Customer Reviews: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability--Designing for Abundance
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on April 24, 2013
If you are already familiar with the work of Bill McDonough ("BM") and Michael Braungart ("MB", together "BMMB"), then my glowing praise should come as no surprise and you can probably stop reading my review and go get your copy now. As a bioentrepreneur running a company, I am well read on current thinking involving sustainability, biomimicry, biology, and futurism. All the same I just checked out and devoured this book in a day. My high expectations were not disappointed, and the marathon read spurred my creativity not just in business but all the way through the cycle down to my family life, which was the intention.

In 1992 BMMB publicly presented the "Hannover Principles", a sustainability manifesto which advocates transcending basic design principles by also considering the impact on health and the environment, how the design impacts things on the periphery and identifying those relationships, eliminating waste and optimizing efficiency, and striving to holistically improve the end product. Together they identified and analyzed thousands of industrial materials and produced a ranking system that delineated their qualities along the lines of toxicity and true recyclable sustainability (as opposed to "downcycling", or reusing the materials of a primary product to produce something else with less and less quality/utility in the future). This work led to a major series of high level consultations producing a "butterfly effect" that is positively impacting us all, and will continue to do so ad infinium.

Ten years later they wrote "Cradle to Cradle", which looked at how products could be made better by applying the Hannover Principles, and that doing so would make companies more profitable. I still count Cradle to Cradle as one of the best and most fascinating business books I have read, and this was largely due to the outstanding examples of how major corporations like Ford and Interface were able to make strategic changes that resulted in superior products, less harmful materials, less waste, etc. I refer to it as a business book in part because BMMB do not blame capitalism for all our troubles. Quite the opposite, they profoundly advocate it as an essential engine of progress and correctly illustrate through example (in both books) how an intention or lack of one will dictate a positive or negative outcome.

Rather than rewrite Cradle to Cradle, the authors set out to explain why it exists, which they richly describe as follows, "The goal of The Upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power - economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed". Ambitious? BMMB suggest that if Cradle to Cradle principles are widely adopted then this would be the result and that the process would be endless through constant improvement; a true "Virtuous Cycle".

In the 10-years following Cradle to Cradle, BMMB have had continuous forward momentum putting these principles into practice not just with major global corporations, but even with governments like China (who desperately need this help, for the sake of our entire biosphere). As such, BMMB have enjoyed a unique position working with and influencing powerful global forces and driving them towards positive progress. "The Upcycle" reflects this refined experience. It is a call to action for all of society to become conscious not just of what they design and produce, but also of how their decisions on consumption affect waste or produce toxicity, and that our choices thus affect future generations and indeed our planet. It asks us to consider not just how we can do a little here or there producing a "less bad" impact, but instead to analyze and discover how we can improve our habits and become a true force of positive impact. A simple example of putting this into practice is to begin zero consumption of products made by companies that fail to adopt these practices, thus depriving them of any economic reward (I haven't given fast food a single penny since 1989, nor do I patronize certain airlines or banks). When we empower ourselves and hold them accountable they are forced to change or they will disappear, and either outcome is a positive result.

There are many ideas present that will inspire business managers and leaders to consider how they can optimize their processes and designs, and thus is arguably the best $15 you could spend on unleashing your creativity by challenging how you do things from the bottom to the top. As it is intended, it is no less valuable for everyone else as it teaches us to have higher expectations of industry, society, and ourselves. The Forward is by Bill Clinton who says the Optimist's glass is half full, the Pessimist's is half empty, while BMMB's glass is always full of half water and half air. Classic.

Just as Cradle to Cradle was printed according to the best available practices of the time, The Upcycle's concepts were employed in printing this non-toxic biodegradable book to the highest standards of today; once again very cool. I'm looking forward to reading it again, which is rare.

