Sunday, February 10, 2008

Waste = Food

Waste equals food is one of the most striking (and memorable) principles that Bill McDonough presented at NASA Ames (Mountain View, California) February 5, 2008. His talk updated his book Cradle to Cradle and documentary The Next Industrial Revolution. (If NASA makes video of his inspiring and entertaining talk available online, I will link to it from here, so check back)

What does it mean? Life evolves to make use of waste. A cherry tree drops cherries, blossoms, and sometimes branches. These feed animals, fungi, and bacteria, which produce waste consumed by others. It fits in a cycle without vast stockpiles of material spreading unused and inedible.

Human systems produce many waste materials that do not serve as food for us or any life. Eventually, bacteria may evolve to eat plastics, but not until long after we bury ourselves in it. If such bacteria evolved soon, technological civilization would face disaster as our computers, vehicles, buildings, and much else were digested before our eyes. Resigned to throwing things away ("Where is away?" McDonough asked), environmental aims have been to waste less, to be less bad, rather than eliminate the concept of waste.

McDonough suggests that aspiring to be “less bad” is, well, bad on many levels. It doesn’t solve the critical problems we’re creating because it’s still going in the wrong direction, just slower. Also, it does not inspire. Wasting less is a negative approach that tries to restrict businesses from growing.

On the other hand, doing good solves the environmental problems we face and actually feeds of the growth of business. Doing good by eliminating the concept of waste could be done by designing our products so that at the end of their useful life, they could be separated into organic and technical nutrients. Organic nutrients, like paper, can be broken down by organic (often bacterial) systems. Think compost piles that enrich soil to grow more organic nutrients. Technical nutrients, like metals and plastics, can be recycled into new products.

A wonderfully familiar illustration of how we currently fail to design for organic and technical recycling can be seen in The Story of Stuff: single-serving juice boxes. Layers of cardboard (organic), metal foil (technical), and plastic (technical) are not designed to be separated easily and cheaply. So where do you toss that empty box with the straw poking out the top? Paper recycling? Aluminum recycling? Plastic and glass recycling? No, no, and no. You send it to a landfill or incinerator (which spreads toxins into our air before sending toxic ash to landfills). In either case, we’ve harvested materials we need for our products and put them out of reach for reuse. Cradle to grave instead of cradle to cradle. And, so, we go off hunting for virgin materials. That can’t last.

A subtlety of reuse that McDonough pointed out is that product design must consider how it mixes similar materials. If several kinds of plastic are blended, that may make the plastic recyclable into only a cruder product, like a picnic table. He calls this downcycling because technical nutrients start in a refined state for one product and are then downcycled into a product with less demanding materials requirements. If that product's materials are also carelessly blended, it may downcycle into a product even more promiscuous, but then it's off to the landfill for sure. If product designers are concerned only with cheaply getting a product into consumer hands, then there's no motivation to make materials separable. However, if there is no "away" to throw the product and, instead, we want to reuse the technical nutrients, then design considers this. The book and documentary give examples of how this can work.

This connects to technological literacy and ICE-9 in any number of ways. How does technology work? It can be designed for separation of organic and technical nutrients for complete reuse. Where does technology come from? Biological inspiration, where waste equals food. What are technology’s costs and benefits? The pattern from Technology Challenged that the progress leads to obsolescence takes on a different light if obsolete technology could be completely recycled. What do you think?

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