The term “upcycle” – used to describe the process of turning something old and used into a new and useful item – has rapidly grown in popularity over recent years. The term was popularized by Cradle to Cradle pioneers Michael Braungart and William McDonough, and in their new book The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance they take the concept beyond the simple reuse of materials and propose a world in which everything we do improves the environment. The much-anticipated follow-up to their breakthrough book Cradle to Cradle, The Upcycle will hit the shelves on April 16th, and we got a chance to check the book out ahead of its release – read on for a first look!

upcycle, upcycling, McDonough, Cradle to Cradle, green design, book reviewPhoto © MBDC

William McDonough often suggests “we don’t have an energy problem, we have a materials-in-the-wrong-place problem.” Carbon for instance, should be used where it is of value, not in the atmosphere where it acts as a toxin. Upcycling is about using materials and energy to give us the most benefit without compromising future needs, appreciating that abundance in the natural world is the starting point.

When Cradle to Cradle was introduced in 2002 it helped spur a revolution in manufacturing design, in which—in certain industries—it became unacceptable to load homes and offices with toxins, and in turn encouraged the use of safer products that are eventually broken down to become the source materials for new products. Braungart and McDonough envisioned that the reuse of the materials would actually improve their quality chemically as less toxic products are “upcycled,” rather than degraded and difficult to reclaim—known as “downcycled” items.

The Upcycle takes that basic premise and expands it into almost every aspect of the built and designed environment. They start with the concept that “upcycling eliminates the concept of waste” by exploring the way materials are classified as technical nutrients for recycling, or as biological nutrients which can then be safely returned to the earth.

The narrative swings from philosophical heights to practical applications, many which are highlighted in Braungart and McDonough’s years of accomplishments in the development of materials, products, and buildings. The principle focuses on how to gain a deep understanding of causation and incorporate that knowledge into practical everyday design.

upcycle, upcycling, McDonough, Cradle to Cradle, green design, book reviewPlantLab indoor farm in the Netherlands

In fact, causation and abundance are the core principles consistently referenced in the book. Think of soil as a battery for caloric energy which needs recharging and then the way we grow our food fundamentally changes. “A battery is just something that converts chemical energy into electricity. Here electrical energy is converted into chemical energy. Earth as a battery, plants as a capacitor. Instead of metal batteries that are expensive and toxic, how about food as a battery, storing energy for our beneficial present and future use?”

Or how about giant wind farms in China and Denmark feeding their populations fresh strawberries in the middle of winter by using spectrum specific LEDs– that’s the idea of upcycling electricity. While this type of farming now is expensive the steep cut in prices for LEDs can soon make indoor growing at scale a reality . The authors cite work in the Netherlands in which indoor farms use trays placed under infrared LEDs which can produce enough fresh vegetables to supply, say,  an average-sized restaurant in its own basement.

Many more examples abound, and the authors take delight it turning assumptions as to how things are grown, made, used and discarded on their head. Fundamentally Braungart and McDonough see the environmental challenge of food scarcity, clean water, and climate change as design issues. The ultimate goal of upcycling is that every one of us improves the environment by design just by going through our daily lives.

+ The Upcycle

+ MBDC and William McDonough