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on June 1, 2013
C2C and The Upcycle

William McDonough, an American architect, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist, combined to write Cradle to Cradle (C2C). C2C, published in 2002, discusses product design, with emphasis on materials utilization efficiency in an environmental context. C2C proposes that product design consider negative effects, especially toxicity, to humans and the natural world at every step in the product's value chain, including disposition when the product is no longer useful. In essence, C2C goes beyond "cradle to grave" design, which ends at a landfill or an incinerator, to "cradle to cradle" design, where non-toxic materials are reclaimed, recycled or reused in generation after generation of products.

Recently, the same two authors published The Upcycle. The Upcycle isn't really a sequel to C2C. Rather, as its title implies, it is an expansion on C2C, based on experience -- in this case, two decades of experience. Think of The Upcycle as another generation of the same product, rather like release 1.0 and release 2.0 of a software package.

Here are a few of the key ideas from The Upcycle:

>> More good, rather than less bad: The general approach to environmental impacts and human well-being is to do less bad -- reduce atmospheric emissions, reduce industrial accidents and reduce waste to landfill, for example. The Upcycle asserts that reduction, even reduction to zero, isn't sufficient. Production should aim beyond shrinking its negative footprint on the world to producing an increasing positive footprint. Where the term "sustainability" confers a sense of steady state, "upcycle" suggests continuing improvement, product generation over product generation

>> Design as a latchkey to abundance: I bought The Upcycle because of its subtitle: Beyond Sustainability -- Designing for Abundance. The book proposes that design -- tangible product design, as well as process and systems design -- can lead to upcycling, and that an emphasis on upcycling leads away from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance.

>> "Biosphere" vs. "Technosphere": The Upcycle distinguishes between the "biosphere" -- the natural world and its biological cycles -- and the "technosphere" -- the realm of the synthetic. Natural products and natural cycles provide models for design within the technosphere. However, the recovery processes in the two spheres differ significantly, such that mixing natural materials with synthetic materials in the same product may impair upcycling.

>> Regarding toxicity: C2C and The Upcycle both regard toxicity as both cumulative and pernicious. Cradle to cradle design relies on detailed assessment of the potential toxicology of all components of every material used in the manufacture of a product. The level of concern goes well beyond most governmental regulations on toxicity, as they existed at the beginning of the current century.

The Upcycle provides the term "enchanted skepticism", which describes my general reaction to that book. Many of the ideas are fascinating. I'm quite convinced that radical improvements in materials utilization, across product generations, are possible. Recent product and process design innovations in the automobile industry and in building construction present interesting cases in point, although The Upcycle affords little attention to either. However, favorable examples are one thing. Broad practicability across a wide range of manufactured products may be another.
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on June 30, 2013
I'm a fan of the work of McDonough and Brungart, and believe they're on the right track with their important work. Cradle to Cradle, their previous book, hit a home run, IMO. This one, unfortunately, does not--it reads more like a pastiche of repurposed speeches and presentations than an organized progression of information and ideas. That might have been more tolerable if the book itself were more attractive. Unfortunately, though it's been manufactured to the best-available sustainability standards, its typography smacks of low-end word-processing. Differentiation between subheads and text is lacking, margins and indentations are unattractive, and chapter dividers are clumsy. The simplistic graphics add little informational value. Several inserts on pale gray paper, crammed with tiny sans serif typography, are awkwardly interspersed and interfere with the book's flow. Most concerning is that, for a book that concerns science and product engineering, there is no index. This book deserves a design and editing "upcycle" of its own.
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on May 30, 2013
Here is a sequel that is actually an improvement of the original! Concisely written with marvelous insight for everyone, not just environmentalists. This is the movement we all need to join; it is for everyone.
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on February 2, 2014
I keep ordering more copies of this book to give to my smartest friends because the vision it promotes of a world that is not only healthy and sustainable but also productive of beauty and joy is a world I want to live in.
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on May 6, 2014
These two are onto wonderful ideas that change the world for the better and play a key role in humanity avoiding an overshoot and collapse future. Thinking about redesigning processes to eliminate toxicity and recycle materials and use sustainable energy sources are all lovely ideas. But if we look at reality, we see carbon emissions still increasing, despite these ideas and innovations and the economic benefits of cutting waste. I doubt that the transformation required can happen solely based on clever design and improved technology. A future that works will also require recognizing the limits of the planet's resources and, at some point, ending population growth and economic growth. It might be theoretically possible to transition to a sustainable economy with 10 or maybe even 20 billion people, but I think most people would prefer a world with, say, 2 billion people and a lot more reliance on good old fashioned nature, rather than hydroponic strawberry farms. Technology has a way of producing unintended consequences. Like more growth, putting us further out on a limb that is being sawed off. And, since the basic modus operandi of these authors has been to persuade companies to improve processes, they face some serious economic barriers where process improvements require additional inputs and cost more. An example in a video about their work had a German textile manufacturer switching from synthetic fibers to natural fibers (like cotton). That's fine, but where is the cotton grown? What chemicals are put on the cotton to kill pests? What species were displaced in making more cotton fields? Did the cotton require nitrogen fertilizer (made from natural gas) to get good yields? It ain't so easy being green, as Kermit pointed out.
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on June 27, 2013
Waste does not occur within natural systems. The materials expelled by one organism are precisely the nutrients needed by some other organism. This creates a complex web where materials are reused endlessly, without degradation. There is, of course, an unfortunate exception to this, that being modern humans' expenditure of materials. The upcycle challenges us to learn from nature and design products and systems that recycle materials endlessly without degradation while they derive energy from renewable sources.

