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Eliminating the concept of waste from the economy

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Reusable grocery bags made from recycled plastic bottles and cotton are sold at a Whole Foods Market natural and organic foods store on April 22, 2008 in Pasadena California.

"If we're destroying the Earth, we have to ask ourselves, is this is our intention? And if it's not, perhaps we need a new design," architect William McDonough says. David McNew/Getty Images

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Can pollution and climate change be addressed and solved as if they were design problems? For architect William McDonough, the answer is a straightforward “yes.” But the solution involves getting rid of the idea of waste as an end product in our society and economy.

“The way I put it is, eliminate the concept of waste,” McDonough told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. “Because once you realize that something is not waste, it’s food for something else. So you honor all the materials as they go through the system. And you don’t design for the end of life.”

While it may seem like a far-fetched idea, McDonough has developed systems of renewal in building design and clothing production that run on the concept of a “circular economy.”

“What we’re saying is, materials and things, you can take them from nature,” McDonough said. “But when we’re finished with the use of it, we can start to imagine what its next use is and design it for its next use. And once you do that, then you want to design for next use. And that’s what’s so much fun. And then you end up with a circular economy. So it’s for intergenerational benefit.”

The following is an edited transcript of McDonough’s conversation with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about how to create a 100% renewable energy system, how a circular economy can also foster meaningful job growth and more.

David Brancaccio: You see what needs to change to stop ruining the Earth as really a design problem, right?

William McDonough: I do, because design is the first signal of intention. And if we’re destroying the Earth, we have to ask ourselves, is this is our intention? And if it’s not, perhaps we need a new design.

Brancaccio: I mean, essentially you want to do away with the word “waste.” You don’t want us to be wasting because stuff we consider waste doesn’t necessarily have to be.

McDonough: Right. The way I put it is, eliminate the concept of waste. Because once you realize that something is not waste, it’s food for something else. So you honor all the materials as they go through the system. And you don’t design for the end of life. So it’s time for us to realize the way has gone away, and it’s time for us to to enjoy the prospect of being connected to things that are local and beneficial everywhere, instead of benefiting somewhere while destroying somewhere else.

Brancaccio: What should people understand about what you’re calling the “circular economy”?

McDonough: What we’ve been doing is take, make, waste. That’s a linear economy. And that’s why it’s known as “cradle to grave.” What we’re saying is, materials and things, you can take them from nature, and then we make things with them. But when we’re finished with the use of it, we can start to imagine what its next use is and design it for its next use. And once you do that, then you want to design for next use. And that’s what’s so much fun. And then you end up with a circular economy. So it’s for intergenerational benefit. But other things are really part of what we call the “technosphere.” So if you think about it, in the last 5,000 years, humans ever since we started banging on metal, have created things that are what we call products as a service. What you want to do is have the use of the sword, or the plowshare, or the loom, or the car, or whatever — you want the use of it, not necessarily the ownership. So it’s a beautiful system of regeneration at every use. And it’s good for the economy because you get to do it again.

Brancaccio: And we’re getting practiced at this, right? The notion of instead of buying a chunk of equipment that you might use some and then it goes into a closet or who knows where it goes, you might buy or rent or lease the service. And so that piece of equipment could be used down the road for someone else once you’re done.

McDonough: Well, we’ve been effectively doing this for a long time. Think about a television set. If you say, “I want to buy a television set,” but you asked for the materials, instead of the service, you’d be saying “I’d like to buy a house object in a plastic housing with 4,360 chemicals, you know, some of which are highly toxic. And I’d like to bring it home and give it to my children, encourage them to play with it.” You know, that’s not what you’re doing. You went to buy a television, what you want to do is watch TV. So that’s the service. So why can’t we design a television set that, when you finish with it, it can go back and become another television set, or it can go back and be a television set for someone else, sell it on eBay? Or you can actually take it apart and get the materials back in the industry. And we can use them again to make other things, so that’s how we design things. And it’s very effective business, it’s very good. Think about it, like a car. If you buy a car, whatever it is, if you bought a Tesla would you say, “I want to buy electric motors and windings and PVC wrapping and this and that,” or do you want a car? And when you finish with the use of it, it’s nice to know that that car can be back to aluminum, and the motors can be used again and again, the copper is still valuable and it’s not just being thrown in a hole in the ground.

Brancaccio: Now, I think of you as an architect with buildings and I’ve seen one of your buildings at Oberlin College in Ohio that is an expression of this, but you’ve thought a lot about apparel that could really have this almost infinite cycle. Tell me a little bit more about that.

