Sustainable Design Thinking - Cradle-to-Cradle and Biomimicry

The book “Cradle to Cradle”, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, is not printed on paper. It is printed on plastic with washable, reusable ink, and is designed to be upcycled. Instead of having the book head from “Cradle-to-Grave”, the product is designed for a second life. This is an example of sustainable design thinking that can help us address environmental problems.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have vastly increased the pace and quantity of manufacturing production. During the Industrial Revolution, nature was perceived as “Mother Earth”. Natural materials were thought to be “perpetually regenerative”. Our planet could absorb shocks, recover, and continue to grow. To advance the Industrial Revolution, we fostered a reliance on sources of energy that are environmentally depleting.

Today, mass production has led to mass waste. A typical landfill is full of valuable items like furniture and electronics that were expensive to produce. Even a less valuable item that we might throw away, like a paper book, requires effort to extract the materials needed to make it. In the landfill are billions of dollars of materials, and they are all wasting their potential. This is because our manufacturing system is a linear, one-way “Cradle-to-Grave” model. Instead, we should design products with a sustainable end–of-life in mind. If we think about products from “Cradle-to-Cradle”, we will design things that can be reused or upcycled again and again.

To see examples of things that are designed to be reused, all we have to do is look to the natural world for design inspiration. Janine Benyus, the founder of the Biomimicry Institute, believes that “biomimicry” is a better way to think about design. Life has found a way to exist and thrive on Earth for billions of years before humans evolved. Ants, butterflies, and bees are all excellent chemists and technologists - think of how they build anthills, cocoons, and honeycombs. Instead of using all of the elements of the periodic table, including the toxic ones, life uses safe elements like carbon in complex and creative ways. Carbon is used as a building block by plants and animals, and then breaks down and is reused again. Janine says that “the secrets of a sustainable world are all around us” - we just have to look to nature.

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