Imagine a world in which industry, yes, every factory and every building is as wasteful and as useful as a cherry tree in full bloom. A world, in which buildings – just like trees – use the sun’s energy, produce nutrients and oxygen, provide living space for other creatures, cleanse water, purify the air and even change to adapt to the seasons. A world without environmental pollution or waste, where only products with materials that are beneficial to both man and the environment are manufactured.  A world, in which materials are of such high value that they flow in specially designed material cycles.

A world, in which humans can actually be pleased about the benefits their consumption has on the environment. A world, in which humans are freed from and no longer have to live under the restraints and limitations placed on them by always having to save, reduce, and cut down on certain things for the sake of the environment. That is exactly the kind of world that the Cradle to Cradle® design concept opens up to all of us. 

The terms “Eco-efficiency” and “Eco-efficacy” are often used interchangeably. There is, however, a significant difference between the two. Rather than minimizing the material flows, eco-efficacy proposes the idea of transforming products and their respective material flows so that a workable relationship between ecological systems and economic growth is made possible. The aim here then is not to reduce or delay the cradle to grave material flow but rather to create metabolisms that allow for methods of production that are true to nature and in which materials are used over and over again.

The eco-efficiency approach takes into consideration only quantifiable parameters which outline those problems that should be minimized (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions) whereas the eco-efficacy approach additionally factors in qualifying parameters (e.g. the use of carbon dioxide as a nutrient). Cradle to Cradle®-design seeks to superimpose the principle of quality before quantity onto industrial systems. Materials and material flows are then designed in such a manner so as to be beneficial in terms of the regeneration of their biological and technological sources. Such an approach frees us from our current responsibility and duty to reduce or slow down any negative environmental effects our behavior has. As such, we can be freed from the restraints placed upon us as a result of our prevalent culture of self-blame. – Michael Bruangart, Co-founder of Cradle-to-Cradle methodology

The Concept of Waste 

Manufacturing lies at the heart of consumption and it is clear that we need not only a paradigm shift in the way we consume, but also in the way we manufacture. The earths resources are precious. The current manufacturing process is out of step with nature and the consequences manifest in two major ways:

  1. resource depletion – In many cases, nature has concentrated but limited supplies of the resources humanity comes to place value on. Our growing appetite threatens to consume many of these precious supplies, turning them into low concentration post consumer waste from which it is difficult or impossible to recover these materials without impractical amounts of energy.
  2. waste and pollution – all human designed objects have a limited lifetime. In many cases, such as consumer goods, the lifetime is intentionally shortened through adoption of a throwaway design philosophy called design for the dump which benefits the manufacturer by externalizing waste and resource problems. Our waste stream becomes a hodge podge of materials from which it is inherently inefficient to recover the original technical nutrients.

EU Recycling Stats 2007 (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

US Trash & Recycling Stats


These statistics clearly show that we are bypassing huge opportunities to recover valuable resource and significantly reduce our waste disposal and pollution problems

This dual problem of waste and resource depletion that stems from our current manufacturing practice transforms our entire planet. Our entire problem is a systemic one that starts at the very beginning of the manufacturing supply chain; the industrial design process. By failing to design man-made objects with the end goal of reuse and environmental biodgradability, we create garbage.

The new field of biomimcry is showing us that humanity needs to quickly shift gears and follow the ancient examples set by nature herself.  Everything in nature is recycled and return to the ecosystem in naturally evolved feedback processes. We as living beings are born and fabricated by nature and when we die, we return to her, our body, becoming nutrients for other living beings.

Making Waste a Thing of the Past

It is clear that the current manufacturing paradigm does double-barreled harm to our ecosystem by simultaneously 1) depleting our resources and 2) creating pollution. Modern manufacturing shifts the definition of human beings from tool maker to polluter. The big question to ask is this: Is there were a way that we could simultaneously get rid of both problems?  The answer is a resounding yes, a design methodology called Cradle-to-Cradle  developed by architect William McDonough  and his colleague Dr. Michael Braungart.

