The Upcycle

Posted on April 6, 2015


I just finished reading The Upcycle by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart. Similar to how I felt after reading their previous book Cradle to Cradle, I was woefully ashamed of how terrible a job I’ve been doing at the principles they discuss in their books and inspired to work towards creating a more positive world.

Upcycle focuses on the “materials in the wrong place” problem. It states that a lot of our current and future problems are simply design problems. We need to boil things down to their core issues and come up with simple solutions. Sometimes those solutions may be elegant and far reaching, but where possible they should be “passive” systems.

At the end of The Upcycle, they give 10 points to follow to create net positive solutions for our world. Below is their unedited version. It’s pretty long, but gives a good taste of what is discussed in the book and hopefully will inspire you to take that next step.

The Upcycle

1. We don’t have an energy problem. We have a Materials-in-the-Wrong-Place Problem.

Carbon is perfect. It is crucial to human life. We need it on earth.

Unfortunately, it is now in our air and water in overabundance, where we cannot utilize its strengths. We need to reconfigure our systems to keep carbon earthbound.

Fortunately, there are many ways we can do this. We can use fossil fuels for key goods, such as medicines, while we use renewable energy for power. We can sequester carbon emissions from biodegrading materials and use them to create biogas and soil nutrients. The carbon goes back into the earth where it belongs.

Once we recognize, we will grow-literally.

Likewise, we don’t have a toxins problem; we have a materials-in-the-wrong-place problem.

If we realize that what we essentially have is a sorting problem, we can begin the process of reorganizing so we never have to worry about these issues again.

At the beginning of the book, we said to toss out the idea of a nurturing “Mother Nature.” No need to romanticize nature. Nature is not exclusively benevolent. But nature is fairly intelligent after years of evolution. For example, nature evolved to put in mother’s milk exactly what is needed to nurture and grow new life; it works.

Recently, we have added many new ingredients to breast milk – bromide-based fire retardants, for example. We can look to nature not as our mother but as our teacher. Nature gave us the correct recipe. If nature didn’t put bromide-based fire retardants in milk in the first place, we have no reason to add it. It is a materials-in-the-wrong-place problem. Let’s redesign.

2. Get “Out of Sight” Out of Mind

You don’t have a garbage can. You have a nutrient rest stop.

You don’t have a toilet. You have a nutrient recycling system.

Think and act on the idea that when you flush a toilet you are sending beneficial nutrients to a processing plant to be made into the key ingredients needed by farmers to grow healthy food for you and your family.

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?”

Next time you want to use the word “waste,” bite your tongue. Worms consume food and, through the systems of their bodies, produce richer nutrients. You, through the system of your intelligence, can create richer nutrients too.

3. Always be Asking What’s Next

In Cradle to Cradle we confused some readers with the term “closed loops”. We intended to mean that a material or its component chemicals could be reused endlessly, safely. But the term allowed the misinterpretation that is was okay to design a toxic product in the first place, as long as it could be reconfigured into another toxic product. We never meant that. That leads to monstrous hybrids.

We want you to always think, What’s next?

What will happen to the shirt I design today? What is next for this book?

We want you to think of every component of your design as being borrowed. It will be returned one day to the biosphere or technosphere. It is your role to return it in as good a condition as you found it, as a good neighbor would. You have that chemical or heavy metal for a reuse period, and then it moves on to another product without tainting the biosphere or technosphere. Design for your particular reuse period, always with its next reuse and its new reuse and its next reuse in mind.

4. You are Alive. Your Toaster is Not

We have been in this work for decades and still…still we stop every time a company mentions a technical product as having a product life or life cycle.This means how long a products used by the customer. But the term confers a kind of superiority on the product that it doesn’t deserve. The technical product is not “alive”; it is inert. It also suggests tat the product will die and go away and never bother us again.

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.

Conversely, there are such things as people, and they are alive. Companies talk about human resource departments, as if people were just commodities owned by the company, goods to be used. No. We are people. A better term might be human relations departments, since they can focus on how the company is relating to the needs and desires of the people who work so hard for them, so as to create an optimized relationship.

5. Optimize, Optimize, Optimize

Speak to the world in positives. “We will run on 20 percent renewable power by 2020 and 100 percent as soon as it is cost-effective.” “We will use 95 percent of our gray water in 2015 and 100 percent by 2017.” “We have made a product that, when used, provides part of a person’s daily requirement of minerals.”

It doesn’t make us happy to see your downward-sloping lines of fewer carbon emissions, fewer toxins. We want to see your rising lines of positive aspirations and beneficial commitments.

