New War on Waste

You say you want a revolution? Eco-minded thinkers and industrialists are remaking the way we make things

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By profession, William McDonough is an architect and industrial designer. But by temperament and ambition, he is much more: a visionary, a prophet, even a zealot. In his new book, Cradle to Cradle, written with business partner Michael Braungart, McDonough dreams of a world without waste, a world without poisons, a world in which all materials are continuously recycled. He thinks sneakers, for example, should have biodegradable soles so that whatever material scrapes off onto the ground can be readily consumed by worms and microbes. The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable world, enabling humans to "love the children of all species--not just our own--for all time."

Before you dismiss McDonough as a lunatic, consider this: he has already won over a big-time convert by the name of Bill Ford. When the chairman of Ford Motor Co. decided to rebuild the company's historic River Rouge complex, destroyed by an explosion in 1999, he hired McDonough, who is based in Charlottesville, Va., as a sustainability expert to help make the new plant outside Detroit as environmentally friendly as possible. The result, which is scheduled to open next year, may not fulfill all McDonough's ideals, but it will be the greenest car factory ever. Thirty-five skylights will illuminate the 2.1 million-sq.-ft. area to save money on lighting. Sedum, an ivy-like plant, will cover the roof and help insulate the building while absorbing storm water, providing a natural habitat--and saving the company an estimated $35 million in construction costs and much more from lower energy use. Just as Henry Ford was the father of the Model T and modern mass production, his great-great-grandson says he wants to be a father of nothing less than a new industrial revolution.

There was a time not too long ago when Big Business tended simply to fight environmentalists, arguing that many measures to keep things clean were at best half baked and posed a threat to profitability. But as public concern about the environment grows, there is an increasing acceptance in executive suites that industrial reform can be good for the environment and good for profits. Efficient use of energy and materials and a reduction in waste can help the bottom line. Everything that is recycled reduces the expense of buying raw materials.

Could there ever be a system that is perfectly efficient? Actually, yes. It already exists, as old as the planet. We call it nature. In the natural system, there is no waste, only food for the decomposers. And the same materials have been recycled for billions of years. The new industrial revolution is all about absorbing the lessons we should have learned from nature long ago.

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