Let’s save ‘endangered technical species’ (2013)

By William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Published April 15, 2013 for GreenBiz.com


People leave behind nutrients not only in the biosphere. They also express their intentions in the technosphere. There is much talk today about national debts, budget deficits, and raising deficit ceilings. One U.S. study notes that every baby born to American parents is born with approximately $45,000 in debt to his or her name, before even holding a job. (Other studies calculate the amount at three times as much.)

We think society is setting up a similar debt when it comes to technical nutrients. “Planned obsolescence” dates back to the 1930s as a mode of stimulating economies, by making consumer goods break down or go out of style after a particular time period so as to instigate more purchasing. It gained currency in the 1950s.

But because of society’s design strategies, that planned obsolescence rings with it a significant debt in terms of the raw technical materials put out of industry’s reach in landfills.

We know society has the capability of being more careful with its raw materials. How do people treat gold, for example? Because society values gold, no one simply throws it out to be mashed in a dump or melted into a monstrous mess in an incinerator. That is unthinkable. Everyone would wonder how anybody could accidentally throw their gold away and how we could dig that gold out of the mountainous tons of waste to reuse it.

Instead, people traditionally sell it in its whole form. Or they pass it down to their children. Or they sell it to be remelted and made into gold of equal value.

Now think of cobalt, used in medical implants. Indium used LED lamps. Neodymium for wind turbines. Lithium for batteries.

These rare-earth and heavy metals are truly precious because they allow us to have the needed and valued goods, such as lifesaving devices, renewable power, computers, cars and so on.

But if people keep designing for one material use and not reuse, we “use up” clean forms of the technical nutrients needed to make the products for the future. This means we will all worry about “limits to growth” because we feel we are running out of resources. Because of suboptimal design of virtually all current appliances from a material-reuse perspective, there’s a chance that the technical nutrients used to make them are being used up. The same goes for computers and cars and lawn mowers.

Just as with fossil fuels, the quantity of metals and basic elements held by the earth seems vast. But ultimately these technical nutrients are limited. In truth, the only incoming recurrency available to humans is solar energy, rainwater and the occasional meteor. In our work, we have started calling these metals “endangered technical species” to convey the seriousness of their potential loss to us in pure form: Extracting the metals requires lots of energy. If people reuse them, far less energy is required for their (potential) recapture and reconfiguration. Yet people do not recycle them as well as we could.

Like fossil fuels, the metals are capital being spent as if they were currency, and people are contaminating and depleting what could be available in pure form for generations.

Also, like fossil fuels, the technical nutrients are dispersed unequally around the globe. China currently supplies most of the world’s rare-earth metals, and it has used that fact to express political displeasure toward certain trading partners from time to time, sporadically interrupting the supply. Nations need not be in a state of anxiety about access to productive materials when people can be using and reusing the resources already available more wisely.

The metals, of course, will never completely disappear. They will simply become less accessible and more expensive to extract. Our descendants might be mining copper not in large chunks but molecule by molecule in vast urban dumps. They will also be dealing with the toxic presence of these technical species in the water and air.

Years ago, Michael analyzed a television set to see how many chemicals it contained. The answer: 4,360. So many chemicals you the customer wouldn’t even want to know, and those components were off-gassing into your home every day. With Michael’s help, Philips produced the Econova television in 2010, which is designed for almost complete disassembly. It is PVC-free, and its cables are halogen-free. The TV uses only 40 watts of power when on and even has a solar remote control.

We know we can design better for the planet. We know we have the power to do so.

Such material misuse has grave repercussions for social fairness. It is certainly not fair for children to be born into a world with a deficit of pure technical nutrients.

It is not fair to leave a clean air and water deficit because our processes and manufacturing emit polluting elements of all kinds into the air and water around the world.

And it is not fair to leave a safety deficit because so many harmful and toxic chemicals are put into products with no idea of where they will end up or how to prevent them from leaching into biological systems.

It is certainly not optimal by any means for children to be born into a world in which unnecessary chemicals (meaning chemicals that do not optimize healthy human or organic life, such as flame retardants) are accumulating in natural systems. It is certainly not fair to design products and systems that cause irreversible damage. And it is not fair if mother’s milk is contaminated by chemicals that are bioaccumulated through exposure to toxins and would not be legal to sell on a store shelf. We call that “chemical harassment.”

