Joel Makower talks to Bill McDonough about 'The Upcycle'

This week marks the publication of The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. It’s their first book since their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a bestseller that helped change the conversation about designing and manufacturing, envisioning a closed-loop system where every material was returned to the soil, or back into the manufacturing process with no harm or loss of quality. 

The Upcycle takes the next step, envisioning what’s possible through a series of “evocations,” as McDonough calls them. (You can read an excerpt here.) The book ties together the impressive contributions McDonough and Braungart have made over the past quarter century, individually and together, toward the goal of re-envisioning commerce.

I took the opportunity of the book’s publication to catch up with McDonough, a longtime colleague and friend, to hear more about this next-gen view of the world of business. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Tell me about the title of this book, how you came to The Upcycle from Cradle to Cradle.

William McDonough: In Cradle to Cradle, we talked about the fact that often what we currently call recycling could be revisited, because of various issues around it, one of which was what we characterized as downcycling, where things are actually being hybridized with other materials, losing quality in the process of reuse. A food-grade clear plastic, for example, might be mixed with other plastics and become a flower pot, or a park bench, or a speed bump. It's really a material losing quality on its way to a landfill or incinerator. Recycling should mean that you've been able to recycle it at the same level of quality.

That begs the question, “What is it you are recycling?” If you're recycling something that's carcinogenic or an endocrine disrupter, then you're actually recycling something that's highly problematic. So you're technically recycling it, but is it something we really wanted in the first place?

The third level is upcycling. We talked about that in Cradle to Cradle and I think people found that quite entrancing. Downcycling surprised them a bit, and upcycling surprised them a bit more.

That would be our context: a quality improvement. So, a plastic water bottle, for example, contains residues from a catalytic reaction that produces antinomy, a heavy metal. We can actual purify those bottles as they come back through the system and remove that substance of concern and make the polyester even better.

On top of that, the chemical companies have found ways to repair the polymers. Through the process of recycling, they often become short fibers that compromise the integrity of the polymer. We've found ways in the chemical industry to actually repair the polymer so that it can be continually reused. It used to be the polyesters might get used two or three times and then they lost their ability to become high quality and confident as a raw material.

So, the idea that a plastic could be purified in the context of human or ecological health, could be repaired in terms of mechanical properties, and could be endlessly available to humans as a resource — that’s what we call upcycling. Things that were not optimized get optimized in the process.

Next page: Will "upcycling" become greenwash?