Chapter IV - Just a revamped "use less and recycle" approach?

June 01, 2010

Taking the problem at its root – the design of products – is a totally different way of thinking, say McDonough and Braungart who point out that, while it’s a laudable effort, to simply use less and recycle is not a valid solution, it only amounts to being “less bad”, by reducing the activity of the metabolism but not changing it at all.


If this bottle cap is melted and turned into garden furniture, which will most likely be landfilled at the end of its life, shouldn’t we talk about DOWNcycling rather than REcycling? © J.Smith / Wikimedia Commons

To reduce emissions, or to dilute them, as the authors put it, is merely a lesser evil: “This solution to pollution – dilution – is an outdated and ineffective response that does not examine the design that caused the pollution in the first place”

In a nutshell, “less bad” is where we end up by not changing the model but improving our behaviour through recycling and other comparable initiatives. Thinking that waste reduction and energy conservation measures alone will be sufficient to guarantee us a brighter future is an illusion, and as McDonough and Braungart write somewhat bluntly:

Relying on eco-efficiency to save the environment will in fact achieve the opposite; it will let industry finish off everything, quietly, persistently, and completely.

By the same token, Cradle to Cradle prefers to talk about “downcycling” rather than “recycling” since in the system as we know it, materials are reused in lesser objects before ultimately becoming waste.