The Upcycle

McDonough and Braungarten are the authors of Cradle to Cradle, a book widely regarded as a recipe for more sustainable product industrial processes, which would later be used a one of the main references for the discussions about a Circular Economy. The Upcycle is the sequel, written by the same authors more than a decade later. Here they go deeper in some themes, and add a different perspective to others, or try to make their point clear in some topics - like fighting the misunderstanding of expressions they used such as waste=food. There are some interesting clues for my research, I reckon. Comment added on 04/10/2019.

The Upcycle

William McDonough / Michael Braungart - 2013

pp. 166/167

To make the system truly work, however, manufacturers need to know what resources they have, where the resources are, and when they might be getting them back to use as nutrients in another product. Some materials currently have an easy path toward reuse - aluminum and paper, for example. But why not celebrate all the technical species? Companies might conceive of a system that tracks and plans reuse for all the technical nutrients in circulation in the world. Nature manages the cycles of biological metabolism. Let's do the same for the technical metabolism. We have proposed a clearinghouse for businesses to exchange information about what technical nutrients are available and even to help each other design, manufacture, and reuse the best materials. The result would be a mutually beneficial system between players along the supply chain. We call this an intelligent materials pool (IMP). The principle behind the IMP is that technical materials - what we call technical nutrition - can be endlessly reused. If businesses collaborated to reclaim the high-quality raw technical nutrients from each other, they would be incentivized to use the highest-quality substances, since they would know they would be getting the pure raw materials back again, such as clear, food grade plastic bottles that go through recycling systems that keep them at their highest quality or improve them, returning them for use in the best possible condition, and certainly without downcycling them by amalgamating them into hybrid materials. As with everything Cradle to Cradle, the benefit of the IMP would be more than just environmental. It would be economic. Valuable materials such as alloys, stabilizers, and polymers were designed for reuse; some polymers can be recycled more than 90 times without losing performance quality, while intelligently designed steel can be recycled endlessly. If they were kept in a clean system, there would be no need to mine new iron and other minerals, because the reused steel would remain at the same high original quality. Intelligent materials pooling, a collaborative business-to-business management system for the technical metabolism - in short, a Materials Bank - would provide numerous benefits. If all products were encoded, the nutrient management companies of the IMP might, for example, ask reatilers to please tell their suppliers to design packaging so that nutrient management could optimize value at the back end, sending that material on to a different manufacturer. Value could be monetized and exchanged. Designers would know the parameters of the packaging they were creating. Whatever was produced would be optimized for the multiple parties concerned.


The current prevailing philosophy about products, where there's a philosophy at all, has been "take, make, waste" or "bury or burn". Perhaps it's even time to rething "reduce, reuse, recycle" and replace it with "redesign, renew, and regenerate." Those two steps - aggregate and return - are beginning to be monetized in our mass-production society. "Waste handlers" are becoming "nutrient managers." Our hope is that someday they will even become upcyclers.


Could eBay-like Internet auction sites one day be intelligent materials pooling brokers? Social media holds the potential for anyone to become the nutrient manager for his or her home, block, neighborhood, or city. The original recyclers were ragpickers who gathered the fabric used for the paper for the most valuable artwork, archival papwers used today - rag paper. An upcycle if there ever was one: rags to riches.

!!Why eBay? How about managing it as a commons, or a platcoop?

p. 170

Just as humans think of designing necessary products to retain, restore, and enrich on a continuous basis, they can and need to think about upcycling the system they employ every day to make our world run.

p. 173

One of the world's major capitals, Beijing, is projected to double in population size withing the next half-century. Bill was asked to think about how elements of that expansion could be addressed in Cradle to Cradle thinking, or the "circular economy" as it is called by the Chinese. Here is one idea: mining the old city. If Beijing were to go from about 20-plus million people to 40 million people, one would have to ask where the new sources of water, energy, and food would come from.

p. 212

Get greedy about your garbage. Now that the world has started down the path of upcycling, plenty of companies covet what you put in the trash can every day. You can value it too. Instead of asking yourself, "How do I get rid of this?" ask, "How much money could I get for this? Who could enjoy the benefits of these great nutrients? My city, my neighborhood, my favorite nonprofit?"

In other words: can waste engender cycles of abundance? And I add: can we manage it in ways not organised around the market form?

p. 213

But technical products don't die and vanish. This is the problem and the opportunity. Products stay on and on and on. Maybe as toxins in a dump. Or a plastic bottle cap bobbing in the ocean. We need to get away from thinking of these objects as mutable or we won't consider their endless reuse. They are technical nutrients. We can use them over and over. We can design them to be part of a Materials Bank and lease the steel and rubber in a washing machine, for example, until the time comes to use them for something else.

Interesting point about the 'lifecycle' of products, or their 'afterlife'.

p. 216

Gaze at the World Right Around You... Then Begin


Get specific about your locality. You will arrive at more ingeniously indigenous solutions if you let the locality guide you. Some solutions can have global benefits and applications, but remember to start where you are. All sustainability, like politics, is local.

Previous Post Next Post