National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Earth & Spirit
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

Reusable plastic book wastes not, wants not


Sometime in the last decade the Great Wall of China became the second-largest human-made structure in the world. That’s because the largest is now considered to be Fresh Kills Landfill, known colloquially as Mount Trash, located on the eastern side of Staten Island and serving nearby New York City. This garbage dump now exceeds the Great Wall in total area measured in cubic feet and became the highest point on the East Coast south of Maine.

The landfill is over two and one half times the size of Central Park and contains some 150 million cubic yards of garbage in four separate hills that soar as high as 225 feet above sea level, taller than the nearby Statue of Liberty.

We Americans represent only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we use 40 percent of its resources and generate 30 percent of the world’s garbage. We throw away 2.5 million plastic beverage containers every minute. Each household generates about 13 pounds of trash per day, or nearly three-quarters of a ton per year.

At that rate, in another 10 years most major U. S. cities will host their own towering Mount Trash. Strenuous efforts everywhere to recycle are reducing that waste flow, but other strategies are badly needed.

Recently a colleague loaned me a small book that both presents and represents a dramatic new way of dealing with the waste problem.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things was published in 2002 by North Point Press on synthetic paper. The pages are made from plastic resins with organic fillers that make it waterproof, extremely durable and recyclable. You could read this book in the shower. The inks are formulated to be washed off and recaptured.

The book you can hold in your hands is a living example of the ideas contained within.

The authors, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, craft within its pages an explanation for why humans need a completely new framework for how we interact with the world around us.

Human progress since the Industrial Revolution has been one big design error, they say. Our technology and development models are completely counter to the natural cycles and principles that worked for millions of years to create the environment we manipulate.

Current human technology, they say, is a product of “cradle to grave” design. We extract resources from the Earth, shape them into a product, use it, then throw it away. The problem is that “away” is Mount Trash.

The authors challenge us not to reduce, reuse or recycle but to entirely eliminate the concept of waste by smarter environmental design. They propose a new paradigm whereby a product’s reuse is built into it from the beginning -- for example, their book’s plastic “paper.”

The authors zero in on packaging, which makes up half of the volume of the waste stream. This packaging, they point out, can be manufactured from materials that can be tossed on the ground or compost heap to safely biodegrade after use. There is no need for shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, yogurt containers or other packaging to last decades or even centuries longer than what came inside them.

Because profitability is a requirement of their designs, they appeal to business owners and obviate the need for a regulatory apparatus.

“Worry-free packaging would safely decompose or be gathered and used as fertilizers, thus bringing nutrients back to the soil,” they write. “Shoe soles could degrade to enrich the environment. Soaps and other liquid cleaning products could be designed as biological nutrients as well. Dirty dishwater could flow down the drain, pass through a wetland for further cleansing, then end up as clean water in a lake or river.”

They argue that conventional, expensive eco-efficiency measures like recycling or emissions reduction are inadequate for protecting the long-term health of the planet. “Our industrial products are simply not designed with environmental safety in mind, and there’s no way to reclaim the natural resources they use or fully prevent ecosystem damage, and mitigating the damage is at best a stop-gap measure.”

The authors name their new approach “eco-effectiveness,” defined as designing from the ground up for both eco-safety and cost efficiency.

In 1994 they started a design firm that puts these principles into practice. Their firm was hired to design a compostable upholstery fabric. After some work, an entire line of fabrics was put into production. Water leaving the factory tested cleaner than when it went in. And the fabric could be readily disposed of by tossing it onto the ground where it would decompose back into the soil without leaving any toxic chemicals behind.

“The promise of the next Industrial Revolution is a system of production that fulfills desires for economic and ecological abundance and social equity in both the short and long terms -- becoming sustaining (not just sustainable) for all generations.”

Albert Einstein pointed out that the problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them. Cradle to Cradle is a perfect example of the creative problem-solving he had in mind.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World and a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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