The Inventors of Upcycling Published Their Manifesto In a Plastic Book. Why?

You might have heard the term in relation to crafting, but it means a lot more

Cradle to Cradle laid out a strategy for reducing waste through smarter product design. Case in point: the book itself is plastic and waterproof; the pages can be recycled and the ink can be washed off for reuse. Left: Flickr/Zach Taylor/CC-BY; Right: Courtesy Derrick Willard

When you hear “upcycling” you might think of Pinterest and cutesy mason jar crafts. But that term has the potential to stand for much more.

Architect William McDonough, born on this day in 1951, and Michael Braungart, a chemist, coined the term to describe their vision of how objects should be designed—starting with Cradle to Cradle. That book, their second co-written work on sustainable design, made headlines when it was published in 2002. The reason: it was printed on plastic.

In a book review, Grist’s Hal Clifford explained the unusual design’s rationale: “The pages of Cradle to Cradle are made of a plastic from which the ink can be easily washed and captured for reuse. The plastic itself can be reused at the same or a higher level, rather than ‘downcycled,’ which is what a lot of recycling really is.” Downcycling is when a product is reused to make something of lower quality, like recycling printer paper into toilet paper, he writes. Usually that happens because the original product has been degraded or contaminated by other materials.

A core theory of their book, Clifford writes, is that waste is the product of bad design, not wasteful individuals. Whereas messages like “don’t waste water” accept the fact that some waste is a sad inevitability, McDonough and Braungart said that it’s both possible and economically important to design products that have zero waste. 

While this is an argument that environmentalists had been making since the 1970s, McDonough and Braungart’s book foreshadowed the kind of design language that would influence economics-focused people and their businesses in the twenty-first century so far. For example, textile scraps from a factory can become gardeners' mulch (a case study McDonough and Braungart describe in their book).

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, founded by McDonough and Braungart, certifies products that adhere to the principles they’ve articulated in their book and subsequent work. A building that uses Cradle to Cradle-certified materials can get a higher LEED score, one way the "cradle to cradle" concept is breaking into the mainstream. The pair also published a followup book in 2013 titled The Upcycle: Beyond Cradle to Cradle that built on their original concepts.

On the crafting side, the term “upcycling” has been widely used to describe projects that turn trash into treasures. In the clothing industry, it’s been adopted to describe repurposing existing clothing rather than making all-new stuff, which is now something even some luxury brands do. These uses might not be quite what McDonough and Braungart had in mind, but the idea of turn existing items into other items is certainly a step in the right direction.  

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