INHABITAT INTERVIEW: Green Architect & Cradle to Cradle Founder William McDonough

by , 08/12/15
filed under: Architecture, Interviews

Bill McDonough, construction specialties, cradle-to-cradle, green interview, green products, green wash, GreenBuild, Herman Miller, Howard Williams, intelligent materials pooling, materials recyclining, MBDC, McDonough interview, product chemistry, PVC, reverse logistics, sustainable design, technical nutrient, upcycling, use periods, William McDonough Partners

INHABITAT: In your work you talk about recycling, which I think a lot of people – including myself – have been confused about, particularly as it compares to upcycling. Looking towards the industry, a lot of products have recycled content, and with the way that recycling is “marketed” so to speak, many people still think 100 percent recycled has got to be the best you can get. What is the distinction between recycling and upcycling?

William McDonough: We coined the term “upcycling”, to explain the idea that using a lot of energy to shred up and melt a material in order to reuse it (recycling), is inferior in most circumstances to simply reusing a material in the state that it is currently in (upcycling), and a good example of this concept would be polyester. You can take a polyester water bottle made at food grade, and the fact is that polyester is probably the highest quality of polyester in the world, right there in that bottle. The bottle will have some contaminants from the catalytic process, which leaves a bit of antimony– that’s not a good thing because it is a catalyst. But putting the contaminants aside, the bottle is a spectacular piece of human-engineered material. If we recycle that polyester into a fleece jacket, there are people who would say “Oh, you’ve upcycled it from a lonely water bottle into a hybrid fleece jacket.”

There are people who would say it’s being upcycled into a jacket, but from a technical perspective that would be downcycling. It would be de-fibered. Chemically it’s way downcycled. That stuff is really contaminated with all sorts of nonsense. So you need to upcycle the PET bottle, but you’ve downcycled it. See, the problem? Contaminated fibers that are on their way to a landfill or maybe whole fibers. That’s not going back to bottles, which is high-end use. So upcycling a PET bottle would be taking that PET bottle and putting it back through recycling as PET and removing the antimony. That’s upcycling.

Bill McDonough, construction specialties, cradle-to-cradle, green interview, green products, green wash, GreenBuild, Herman Miller, Howard Williams, intelligent materials pooling, materials recyclining, MBDC, McDonough interview, product chemistry, PVC, reverse logistics, sustainable design, technical nutrient, upcycling, use periods, William McDonough Partners

INHABITAT: Construction Specialties recently achieved Cradle to Cradle Gold Certification due in part to the elimination of PVC and PBTs in their interior wall products – can we talk a little bit about the dangers of PVC’s and PTB’s?

Howard Williams: The interesting thing is that within the USGBC there was a furor over giving a negative credit for using it – if anyone uses PVC, they should lose a couple of points in LEED. As the debate went on, I wrote two letters to the USGBC saying that they either need to have negative credits or that they need to take a clear stand on PVC.

I think there will be a decision, because PVC raises just one facet of a larger issue, but there is the greater picture of persistent bio-accumulatives in toxins. If they had stopped at PVC, they would have stopped short – absolutely short. There needs to be an awareness created that PBTs exist in building materials, and that they can be taken out. And they should be taken out, not only for building and the people in the building, but also for the people who make the stuff. Because with just a piece of PVC pipe, I can handle that all day long – it’s rigid, there is very little going to be coming off of that pipe and it’s not going to off-gas, but if I trace that back into the community where the vinyl chloride monomer is made a whole other set of issues arise. This involves the people that are working in that factory and the people that are living adjacent to that factory. To me this is also a stewardship issue, but the great part is that it reaches beyond the construction site – it touches on health care, education and wanting to make buildings better.

Right now material chemistry, Cradle-to-Cradle Gold Certification, is a differentiator for us. The beauty too is there is a business model for it. It works, you can do this (make better building materials using safer alternatives) and you can make money. There is not one environmentalist or NGO that I’ve yet encountered that says you shouldn’t be making money off of this developing environmentally responsible materials. They want money to be made on this, because they know that it is going to accelerate the change.

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  1. frankorazio July 31, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Great read- clearly explains upcycling and what it means to look at the actual life cycle of materials.

  2. William McDonough Chair... July 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    […] The Cradle to Cradle® design framework that William McDonough co-developed is an underpinning philosophy of the circular economy and the new Council. At the Forum in Davos in January, McDonough led the first CEO workshop around sustainability—focused on Cradle and Cradle, the upcycle, and the circular economy. McDonough was chosen to lead the Meta-Council on the Circular Economy due to his decades of design innovation and thought leadership dedicated to developing safe and healthy products, architecture, and communities. In addition, his ability to effectively communicate Cradle to Cradle principles makes him an ideal leader for rendering visible the beneficial opportunities of the circular economy. McDonough will enable business innovators to design a better world ‘for all children of all species for all time,’ as he says.” […]

  3. Paul Johnson June 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Ideas like Cradle to Cradle are what will help create a more sustainable future for our children

  4. Debbie Belson June 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

    A compelling interview about improving the way things are made

  5. Brendan Raines May 19, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Waste is a product of bad design, according to Cradle to Cradle. Most often we’ve seen designers try to increase profits and reduce costs, by exemplifying waste as pollution. A change is needed in our approach to product design and waste management- creating products with a reusable life cycle.

