William McDonough’s Sustainable Vision

Riccardo Vecchio

The architect’s new book expands on his idea of an environment without waste.

In 2002, William McDonough cowrote Cradle to Cradle, a landmark work that challenged the concept of cradle-to-grave by reimagining products as reusable nutrients. The eagerly anticipated follow-up, The Upcycle (North Point Press), comes out in April, expanding the idea to the world at large and emboldening humans not simply to reduce consumption but also to create abundance.

Q: We’ve all heard of recycling, but what is upcycling?

A: Unlike recycling, which actually uses energy and generates waste, upcycling is about reconfiguring our approach in the first place. Why should objects exist only to end up in a landfill? Instead, let’s create systems that move in an upward motion, ensuring that things come back so we can reuse them.

Q: What’s an example of a real-world application?

A: The possibilities are limitless. We can turn fences surrounding highways into solar-power collectors. Or sewage-treatment centers into fertilizer-making nutrient-management systems. I like a long, hot bath, and if the water’s solar-heated, there’s no reason to feel guilty. In fact, the more you use, the more jobs there are for the industry.

Q: It’s about doing more good rather than doing less harm.

A: Exactly. The idea of shrinking a footprint is good, but it’s insufficient. Being less bad is still being bad—instead, think about creating a better footprint.

Q: What can the average person do to put these ideas into practice?

A: Buy products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified, which ensures they’ve been created using waste-free systems. You exercise your power and preferences with your dollar, so simply being a customer encourages enterprises to adopt this thinking.