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The Upcycle: Designing for Ultimate Sustainability and Abundance

The Upcycle: Designing for Ultimate Sustainability and Abundance

The Upcycle advocates creating materials and products that can be reused endlessly such as the steel used to produce the shipping containers used in these upcycled shipping container apartments. In the thought provoking book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart propose that if we wish to become truly sustainable, we need to completely rethink the way we design materials, and that we should look to nature for inspiration on how to accomplish this.

In natural systems, nothing is wasted. Materials, nutrients and even gases such as oxygen or carbon dioxide that are consumed by one organism and emitted as ‘waste’ are taken up and used by other organisms, which in turn do the same. This results in complex food webs where natural materials are endlessly recycled, retaining their value at all stages of the cycle.

Humans are the only organism on the planet that have literally put a spanner in the works and upset the natural ecological balance and workings of nature by producing an endless supply of materials that are not reused over and over again, but instead are discarded and sent to a landfill.

The Upcycle, which follows on from the authors previous ecologically inspired book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, challenges us to design materials and products that can be recycled over and over again without becoming degraded, and which are powered by renewable sources of energy.

To address the current ecological crisis, the authors propose that instead of simply reusing or recycling materials more effectively, we should go beyond this by striving to actually improve the natural world as we live our lives and go about our daily business.

“The goal of the upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

Designing materials and products that are endlessly recycled from cradle to cradle rather than designing items that have a much shorter cradle to grave lifecycle, will result in materials that can be used indefinitely instead of being sent to landfills where they are essentially lost forever.

The authors liken materials to nutrients, drawing parallels between nutrients in the biosphere and materials such as plastic and metals (which serve as nutrients or building blocks) in the technosphere that can in theory be reused endlessly. However, in order for upcycling to be successful, we need to design products where these nutrients (materials) can be easily separated for reuse without being degraded during the recycling process.

The authors also point out that many everyday products come with health warnings or safety alerts, which in effect raises a red flag in terms of poor design. These potentially harmful products offer the perfect opportunity for us to rethink their design. Doing so may not only solve design flaws that could pose a health risk, but also presents an opportunity to consider how the materials (nutrients) used in these products will live on and be used in their next lifecycle once the have served and outlived their purpose in the current product.

Using nature as a blueprint for design is not only limited to materials and products, but also applies to systems and energy sources. The authors advocate applying ecological farming practices and regenerative agricultural techniques for growing the food we eat, recycling of valuable nutrients by municipal waste management and wastewater treatment systems, and switching to clean, renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind and biogas, together with designing products that are more energy-efficient.

Humans are part of the environment, and as such we will have an impact. However, this impact doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. Rather than trying to protect the Earth from human impacts, we should change our mindset and rather focus on changing our activities so that our actions result in positive impacts that improve and benefit the natural environment and all who depend on it for their survival. Only then will we attain ultimate sustainability and a world that offers true abundance for all its current and future inhabitants. It is our obligation to protect the environmental integrity of the Earth during our tenor so that future generations may continue to enjoy everything it has to offer. By redesigning the way we create things and establishing a regenerative approach to our activities, we can create an abundantly rich world that we are proud for our children to inherit from us.

Featured Imge by Cmglee / CC BY-SA
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