Cradle-to-Cradle manufacturing philosophy recognizes that manufacturing processes can themselves be redesigned so that waste and resource depletion are addressed at the same time. By intelligent product design, the End of Life object’s technical nutrients can be easily recovered as virgin feedstock OR, alternatively are 100% benign and dissolve back into the environment.  This design methodology eliminates waste and resource depletion at the same time.

Figure 1. Lego Block Analogy of Cradle-to-Cradle: Lego blocks are used to build objects and can be deconstructed and used again.


We need a revolution in industrial design and manufacturing to completely reclaim technical nutrients from any manufactured product whose useful lifetime has expired.  Products must be designed so that the valuable resources can be 100% reclaimed at the End-of-Life (EOF) of the manufactured product. Such redesign would allow us to recover valuable technical nutrients with very low energy, effectively creating a closed loop feedstock system. William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braumgart promote the closed loop aspect of the Cradle-to-Cradle design methodolgy with the mantra Waste = Food.

With effective Cradle-to-Cradle redesign, It will become far cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to process something already here on the surface of the earth than digging for more of the virgin raw material kilometers below the surface of the earth, transporting it to the surface, crushing, processing and refining it to become feedstock for the manufacturing process. All manufactured products must be designed to be 100% reclaimable for feedstock, reusable or biodegradable so that our presence does not disturb the ecosystem but harmonizes with it.

Current manufacturing processes:

  1. Steadily deplete raw, virgin non-renewable resources
  2. Steadily increase accumulaton of waste/pollution

Cradle-to-Cradle processes:

  1. Leave virgin non-renewable resources alone
  2. Eliminates accumulation of waste / pollution
  3. Uses the equation Waste = Nutrient to reclaim nutrients at the end of life of a product and reuse it as virgin feedstock in it’s remanufacturing

Figure 2: Current Manufacturing Paradigm depletes Resources and increases Pollution

Figure 3: Cradle-to-Cradle Manufacturing eliminates Resource Depletion AND Pollution at the same time

The only sustainable future for manufacturing is a Cradle-to-Cradle approach in which virgin nonrenewable feedstock is left alone and manufactured products are designed so that non-renewable resources can be recovered from them at the end of their life. This is based on nature’s natural recycling when living matter becomes absorbed as nutrient at the end of life.

Some Startling Impacts of Cradle-to-Cradle

Currently, Waste is a concept that exists within this society. It is clear that due to resource depletion, wasted energy usage and harmful pollution we must eliminate the concept of waste. Cradle-to-Cradle is precisely this. By implementing a full Cradle-to-Cradle methodology, we solve three problems all at once. We can practically eliminate:

  1. Resource depletion
  2. Wasted energy
  3. Pollution

The following brochure from their MBDC site outlines the essentials of Cradle-to-Cradle design:


(Source:  MBDC website)

Michael Braungart’s EPEA Cradle to Cradle Powerpoint Presentation

(Click on the picture to launch the powerpoint presentation)

Dr. Katja Hansen’s Presentations on Cradle-to-Cradle


Being Less Bad is Not Being Good

William McDonough, one of the fathers of cradle-to-cradle coined the term being less bad is not being good. The diagram below compares the current business-as-usual approach to the 3R’s approach (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and finally to Cradle-to-Cradle:

Figure 4: Comparing 1) business-as-usual to 2) the 3 R’s to 3) Cradle-to-Cradle


Both McDonough and Braungart stress that it is not good enough to continue designing in the old paradigm and making incremental improvements. What is required is to abandon this faulty paradigm and replace it with a new one. The diagram below illustrates the meaning of this phrase. Our environment is in a state of shock and needs proactive cleaning to remove all the toxins that 200 years of reckless industrialization has pumped into it. Being less bad is not good enough, the products we design must in fact accelerate the removal of these toxins.


The world cannot solve its complex problems by being LESS BAD, it most be MORE GOOD!