There are more than 150 studies showing that Bisphenol A, used in the production of plastics, is harmful to our health as well as to the environment. Only industry-financed studies show BPA to be relatively harmless. Issues like this one are not about suing someone or about placing blame.

Start with good intentions right from the beginning of the design process. Optimizing materials means choosing the fabrics or metals or polymers that begin with goodness in mind.

Sometimes, when a technical nutrient known to be a toxin or endocrine disrupter exists in a product meant to be used in biological systems — BPA in a baby bottle, for example — it is replaced. But the substitute ingredient seems “less bad” only because people do not know enough about how the chemical interacts in biological systems (many substitutes for BPA use the same processing that causes the problem with BPA). This blind use is not a solution.

Some chemicals that are only suspected of being troublesome are kept in formulations even as the chemicals undergo decades of study. Their use around the world is prolonged, pushing risks into the future. We can ask, “Why still use them when we don’t know how they will react in the body or other biological systems?”

Then there are the chemicals excluded by regulation but without solutions attached. For example, legislation called for the removal of lead, among five other elements, from consumer electronics in Europe, but the regulation stated only that the objects should be leadfree. It did not positively identify what to use. So here is what happened.

The lead solder was often replaced with a solder containing bismuth, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time because bismuth is thought to be less toxic, but it’s toxic nonetheless when released to the biosphere; it still raises concerns as a heavy metal. Also, bismuth is almost never mined on its own, because it is not profitable enough. Usually it is extracted with tungsten or lead. So the resulting mining of bismuth, for use as a lead replacement, caused massive amounts of lead mining in China. The unintended consequence was more lead mining! Lead flooded the marketplace, costs fell, China’s water quality deteriorated because of lead contamination due to the mining, and more lead ended up in other, unregulated products.

Is it fair for a standard or a regulation for a product in one country to cause damage and degradation elsewhere? Is it fair to respect the health needs in Europe while damaging the health of people in China?

Of course not.

Good design, with intention, with the goal of upcycling in mind, makes things better over time: just, fair, healthy, safe, quality for all — at all economic levels, in even distant places.

As we stated in 1992 in the second Hannover Principle, “Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.”

Fairness in design is not simply a moral matter but also one that defines quality. How “good” are you as a designer if the object you design causes harm, destroys the environment or endangers children’s health? Of course everyone can make mistakes or miscalculations. We all make them every day. They are inherently part of the creative life. But if you design knowingly using a toxin or a questionable material in your work, how talented are you really?

We can even look at this issue of quality in design using the old standards — cost, aesthetics and performance. Is your electrical transformer insulation a good design if the cost of cleaning up the PCBs on the rivers where the factory is located or in the field where the equipment is deployed is astronomical? Is your child’s toy aesthetically pleasing if she is in danger of brain damage from exposure to the lead? Are a soda and its bottle actually “performing” well if antimony is leached from the bottle into the acidic liquid and is dispensed to the person every time he takes a sip?

Quality in products and systems means they do not harm people, narrow their possibilities for life and liberty, or reduce their quality of life.

If people think of children, of the future, they can keep the focus on how to make products and systems intergenerationally generous. They can figure out how to generously give back while taking — and give back for generations to come. They can even start small in this thinking.

We have wondered why society seems compelled to only worry about the negative element leaching into our biological systems. The upcycle lets us think of moving beyond toxic and even beyond nontoxic to potentially beneficial. Bill recently designed a door handle that would transfer, if anything at all, magnesium molecules to your hand upon touch. Many people take mineral supplements in tablet form. Minerals essential to human health could be part of everyday interactions with functional objects.

Personally, we’ve found that in projecting forward while designing, with the greatest generosity in mind, we design for those with the most modest means as well as for those who can afford anything they want, and for all generations.

Instead of the tragedy of the commons, let’s upcycle the commons.



Excerpted from THE UPCYCLE: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY—DESIGNING FOR ABUNDANCE by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published in April 2013 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. All rights reserved.