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.
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.