The McDonough Conversations: On joy and cereal boxes

This is the first in a periodic series of one-on-one interviews with William McDonough, the renowned designer, architect and entrepreneur, looking into his rich, kaleidoscopic professional world. McDonough has been at the forefront of many of sustainability’s most important trends: green buildings, closed-loop systems and Cradle to Cradle design, among others.

I’ll be checking in with McDonough periodically to hear what he’s working on and thinking about -- an opportunity to get a glimpse into one of sustainability’s most creative and fertile minds.

Joel Makower: Bill, what is your professional world like these days? How do you divide up your time in terms of architecture, design, writing, speaking, entrepreneurism and everything else?

William McDonough: I travel about a third of the time. And when I'm in my office in Charlottesville, I am designing buildings. I have my studio there and in San Francisco, and I do the special projects that I choose to do. There aren't very many, and they're very special. I'm doing everything from the space station to giant factories in India to a private home for someone very special to me. I'm also doing a fabulous project in Los Angeles for the docks there, on the future of the oceans, which I find very important.

Then, I work with entrepreneurs -- new companies that have technologies within our Cradle to Cradle framework. They involve everything from women's health to various renewable energy protocols to urban agriculture to lighting and hospitality design. That's probably a third of my day.

And then I prepare for “North Star” workshops for major corporations. I work with chief sustainability officers and CEOs to help set their North Star -- actually set the targets for these enterprises.

And I spend some time every day drawing as a means of communicating with my own instinct on curious objects. Right now my curious objects, other than buildings, are packaging. I'm very focused on packaging in part because of the work I'm doing in collaboration with Waste Management. But I've also worked with Recology, and I want to work with all the reverse-logistics providers because it's like Thoreau said: "What's the good of a house if you don't have a good planet to put it on?" What's the good of a beautifully recyclable object, either to the biosphere or technosphere in Cradle to Cradle terms, if we don't have a way to get it there for its next use?

Makower: So, with all of those delicious opportunities in front of you, how do you think about what you take on? Are there some criteria you use to decide what rises to the top?

McDonough: I have a very crude sort. The first is joy. Am I going to be happy doing this? That's the first question. It doesn't mean that I have to be exuberant about everything, but it's not going to be joyful if I have to work with people I don't want to work with.

The second is, do I have time for this given my priorities? Where does this fit into my clock? I look at it in terms of my family: How will this affect my family life? Will it take me away from home? I have a 14-year-old daughter still at home, and I like to be here for her. I give myself like 12 nights a month max away from home. So I use that as a criterion.

I look at the financial requirements because I am an enterprise and if it can make sense financially because everything has an opportunity cost, as well.

Makower: Tell me about a project you're working on now that gives you joy.

McDonough: Packaging design. It's so immensely curious how stupid modern packaging is, and it's getting worse. It's really amazing. I mean, I see packaging awards being given to these pouches as more efficient containers of, say, a cereal or something. You look at an organic, gluten-free kale chip package and it's wrapped in seven plastics with undefined inks and metallized polymers. It doesn't have a recycling symbol on it because you could never recycle it. The package might even weigh more than the contents. And yet it's being put forward as a more efficient package. Isn't it astonishing that we would have that much focus on what's inside the package and so little focus on what's outside?

And then it gets to the Dumpster, where I now reside, so to speak. I'm at the bottom of the garbage can. I'm very low center of gravity. We look up and go, "What are you doing? How can you send us this stuff?"

Like Bucky Fuller, I see myself as a trimtab. There’s a giant supertanker, three football fields long, that’s headed out to sea without a compass and without stars to guide it. It's just moving, and it's big, and it's hard to turn.

Makower: How do you plan to turn that half-trillion-dollar-a-year ship?

McDonough: Through profitable examples that are just so obvious, when you see them you go, "How beautiful. How simple. Of course." It'll blow your mind when you see what I'm working on. It's really cool.

Makower: Can you give me an example?

McDonough: Right now I'm working on a cereal box. Wal-Mart has hired me to rethink packaging. There is much to do here. We are starting with the cereal box.

If I look at a cereal box, we're starting to see signals, especially from the U.K., that the paperboard used for cereal boxes is showing toxic ink residues in the papers, which were from magazines and newspapers used to make the paperboard box. And they're migrating through the high-density polyethylene liner into the cereal itself in measurable quantities. This is crazy. You're giving your kid cereal plus contaminants for breakfast, and some of them are quite serious.

Now, that's not the only reason I got into this. I got into it just because if you stop and look at the cereal box and just ask yourself in “The Emperor's New Clothes” kind of mind, what is going on here? How many people know how to open a cereal box without ripping the cardboard? I can't. I'm too clumsy. I don't know how to get my thumb in there without ripping the tab. Then I have to wrestle with the high-density polyethylene bag inside and pull it apart at the seams. If I'm lucky -- and it doesn't rip open and explode on me -- I might do a relatively neat job of opening the corner of it. Now what have I got? I have a paperboard box with a plastic bag. And what's inside the plastic bag? Food.

So, I have organic material inside a technical material -- the high-density polyethylene -- inside paper, which should be safe in the biosphere. So I've got this monstrous hybrid of a situation. It’s so suboptimal in terms of use. You have to fight with it. It used to be wax paper and a cardboard box to advertise cereal. Look what it's morphed into.

So, what is the perfect cereal box in this day and age? I'm designing cereal boxes out of new materials with new techniques that are going to be super cost-effective -- probably even more cost-effective, because that's part of my assignment. That's what we have to do: make it even more economic. That gets us our license to practice. It has to be better.

I'm designing the product so it can become that part of the waste fraction that goes back into the soil through methane. People keep talking about biodegradable packaging. Well, that's interesting, but if it ends up in a landfill and it makes methane, then it's 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

That's why I'm working with the waste industry. What we want to do is take the organic fraction and be able to sort it and bring it straight to methane. And then take that methane and keep it earthbound as polymers, not burn it and put it into the atmosphere.

It's a whole system. I have this whole framework in my head. It's not just, "Can I be more efficient? Can I be lighter?" It's "Can I have higher quality?"

Makower: No one will ever accuse you of thinking small.

McDonough: It's fun for me. I like being ambitious. I've never done this before, but I had never done a space station, either. I love big, new challenges. That's what I do.

Image of William McDonough by Lynne Brubaker