Paper or plastic?
Environmental materials expert Michael Braungart faced that question when planning a book called “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” with green architect William McDonough. They didn’t pick paper, which depletes trees, cannot be safely composted and produces dioxins when burned.
“What if we reconceived not the shape of the object but the materials of which it is made, in the context of its relationship in the natural world?” they ask in their book. “How could it be a boon to both people and the environment.”
For a little context, Baumgart and McDonough are inspired by ants, which have a greater biomass than people but perform all of their activities in a way that does not damage their surroundings. In fact their activities enhance the world.
They chose to print their book on a plastic material that is infinitely recyclable at the same level of quality. Most recycling is actually “downcycling” when materials are used at a lower functionality, simply postponing their trip to the landfill or incinerator. “This ‘paper’ doesn’t require cutting down trees or leaching chlorine into waterways,” they write. Inks can be recovered and reused. I’m sure the book costs more to produce. They skip that point. I didn’t really care since I got a great used copy on the Internet for $12.99 (plus shipping).
I bring all of this up because McDonough and Braungart are extremely important people in materials engineering today. I wrote recently about how Herman Miller is applying their ideas, and the story was a big hit with our readers. Many high profile companies, such as 3M, DuPont, Dow and Hewlett Packard, are involved in major environmental programs.
On first blush, it’s a little hard to take them seriously. McDonough was hammered in a recent feature article in Fast Company Magazine. Braungart was an activist with Greenpeace before he began working with companies on a constructive basis. But I think they are on the right track and I want to report in more detail here on some of the nitty-gritty of their materials programs.