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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As revolutions go, this one has a large number of theorists and manifestos. Besides McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle, there is Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken (founder of gardening supplier Smith & Hawken), Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins; it makes a strong case that natural resources should be just as valued a part of our capital base as factories and machines. Biomimicry by Janine Benyus encourages companies to look to nature for possible design techniques. She cites San Francisco's Iridigm, whose flat screens for mobile electronic devices produce color in a manner similar to the way microscopic structures create color on butterflies' wings. And in The New Economy of Nature, Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison tell the stories of innovators trying to "make conservation profitable," including financier Richard Sandor (see box).

The new ideas are taking root worldwide. BASF Corp.'s carpet-fiber unit has developed a recyclable nylon that makes it possible to reconstitute old carpets into new. Swiss semiconductor maker ST Microelectronics has saved more than $60 million by cutting its energy usage and more than $20 million by reducing water consumption below baselines set in 1994--a program initiated after CEO Pasquale Pistorio's son Carmelo questioned his father's environmental stewardship. The company issued a "decalogue"--or 10 commandments--of environmental goals and empowered its divisions to become creative. The responses include using solar power and finding ways to recycle water.

Natural materials are all the rage. Cargill Dow, a joint venture by the agricultural giant (Cargill) and the chemical company (Dow), is manufacturing biodegradable and recyclable plastics from corn sugars. The company already makes environmentally friendly packaging for Sony products and pillow stuffing for Pacific Coast Feather. "Our fate is tied to how many products we can make from renewable resources," says chief technology officer Patrick Gruber. The company opened a $300 million facility in Blair, Neb., last year that makes packaging material, plastic cups and film wraps.

For companies that want to become greener--whether out of a sense of duty, to ward off damaging protests or just to make more money--there are organizations that can help. McDonald's, Home Depot, Nike and Starbucks have enlisted Natural Step, a San Francisco nonprofit, to help them understand their environmental and social impact, envision what their company would look like if it were sustainable and then realize that vision with new processes and materials. McDonald's, which has had a relationship with the advocacy group Environmental Defense for 13 years, this year stopped buying chicken treated with Cipro-like antibiotics. And, yes, Nike has begun stripping toxins from its shoes, which makes McDonough happy. You can now buy baseball cleats free of polyvinyl chloride.

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