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'Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things'

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cradle to cradle

'Cradle to Cradle' is a smart introduction to upcycling, downcycling and all things in between.

North Point Press

The Bottom Line

Cradle to Cradle is an influential book that's becoming a must-read for its novel approach to upcycling in the natural and material worlds. Architect William McDonough and Michael Braungart, a chemist, have teamed up to present a number of concepts that are redefining the green-living movement. Among them:
  • The distinction between the natural and man-made worlds
    is an artificial one
  • We are surrounded by reusable "technical nutrients," including metals, plastics and other compounds
  • The whole idea of "waste" should be eliminated
  • We live in a world of abundance and opportunity, not one of limits, pollution and waste


  • A refreshing lack of fear-mongering and other emotional arguments
  • Plenty of real-world examples
  • A crisp, lucid writing style helps to explain the book’s concepts
  • Authors have excellent credentials and a wealth of experience


  • Most non-technical readers will find few ideas to implement in their daily lives
  • Written mainly for engineers, designers and policymakers
  • No illustrations, which might have helped clarify some concepts
  • A glossary or index would have made the book a more useful reference


  • Title: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
  • Authors: William McDonough and Michael Braungart
  • Publisher: North Point Press, New York, NY; 1st edition (2002)
  • ISBN: 0865475873
  • Pages: 193, no index

Guide Review - 'Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things'

Henry Ford, the father of industrial mass-production, might seem an unlikely environmentalist. Yet his Model A trucks came with a rather earth-friendly innovation: the wooden shipping crates for the vehicles were designed to be reused as the trucks' floorboards. Authors McDonough and Braungart cite this as an early example of "upcycling," the repurposing of disposable materials for a higher-value use.

There's a new industrial revolution within our grasp, the authors explain, and upcycling is among the ideals that will bring about this revolution. Though well-intentioned environmentalists have advocated "cradle-to-grave" product cycling, where waste is the end product, engineers are now starting to mimic natural "cradle-to-cradle" processes, where the change from one material state (a leaf decomposing on a forest floor) will enable another (nutrients that enrich the soil and spur more growth).

Take, for example, the book itself. I assumed the publishers printed it on bleach-free, recycled paper. But I was mistaken: most recycling, I learned, is really "downcycling," in which the quality of the product is downgraded after each successive use. Instead, the book's pages are made of plastic resins that can be "broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles." At the end of one book’s life cycle, they claim, is the cradle of another.

The book's optimistic tone comes as a relief to those of us who've grown weary of gloom-and-doom environmental manifestos. In fact, McDonough and Braungart carefully avoid using guilt, fear and other emotional ploys to further their case. While the book doesn’t provide the average reader many "action items," that isn't the authors' point. Instead, they successfully introduce new concepts that are currently reshaping the way engineers, architects and others think and act toward the environment.

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