"The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power--economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed." This book builds on and extends the authors' previous work, including their book Cradle to Cradle and the Hanover Principles prepared for the 2000 world's fair in Germany.

Although achieving the upcycle goal requires extensive hard work, we can each begin now by stating our intention: "We will be renewably powered as soon as it is cost-effective, and we will constantly seek it out." Design for abundance, proliferation, and delight.

The authors contend that "Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem." We need to learn to design for an endless cradle to cradle cycle, not a one-time trip from cradle to grave. Design so the materials live on indefinitely, rather than being lost in landfills forever. Design is the first signal of human intention, and why should designers intend to inflict harm?

When materials are designed to differentiate between the biosphere and the technosphere they can live on as nutrients forever. Materials native to the natural world can cycle throughout that world without harm or degradation. But metals, plastics, and other materials not continuously created by the biosphere are essential to manufacturing electronics, industrial products, and many consumer products. These materials can cycle throughout the technical world without degradation. The key to upcycling is to design products so that technosphere materials and biosphere materials are not mixed. This eliminates the often difficult process of separating them at the time of disposal.

Consider the simple example of a juice box constructed of aluminum, plastics, and raw paper. Because biosphere and technosphere materials are combined, the box cannot be recycled until these materials are separated. Separation of these materials after product construction and use is very difficult. As a result, valuable aluminum is lost to landfills rather than being recovered as a nutrient within the technosphere.

Safety regulations and warning labels alert us to poor designs. They each identify an opportunity to redesign a harmful product, beginning with the Hanover Principles and cradle to cradle concepts that results in a safe, elegant, and ecologically beneficial product. Think first of what's next for each material used in the product. Use only materials that can live on as nutrients, without degradation, after they have completed their service in this product.

The book goes well beyond platitudes and wishful thinking by providing many examples of designs that are successful ecologically, aesthetically, and economically. The book describes a path that transcends the false dichotomy of profit vs. environment and shows us how to have both. It tells us what to do--begin each design by asking "what's next" for each material--rather than what not to do. We can do more good--creating a safe and healthful abundance--not just less bad.

To complement the perpetual cycles of material use they also advocate obtaining renewable energy from a combination of solar, wind, and biogas sources, along with designs that conserve energy. They also describe farming techniques and municipal systems that recycle nutrients to maintain clean water and fertile soils without artificial augmentation.

