on public policy change.   I understand that they are respectively, an architect and a chemist, and they have made significant global contributions through developing green design solutions for large companies.  Their Cradle-to-Cradle Certification process for product design is creating a new de-facto industry standard for safe and sustainable products. Talking about design is where they are most comfortable.

But green design without an appropriate legal framework often doesn’t effectively reward environmental leaders and can let the laggards off the hook.  Often, if one company wants to do the right thing, they are put at a competitive disadvantage. And some green innovations, like designing safer chemicals for use in electronics, will not be widely deployed without legislation. This is especially true for systems innovations, like extended producer responsibility.  One company may want its product or packaging reused or recycled at the end of its useful life, but they cannot change or improve our existing recycling systems in and of themselves.

Most big environmental problems cannot be solved by one company working alone on voluntary measures, or even loosely allied through trade associations.  Really big problems call for a shift in the way we do things for everyone involved, and it’s often these types of problems that require legislation to hold businesses and individuals to the same higher standards.

Upcycling the Upcycle

The marriage of green design and effective public policy will be the key to upcycling the Upcycle.  We need to create the legal frameworks that empower and reward individuals and companies for developing goods and services in ways that protect and even nourish the planet.  These frameworks must also set standards to pull the laggards up to join the environmental leaders. Extended producer responsibility, safer chemicals policy, a price on carbon are all examples of the policies needed to achieve this vision.

If we are successful in passing the right policy drivers, then we will be able to widely encourage and deploy the design solutions that McDonough, Braungart and many others are working to create for our most pressing environmental problems.  We will also have gone a long way toward creating the “delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

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2 Comments » for Less bad is no good
  1. Thanks for reposting and for the kudos, Guy! I also am a great fan of your work and reference your articles often in US policy discussions. You folks are ahead of us on EPR, and if we don’t learn the lessons you’ve already learned from trial and error in Canada, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes down here in the U.S. Your commentary and that of the other great folks at SWR helps prevent that. Thanks for keeping us informed and up-to-speed, MP

  2. Claudette Coombs says:

    This is a great issue of Solid Waste & Recycling.

    How can we get the general public on side to create a difference in the unnecessary production of non-biodegradable waste?


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