Renewable Matter Magazine Interviews McDonough

In a Renewable Matter Magazine interview, William McDonough and Emanuele Bompan discuss the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things.  McDonough reflects on how we became an unsustainable civilization and how a circular economy, based on good design, is the solution.

Bompan: In the book you often make the case about a typical wittgensteinian issue. The way we use concept can be a limit. How is relevant to find new meaning to new material innovation?

McDonough: “We replace concepts in a strange way. For example we use space to define our relations. Where is it, instead of utility, ‘what is it?.’ Think: we throw things ‘away.’ We put in the water and goes ‘away.’ For the person downstream it is not away. This idea of away is odd; we forgot that we are somebody else’s away. We started as gatherers, in a world where there’s no ‘away.’ When we became farmers we created here and away. In China sewage was considered sacred. When you were having dinner at someone’s, you where leaving you ‘deposits,’ your faeces because your were returning their nutritious. Now we throw those ‘away.’ If we move towards the concept of utility, than we can can talk use. “You can’t say drink my urine or drink my sewage, they say ‘throw it away,’ but if you stress use and say ‘how can I design to reuse sewage that contain H2O,’ you use your brain thinking about use. “Earth is here for a use. And instead we are abusing it. Language becomes important.”

Bompan: In the book you describe how can we upcycle soil. 

McDonough: “China has declared that 19.4% of farmland is polluted with toxic metals, and toxic to food. Current farming techniques expend the Earth’s natural resources without ‘giving back.’ In the past 200 years, the US have depleted 75% of its topsoil due to ‘modern’ agricultural techniques such as monoculture, over-tilling and salinization of soil due to over-watering. The yearly loss of topsoil in the United States alone continues at an estimated $150 billion annually. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Iowa prairie had 12 to 16 inches of topsoil, as well as the carbon stored in the deep roots of prairie plants, which were as much as 15 feet deep. Now the topsoil is down to 6 to 8 inches. Soil production takes significant time; it can require from 100 to 500 years to create one inch of topsoil. With those kinds of numbers, human beings have little to no hope of catching up. We should go and fix it. Upcycle it.”

Bompan: You travel across the world, do you see a change in mentality, do you see people applying Cradle-to-Cradle concepts?

McDonough: “We are seeing changes today. I am Chairman of World Economic Forum for the council of circular economy. It is interesting they put a designer do chair the group. Circular economy is spreading.”


Bompan is a journalist and urban geographer.  He has been involved with environmental journalism since 2008.  To read the full interview, visit