A letter from Thomas Jefferson written to James Madison in 1789 introduces us to the unusual word "usufruct". Usufruct is the right to enjoy property owned by others as long as the property is returned undamaged. This is the common courtesy you would extend to a neighbor who lent you their car or lawn mower. Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson said "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living." We can meet our obligations to preserve the earth during our visit without inflicting damage if we create each design by valuing equity, ecology, and revenue generation from the start. Quality in products and systems means they do not harm people, narrow their possibilities for life and liberty, or reduce their quality of life. We can redesign, renew, and regenerate to meet these goals.

This book tells us how we can leave the world a better place that we found it. That is the upcycle, learning to improve the world through better design rather than merely striving to minimize our impact on the world. We upcycle when we create products that are more perfect, rather than less burdensome. It is only fair to future generations that we learn these lessons now.

Read this book and plan for what's next, because the future will surely come.
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on May 18, 2013
Part two. I love these guys. As a design Enginner involved in the green movement, I've seen Bill speak on a number of occasions and his vision and perspective is always refreshing.

Some great concepts in here and this book is worth a read, but it's not earth shattering. Set your expectations at a mid level and you will enjoy this but for what it is - an encouraging and smart conversation.
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on December 9, 2013
The basic ideas presented in this book are not new, i.e., designing industrial production processes as closed-loop systems powered by clean renewable energy with generated wastes being either recycled/upcycled or harmless and biodegradable. These concepts have been presented in the industrial ecology literature, including classic textbooks (Industrial Ecology (2nd Edition)), for more than twenty years. What is new is to present these ideas and concepts in an easy to read narrative, often referring to specific success stories, for general readers interested in environmental and sustainability issues, particularly business people and entrepreneurs.

The ideas presented in "Upcycle" are generally aligned with the mainstream concept of "sustainable development", as initially defined and strongly endorsed by the international business community, such as Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidtheiny et al. (Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment,Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development), which claims that economic growth and material abundance (a word also used in the subtitle) can go hand in hand with environmental protection and can even improve the environment, since cleaner technologies and eco-smart designs will come to the rescue. It is therefore no surprise that Bill Clinton, who formed the President's Council on Sustainable Development with a similar mission statement during his tenure in the White House, wrote the foreword.

I suspect that the ideas presented in "Upcycle", and the authors' previous "Cradle to Cradle", have been so enthusiastically received because they are no serious threat to the business and political establishment because economic growth, and related wealth accumulation, as well as population growth (i.e., emerging markets and even more wealth accumulation), can continue unabated as long as human ingenuity can come up with "better", "cleaner", and more "eco-friendly" technologies and designs. In short, our current environmental and sustainability problems are seen as purely technical challenges that can be solved with better technology.

I do not oppose any of the creative concepts presented in "Upcycle". In fact, I think the implementation of these and similar ideas would be of great benefit to the environment. However, despite the upbeat tone by the authors, I think that we will remain very far from achieving sustainability even in face of such efforts.

It will be extremely difficult to implement the "Upcycle" ideas on a large scale. There is likely to be massive resistance by certain sectors of the economy, such as the oil, gas, and chemical industries. It will also be difficult to generate renewable energy on a large scale without severe environmental impacts. For example, windmills kill large number of birds and planned underwater turbines and wave energy devices could be a threat to marine life.

But let us assume optimistically that in 50 years from now our entire industrial system has been redesigned according to the authors' Upcycle concepts. No toxics will be produced, no greenhouse gases will be emitted since all energy will be renewable, and all wastes will be recycled, up-cycled, or biodegraded. According to the authors, we are made to believe that we will then be living in world of unlimited material abundance (and presumed happiness, a true technotopia) while having no negative impact on the environment.

This is an illusion. If there are 10 billion people (the authors say that 10 billion people are not a pipe dream in their envisioned world, see page 30), they will have to be fed and this will require massive land areas for agriculture (presumably mostly organic farming with recycling of animal and human wastes to maintain soil fertility) and also massive use of irrigation water.

