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Cradle-to-cradle design

The first industrial revolution left the planet with a legacy of unexpected consequences. Global climate change (and the chain of reactions resulting from it), erosion of the ozone layer, loss of biodiversity and the bioaccumulation of toxic substances in our animals and children are only a few examples.

These consequences, however, are foreboding signs on both a global and molecular scale—signs we can no longer ignore. While we have created incredible materials and technologies, we have yet to design and engineer systems and behaviors to steward them effectively. We must tap into the same expertise and intelligence that created our current systems and refocus on designing truly sustainable solutions.

In the book, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart ask us to imagine industrial systems modeled on the beauty and the effectiveness of natural ecosystems. They identify three fundamental principles:

  • Use current solar income. The biological productivity of the planet is fueled by solar energy—the only resource that comes from outside our planet.

  • Waste equals food. There is no waste in nature; waste from one organism provides nutrients for another.

  • Celebrate diversity. Life thrives on diversity. Nature finds solutions by constantly adapting to fill niches.

Cradle-to-cradle design envisions a world powered by the sun where growth is good, waste is nutritious and productive diversity enriches human and natural communities. The industrial application of cradle-to-cradle design creates a cycle for industrial materials. Like the earth's nutrient cycles, the flow of materials eliminates the concept of waste (cradle-to-cradle, rather than cradle-to-grave). Each material in a product is designed to be safe and effective, as well as to provide quality resources for subsequent generations of products. In other words, materials are conceived as nutrients and designed to circulate safely and productively. Cradle-to-cradle processes include biological and technical cycles:

  • A biological cycle includes materials that can be safely returned to the soil through a degradation process. Deemed to be ecologically safe, these materials are rapidly renewable and biodegradable.

  • A technical cycle includes materials within industrial "metabolisms." In other words, industry can be modeled on natural processes, and these industrial materials can be productively cycled. Valuable for their performance qualities and typically "nonrenewable," technical nutrients are designed to circulate safely and perpetually through cradle-to-cradle product life cycles of manufacture, use, recovery and remanufacture. A higher degree of stewardship is required for technical materials that cannot biodegrade.

The implementation of cradle-to-cradle means redesign at a system-wide level. It requires the vision to creatively re-imagine industrial practices and to conceive a fully sustainable future.

The primary task of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is to define itself and its vision for the packaging industry and to make that vision a reality.

The material above has been excerpted from the "Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging," a document conceived by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as an online resource that can be readily updated and allows easy access to those portions of greatest interest to an individual designer or developer. The document is available online through PD at a discounted price of $35. To purchase, go to www.packagingdigest.com/info/greendesign

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue (www.greenblue.org). For additional information, email [email protected]

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