Figure 5: Less Bad vs More Good Trajectory (Source: William McDonough, 2011 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge Keynote Speech)


Figure 6: US Energy Waste

Figure 7: EU Energy Waste

Figure 8: US & EU Food Waste

Figure 9: Global E-Waste

Figure 10: Water Waste

Figure 11: Space Waste

 Infographics of Miscellanous Types of Waste

From these infographics, you can see 2 major theoretical impacts of Cradle-to-Cradle methodology already:

  1. Immediately recover half our produced energy, effectively doubling our energy production
  2. Immediately recover 3 to 4 times our annual food production, effectively eliminating world hunger

Just from efficient recovery of two waste streams, energy and food, society would be radically transformed

Nutrient Certificates

“Most recycling is downcycling, which blocks high-quality re-use of materials,” explains co-author and Founder of the Cradle to Cradle® approach, Professor Michael Braungart of the Rotterdam School of Management. “Nutrient Certificates are a new quality paradigm for a profitable way out of that downward spiral. They add a value dimension to materials in products, buildings and ships.” says Braungart.

The Nutrient Certificates approach was developed at the Academic Chair, Cradle to Cradle for Innovation and Quality, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It describes a Resource Repletion paradigm for business to redesign, use, recover, and recycle materials at high quality.

Katja Hansen was the chief researcher involved in establishing this new paradigm for materials as a counterpart to emissions trading and it is beginning to be embraced by business leaders.

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance

Cradle-to-Cradle champions William McDonough and Michael Braungart continue their vision of a sustainable human civilization through a paradigm shift in design.

Released in 2013, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance promotes going beyond recycling into upcycling. Upcycling is the philosophy that “We should not just protect the planet from ourselves but should redesign our activity to improve the planet. And that goal is well within our reach.”

McDonough says “We want you to think of every component of your design as being borrowed. It will be returned one day to the biosphere or technosphere. It is your role to return it in as good a condition as you found it, as a good neighbor would.”

 William’s Advice

What is the Upcycle?

Cradle to Cradle is a foundation, a fulcrum against which we can lean levers of desirable change. This book, The Upcycle, is an update and a collection of observations and stories of continuous improvement. To us, upcy¬cling is the most exciting project of all. It’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

Put “Out of Sight” out of mind

The next time you want to use the word “waste,” bite your tongue. Worms consume food and, through the system of their bodies, produce richer nutrients. You, through the system of your intelligence, can create richer nutrients too.

Always ask: what’s next?

We want you to think of every component of your design as being borrowed. It will be returned one day to the biosphere or technosphere. It is your role to return it in as good a condition as you found it, as a good neighbor would.

You are alive (your toaster is not)

We have been in this work for decades, and still . . . still we stop every time a company mentions a technical product as having a product life or life cycle. Technical products don’t die and vanish. This is the problem and the opportunity.


Speak to the world in positives. Don’t be a pessimist: The glass is half empty. But don’t just be a passive optimist either: The glass is half full. Start with inventory; take scientific stock of your situation. The glass is full of water and air. Then signal your intention for design. I want the glass to be bigger.

You can, you will

No need for scolding. No need for “shoulds” and “musts.” The job of upcycle advocates is to encourage people and to inspire behaviors, helping all entities understand that change is possible, beneficial, profitable.

Add good

We can find ways to honor people’s intentions. Think small, think big, think adding good on top of subtracting bad. There is always room for more additionality. We can add on, not just pile on.

Gaze at the world around you, then begin

Get specific about your locality. You will arrive at more ingeniously indigenous solutions if you let the locality guide you. Some solutions can have global benefits and applications, but remember to start where you are.


The Circular Economy – an economy based on Cradle-to-Cradle Design

As Cradle-to-Cradle methodology begins to prove itself, we are seeing industry embrace it. No surprise, as industry has the most to gain in a world of depleting resources. As nonrenewable resources become more scarce, their cost begin to increase. At a certain threshold, it begins to make sense to reuse technical nutrients already in easily available products whose life has expired. The amount of energy required to mine technical nutrients is in proportion to effective industrial design that makes such nutrients easy to harvest.


 Ellen MacArthur travelled to The Netherlands to research further the idea of a circular economy based upon Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy


As a society, we are now at the beginning stages of a monumental journey to overhaul and retool our entire manufacturing process. The big question now is: how do we systematically migrate from our current unsustainable manufacturing system to a zero waste sustainable one without causing major economic disruptions? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a leading advocate for such a zero waste economy called the Circular Economy.

The Cradle-to-Cradle logo is a trademark of MBDC