By Anthony Marletta, Green Purchasing Intern
Living systems. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear those two words? A rainforest ecosystem maybe? Thick with diversity ranging from the tiniest of bacterium to the King of the Jungle. Each of them with their own important role in creating and sustaining resources within their system. (I’d bet you don’t think of the process that involves the creation, use, and end use of your office chair.) Can humans create systems that function in the same way?
Look around. Think about all the systems that we use everyday that needlessly waste resources. So far, many responses to this issue are to create systems that are more efficient with these valuable resources. To create systems that use fewer resources upstream, subsequently reducing emissions, and decreasing the amount of waste that results downstream. As William McDonough discusses in his book Cradle-to-Cradle, the issue with this thinking is that you haven’t corrected the fundamental problem, only slowing down its impacts. If there is an increased focus on the production/design phase upstream, these resources wouldn’t be considered waste downstream, but a new resource.
Take a paper recycling program for example. You start out with copy paper, which is then recycled into newsprint, and newsprint into cardboard, then cardboard into the landfill. The use of raw materials like wood has been averted with these down-cycled products, but the end result is a prolonged grave at the landfill. A common model used to evaluate environmental impacts from “cradle-to-grave” is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). But LCA thinking only grasps part of the picture.
If in the design and production phase, products are created so that the end of their use they can easily be broken down into quality materials, then industries can continually use these byproducts to create items at the same level of quality as its first use. Thus, closing the loop necessary for materials and resources to circulate within the system.
In the past decade, “Cradle-to-Cradle” strategies have begun to be embraced by businesses as a stratergy that not only makes sense environmentally, but from an economic perspective as well. Herman Miller, a furniture company, makes an office chair suitable for disassembly at the end of its life. The chair can then be used in new chairs or broken down into recyclable materials.
Growing Power Inc. develops community food systems in Milkwakie, WI and Chicago, IL. Their systems employ the use of anaerobic digestion to break down compost to both manage their waste stream and create energy. In this process, micro-organisms break down the food waste produced from their growing operation, which is then used to handle their waste, produce methane suitable for energy production, and heat the greenhouse they are using to produce food.
As organizations like Growing Power and Herman Miller continue to design for the future, opportunities for expanded materials and resource management become increasingly more apparent. With today’s environmental issues in mind, design strategies utilizing sustainable systems will prove to be imperative for the success of future generations.