McDonough: Well, for textiles I created with the C&A Foundation, something called Fashion for Good in Amsterdam. So, in 1994, we did our first textile for Steelcase Corporation here in the States, a furniture company. And we designed with them a fabric that is so clean, you could eat it. We did it out of wool and ramie. Ramie is a fiber. And then all of the dyes and the mordants and the rinses are all so clean that the water coming out of the factory is as clean as Swiss drinking water, which is what it is. So you’re not polluting. The trimmings of the balsa cloth, which used to be hazardous waste, had to be shipped to Spain, from Switzerland, because you couldn’t burn it or bury it in Switzerland. So that’s a cost to the business. And so we got rid of that. So all the materials are clean enough that the trimmings of the cloth become mulch for the local garden club. So you can give it as a gift to the local people who grow strawberries, and then the water coming out is clean enough to drink. So you’d rather use that then the undefined incoming water. So guess what? You turn right around and now you don’t need water anymore, and you’re not polluting the local lake or having inspectors to worry about it, which saves money because there’s nothing to inspect. So the whole thing becomes quite beautiful and you end up with a company still in Switzerland. And, by the way, a lot of people have sat on that fabric; it’s in the Airbus [planes]. So it’s the most comfortable fabric for sitting on because it keeps you one temperature and wicks away moisture. So it keeps you perfect for sitting. Anyway, just a much better product and the world gets better because you’re using that instead of something else. It’s very cost effective. It reduces regulation. What’s not to like?

So that’s where we started in textiles, and then as we moved into clothing last year, C&A, the European clothing company, announced the first perfect blue jean. And when we’d gone to the factories in India and Pakistan, one of the first factories we went to said, “We’re here to help with the cotton to be you know, organic” — check — “and all the dyes and everything checked, so they’re just perfect” — check. And we need it to be renewably powered because we have to move toward 100% renewably powered clean energy. And they said, “Oh, yes, we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve done it already.” There’s two factories, one wind-powered, one solar-powered. Great. “And then we have to make the water clean enough to drink. That’s where we need your help, with all the dyes and everything. But we don’t want to release water, if we can help it, because it’s clean enough.” By the time we were done, the only water leaving this factory was by evaporation. So this is like that building in Oberlin. It’s a building like a tree. A tree collects more energy from solar energy than it requires to live. It actually accrues and grows. Amazing. And it purifies water, provides habitat, it can make fuel. So if you think about a tree, it’s fecund. It gives more and grows like a living thing. So that’s why we want to design systems that are like that; they’re regenerative. And they work from solar income. They take carbon from the atmosphere and bring it down to the ground. And the world is better for it. So let’s do it like that — factories that are water purification systems, safe places to work, dignified products without poisons. Why not? We can do this.

Brancaccio: So if this pandemic is some kind of opportunity to embrace what policymakers had deemed unthinkable before, because there’s a lot of new thinking — at least I’m told that — how do you want us to dive further into this once we get out of this pandemic phase?

McDonough: I think it’s clear now that energy has to be clean. Because right behind this one, we have climate change, and so on. We can address this. We should, we can. And we should do it in ways that give jobs to everybody. There is so much to do, and that should be a signal. Discover the obvious. There’s so much to do in renewable power, there is so little to do in coal. So, focus: This is job creation. How do we mean meaningfully engage with the world today and have great work for people to do? And safety and health, first, then the economy. That’s why with “cradle to cradle,” the first thing we do is make sure all the materials are safe for humans and ecosystems. Then, we look for the circular economy and the sharing economy. It’s much more efficient. And then we do renewable energy, clean water and then social fairness — all five are critical. So you can do this, we can do them all at once. And it can be very highly profitable.

Brancaccio: I mean, it sounds like the circular economy isn’t painful in the sense of austere because in addition to not burning up the planet, you think it will create more livelihoods for people?

McDonough: Definitely. I was asked to be the chair of the circular economy at Davos in the World Economic Forum, we created a meta-council. And, you know, it was so beautiful to be able to talk to people who are in the world of making things and the economy and explain that what we’re talking about here is the celebration of abundance. A lot of people started out saying, “Oh, we need the circular economy because we’re running out of everything, and so we need to use it all again.” And then my point was, “Be careful, because if we make products that are not even safe” — let’s call them “bads.” We’re supposed to be making goods and services, but what if we made bads and services?” Whoops. Then if we had a circular economy of bads, it would be worse, because we’re doing it again. So let’s have goods first. And then let’s recirculate them. That’s a celebration of abundance. Can we use them over and over again? We get more value and utility from things. … But, you know, that kind of work, will be taking things that we made yesterday and reforming them into things for tomorrow. That’s fine. Those are jobs.

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