  6. Bill Killough May 7, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    this article stresses the importance of what happens to products after it completes its primary use

  7. Soo Young Lee April 16, 2014 at 11:43 am

    The concept of cradle-to-cradle seems like the perfect solution and Mcdonough’s speechs are so inspiring. But I still can’t let go of the fact that Mcdonough is using c2c certifications as a money making tool. I found great inspiration in his words and I really hope it isn’t true but it sort of explains why so few products are certified with c2c. His project in china was an absolute design failure as well. From an architect’s point of view it was merely an idealistic diagram not an actual plan. I’m kinda sad that such a beautiful idea doesn’t work in reality.

  8. Sal January 29, 2014 at 9:27 am

    McDonough recently spoke at the World Economic Forum. He hosted a special session: “Beyond Sustainability: From Limits to Growth”

  9. Karen Oswald January 15, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Cradle to Cradle challenges manufacturers to think about the future of the planet- being able to utilize materials part of continuous reuse cycles

  10. Cathy Lang December 27, 2013 at 10:04 am

    He makes a good point: even if we reduce our current carbon footprint, its not enough. We still have a materials problem

  11. Bill Levine November 25, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Great breakdown of Cradle to Cradle certification. Looking forward to seeing what company product will be the first to achieve Platinum certification.

  12. JessJanes April 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    In 2007 I heard William McDonough speak and was very inspired. Since then, I look at everything as a raw material that has value. All of the used glass that isn’t being recycled and the cardboard being exported, are materials we need to keep in the circle.

  13. Glass is Green April 26, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Very informative and inspiring interview on Cradle to Cradle, we are delighted with his valuable points on green architecture or green design movement…thanks for sharing…go green

  14. gordo April 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Just heard William McDonough speak at FORTUNE Green conference in Laguna Beach, CA. I was impressed with his focus on everybody’s right to clean air and water, and how this figures into his overall philosophy. He worries about how those in underprivileged areas of Africa and other third world countries will have access to the basic resources of life. He provides a conscience for corporations that might otherwise not worry about these issues.

  15. lazyreader April 14, 2011 at 8:10 am

    While acknowledging McDonough’s contributions to ‘green”, McDonough has been overly protective of his certification process, and in some instances has not inspired cooperation with other individuals and businesses the way he set out. McDonough’s Huangbaiyu, China project has not been inhabited due to design flaws. Conflicts between Feng Shui crap and passive solar design. Appending garages although no villagers can afford cars, failing to provide space for grazing livestock which is vital in China, and building the houses out of potentially unsafe compressed coal dust to make brick despite his teething statements he made about bricks. His famous Nike’s shoe project was never realized, due to his unwillingness to share cradle-to-cradle specifications with suppliers despite promoting it. Just how reliable are C2C-certified products and in regards to quality. Are they really compostable, or indefinitely recyclable. recycling conditions are much more complicated than what is defined and marketed by the C2C certification. In addition to this recycling issue, the fact that transportation criteria are not part of the certification’s demand is also a reason of criticism. Everything we do requires energy. From production step or resource-transformation step to finished products to transportation to home use to disposal. That needs a certain amount of energy (Newton’s second law). Cradle to cradle approach does not consider this energy requirement nor where or how the energy is created to do so.

  16. Holcim Awards December 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    He is an inspiring individual and a leader in the sustainable movement.

  17. Tres Altman December 23, 2010 at 9:13 am

    One of the most pertinent thinkers of our time. As we move into a more sustainable future, his contributions will be considered foundational. Thanks for your blog, and for this interview…

  18. aarondesatnik December 22, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Nice piece. I think you ought to do deeper investigation before saying “the most rigorous product standards.” They’re actually challenged across the building industry for the lack of transparency. There are independent standards such as Green Seal, Eco Logo and GREENGUARD that are both more transparent and recognized for their rigor.

  19. eribons December 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for this insightful interview. I am always inspired by your web blog. I am an interior designer with most of my clients in LA. They are(and have been for many years) interested in Green design. It is imperative that we continue to “shift” our ways of design, industry and consumption to these newer ideas. Thank you to the people who are passionate and are at the helm of this movement.
    Now, can how we make it affordable to EVERYONE??

  20. Mike Chino December 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Great interview Andrew! Bill McDonough is one of the most prominent figures in the green movement and is a fantastic inspiration to us all!

  21. Kestrel Jenkins December 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Such a great piece — and so inspiring to hear directly from the brains behind Cradle to Cradle.

  22. Yuka Yoneda December 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Excellent interview – Andrew, you interviewed a green design superstar!

  23. Jill Fehrenbacher December 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    This is such an interesting interview – thank you Andrew and Bill McDonough for making the time to put this together!

  24. Diane Pham December 22, 2010 at 11:41 am

    A great interview. It’s amazing to see the range of impact that the Cradle to Cradle system has had – from architecture, to construction all the way down to consumer goods. Brilliant minds and brilliant ideas!

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