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Conservation Corner - Intelligent Design Needed from “Cradle to Cradle”

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Submitted by Eileen Bowers

What would you find if you examined a typical landfill? Plastic packaging, diapers, old furniture, carpets, shoes, paper, food waste and computers. The list goes on and on. Billions of dollars’ worth of material assets were used to make most of these products.

Food and paper are biodegradable and have value, since they decompose and return nutrients to the soil. When these biodegradable items are put in our landfills, their soil enhancing values are wasted and are the ultimate example of the one-way “cradle to grave” model. In this model, a landfill or incinerator is the “grave” for resources that were extracted, shaped into products, sold and eventually disposed of.

Modern manufacturing is dominated by “cradle to grave” designs, with more than 90% of material produced in the U.S. becoming waste almost immediately. Many products are designed with “built-in-obsolescence”. They are not designed to last and rather than repair the original item, we are encouraged to trash it and buy a new one.

“Eco-efficiency”, a response to this environmental decline, is a noble idea but it is not a strategy for long-term success. One of its central tenets is reduction. To achieve that goal, incineration is praised by energy proponents as “waste-to-energy” and perceived healthier than land-filling. Valuable materials such as paper and plastic are flammable and incineration of wastes is possible. However, dioxins and other toxins are released during incineration because these materials were never designed to be burned.

Another tenet of eco-efficiency is recycling. However, most recycling is actually “down-cycling,” reducing the quality of the material over time.

Our race for economic progress results in “crude” products that are not designed for human and ecological health. These products are affecting us by producing poor indoor air quality, off-gassing teratogenic and/or carcinogenic compounds. Consequently, allergies, asthma and “sick-building syndrome” are on the rise.

Waste, pollution and crude products are the consequences of outdated and unintelligent design. Human industries and sys- tems need to be designed in a way that replenishes, restores and nourishes the rest of the world.

Instead of fine-tuning the existing destructive framework, we need a new design that allows for “cradle-to-cradle” exis- tence. People and industry need to create the following:

• Buildings that produce more energy than they consume and purify their own wastes.

• Factories that produce effluents of drinking water quality.

• Products - that at the end of their useful lives - can be tossed in the ground and decompose or be returned to the industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw material for more products.

• Transportation that improves the quality of life.

• A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollution, and waste.

Source: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough