The Concept of Waste

Manufacturing lies at the heart of Consumption, It is clear that we need not only a paradigm shift in the way we consume, but also in the way we manufacture. Waste is a concept that exists in our current manufacturing paradigm. However, WASTE ON THE SCALE OF HUMAN CIVILIZATION DOES NOT EXIST ANYWHERE ELSE IN NATURE! Everything is recycled in nature and return to the ecosystem in ancient feedback processes. One living beings excrements and even their body becomes nutrient for other living beings.

Human civilization has transformed this planet more than any other species. The way in which we transform our environment is radically different from the way other species do. Other species exist benignly within the ecosystem while human civilization alters it in ways that are harmful both to itself and to other living species. It is therefore out of sync with nature. The transformed products which have outlived their human purpose  is harmful to the ecosystem. As long as manufacturing processes generate Waste, non-renewable natural resources will continue to be depleted and the ecosystem will continue to be stressed.

Making Manufacturing Waste a Thing of the Past

It is clear that the current manufacturing paradigm does double-barreled harm to our ecosystem by simultaneously depleting our resources and building mountains of pollution. Modern manufacturing shifts the definition of human beings from tool maker to polluters. The question we must 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 biological nutrients  from consumer products such as shampoos, soaps, detergents, hair color, etc…can return back to the environment without any harmful impact while technical nutrients that are embodied in consumer durable products such as cell phones, washing machines and cars at the end of its life can be reclaimed as virgin feedstock for the manufacturing process.

Being Less Bad is Not Being Good

The heading of this section is a quote originated by architect William McDonough. Both McDonough and Braungart preach that it is not good enough to continue designing in the old paradigm and making incremental improvements in it. What is required is to abandon this paradigm and replace it with a new one.


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

Figure 1: Less Bad vs More Good Trajectory (Source: William McDonough, 2011 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge Keynote Speech)


Current manufacturing processes:

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

While 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

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.


Figure 2. 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.

Figure 3: Current Manufacturing Paradigm depletes Resources and increases Pollution


Figure 4: Cradle-to-Cradle Manufacturing eliminates Resource Depletion AND Pollution at the same time

The Circular Economy: The Value Proposition of Depleting Resources

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 sustainable one without causing major economic disruptions?


Cradle-to-Cradle is a trademark of MBDC