It should be noted that worldwide, humans already appropriate about 30 to 40% of the terrestrial primary productivity (i.e., photosynthetically fixed carbon) indicating that a large fraction of the land's productive capacity is tightly controlled and managed for supplying food, fiber, and energy (Rojstaczer, S., S.M. Sterling, and N.J. Moore. 2001. "Human appropriation of photosynthesis products". Science 294:2549-2552; Vitousek, P.M., P.R. Ehrlich, A.H. Ehrlich, and P.A. Matson. 1986. "Human appropriations of the products of photosynthesis." BioScience 36 (6):368-373.). This indicates that land available for cultivation is already or soon will be severely limiting.

Given that about 15 years ago when there were ONLY about 5 billion humans, more than 40% of the world's food supply was produced on irrigated cropland and humans appropriated already more than half of all accessible fresh water for their own use, primarily for agriculture (Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Environmental Alert Series), Vitousek, P.M., H.A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco, and J.M. Melillo. 1997. "Human domination of earth's ecosystems". Science 277:494-499), the situation will be much worse if there were double as many people as the authors envision.

And the situation would become even more bizarre if all 10 billion were to decide to eat a western meat based diet to fulfill their (pipe) dream of infinite abundance. A meat-based diet requires much more land for animal feed production and also much more water, and thus the environmental impact would be extreme. And if these 10 billion would like to have all the goods that are currently made from petroleum feedstocks instead being manufactured from renewable biomass-derived feedstocks, the pressure on land would be unbearable. The entire planet would have to be turned into a giant industrialized plantation for growing human food, animal feed, and renewable biomass feedstocks (for making biodegradable plastics and other industrial chemicals), with most or all fresh water appropriated for this huge enterprise.

In this scenario, very little wilderness would be left - there would be continued mass extinctions of animal and plant species, and people would continue to live in crowded cities under unnatural conditions. A high level of technocratic, probably authoritarian and non-democratic, control would be needed to keep this Planet-scale industrialized food, feed, and biomass feedstock production operation going. Clearly, this situation is neither sustainable nor desirable.

In summary, even if all the Upcycle concepts were perfectly implemented, humans would still have a negative environmental footprint by appropriating land, water, and natural resources. And if there is continued pressure to increase material abundance (i.e., economic growth, or per capita GDP), the footprint will increase further. I think it is reasonable to assume that a human eating a simple vegetarian diet and requiring shelter and a few conveniences would have at least the environmental footprint of an elephant (Note: An elephant satisfies all the sustainability requirements given in Upcycle - no generation of toxics, utilization of renewable energy embodied in feed, and recycling of elephant urine and manure). My question is: Would anyone believe that 10 billion elephants, largely to the exclusion of other higher forms of life, on this planet be sustainable or desirable? If not, why would 10 billion humans be?

So, unless the suggested technological and design innovations suggested in "Upcycle" are accompanied by a transition to a steady-state economy (i.e., a no growth economy, see Steady-State Economics: Second Edition With New Essays) and also a population reduction (see JUGGERNAUT), I don't think there will be long-term benefits to the environment. This is also in line with a recent book (Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won't Save Us Or the Environment) in which the authors make convincing arguments that technolological innovations alone are not sufficient to bring about sustainability.

While the concepts presented in "Upcycle" are constructive, there is grave danger that advocates of continued economic growth (profiteering businessmen, and there are millions of them) and advocates of continued population growth (religious zealots and businessmen) will use the Upcycle arguments as an excuse to continue "business as usual" because technology will supposedly come to the rescue. This naïve belief in technology as savior, often expressed with the intensity of religious faith, will lead to a disastrous outcome for the environment, the future of the Planet and all its inhabitants.
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on February 5, 2014
Beam me up Scotty to the planet these authors are describing where the 2-leggeds are alleged to have intelligence. The planet they describe have inhabitants intelligent enough to keep carbon in the soil and out of the air and recognize that the sun's nuclear power plant is the safest nuclear power site and all we have to do is use our brains to use solar power. The planet I live on has deniers of climate change and allege nuclear power plants on this planet to be safe.
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