You are doing good. Enjoy it. Say it. We like to hear it. Upcycle your descriptions of your work and progress. Don’t be a pessimist. The glass is  half empty. But don’t just be a passive optimist either. The glass is half full. Start with inventory; take scientific stock of your situation. The glass is full of water and air. Then signal your intention for design. I want the glass to be bigger.

6. You Can and You Will

No need for scolding. No need for “shoulds” and “musts.” From our work around the world, we have come to see that human beings are essentially in agreement on what is needed to integrate ourselves into the natural upcycle of life. Businesses and governments understand these needs too. What gets in the way is fear, fear that the changes and innovations are impossible, or too costly, or we don’t have enough information-there are a million reasons not to change.

The job of upcycle advocates is to encourage people and to inspire behaviors, helping all entities understand that change is possible, beneficial, profitable. The city can look into creating biogas plants at the local dump to create free energy. The company will resell its used paper to a nutrient manager who uses the materials for other key products and pays the company back.

This is a joyful project before us. Let’s speak that way too.

7. Add Good on Top of Subtracting Bad

In the organic food world, a farmer can begin growing organic at any time, but he or she cannot get organic certification for three years. Why? Because you can’t just throw pesticides on your fields one year and then stop using pesticides and think they have worked their way out of the soil. Meanwhile, in the three-year wait time, the dedicated farmer might be spending more money setting up these new farming techniques, yet he or she can’t get the financial benefit of the higher values associated with organics until three years out.

We can find ways to honor people’s intentions.

When we certify in our Cradle to Cradle Certified program, we begin by certifying intentionality. No one can get to perfection overnight. But people can be honored, recognized, and encouraged for having begun in earnest.

Starting is important. And creating additionality too. We know the sentiment is good if a company buys offset credits for its carbon emissions, but upcycling is happening if the company is participating in the creation of new, local renewable power sources that wouldn’t have been there without its instigation. Think small, think big, think adding good on top of subtracting bad. There is always room for more additionality. We can add on, not just pile on.

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

In Cradle to Cradle, we talked about the need to build for the local community. You don’t want to be in Bali in a sealed-up, air-conditioned building designed for Shanghai, Chicago, or Frankfurt, for example. It wouldn’t be appropriate or delightful in the context of Bali. But we can think about locality in many ways. When helping create Sustainability Base for NASA, we thought of the locality-of its resources (good sunlight, breezes for cooling and refreshing air)-to design the building. When proposing a green roof for the Ford Motor Company plant, that was an answer to a specific local need of containing storm-water runoff. On a building in Arizona, it might be better to create a solar roof or a rooftop greenhouse recycling precious water and nutrients.

In Barcelona, we didn’t propose to use nonnative rain forest fig trees in the pharmaceutical laboratory atrium. We designed a re-generator for the butterflies that were local to the city, endangered butterflies that needed support and celebration.

Get specific about your locality. You will arrive at more ingenious 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.

9. The Time is Now

We-all of us-have a lot to do. We know that this work requires all of us and it will take forever, but some of this work is urgent. Rebuilding the phosphate in our soil is crucial and, as we have pointed out, the solution easily within our reach. Rebuilding soil in general is as important right now to our future as converting to renewable energy; soil is currently disappearing faster than we can restore it. No time to wast, watching it blow away. The sooner we start recharging our soil batter, the sooner we can grow.

We need to focus on indoor air quality. In much of the world, people spend 80 percent of their time indoors and yet the air is often worse at their desks than outside on the streets. We can focus on every material introduced into our homes and office buildings to make sure we are breathing only what our bodies enjoy.

And we can immediately stop introducing unknown chemicals and materials into our biosphere. We can’t afford this Russian roulette. We can’t wait to learn whether or not these chemicals will harm us in the long term. Let’s stop using them in the short term.

Let’s start now. The precautionary principle is and is about being alive and well.

10. Go Forward Beneficially

You have one life and, like a tree, you can create abundance, a profusion. You can create emissions. Every year of your life, you are accumulating more potential for good for the world. We know that with your intelligence, your talents, your intent, you will make fore for your contemporaries and for future generations better.

You are a known positive. No need to think of yourself as misplaced in the natural world, or that you cause destruction with your presence. You can contribute. you area a part of the ever-upcycling path of life.

Accept that deep in your heart and mind.

Then go forward. Be successful.

We hope to enjoy all that you share.

And tell your children that things are looking up.


I highly recommend you get these books from the library or purchase 10 copies and hand them out to friends. These guys are doing really important work that should be celebrated. It doesn’t matter what your politics or beliefs are, it’s common sense that we should care about what we are putting into our bodies and the Earth. We have a responsibility to make sure our children don’t have to pay for our, and previous generations, mistakes.  

Posted in: Architecture