This Book Is Not a Tree

“This book is not a tree.”

That modest, if enigmatic, statement holds out hope for the environmental crisis facing our planet. It comes in the prologue to Cradle to Cradle, an inspiring and visionary book by William McDonough, a green architect and designer, and Michael Braungart, a chemist and former chief scientist for Greenpeace. Together they have written a manifesto for a rethinking of the way we manufacture products and use the resources of our planet.

They urge us to go beyond merely recycling, to utterly rethinking what goes into the things we use so that they when we finish with them they can re-join nature’s cycles rather than simply become clutter in a toxic landfill.

The paper used in the book itself exemplifies this approach. Developed by Charles Melcher of Melcher Media, the book’s publisher, the “paper” uses no wood pulp – and so “is not a tree.” Instead it is made from plastic fibers and other inorganic fillers that make it more durable than other paper. And, perhaps most important, this new kind of paper is what’s called a “technical nutrient,” a substance that can be re-used endlessly because it can be broken down and put into myriad other industrial products that use polymers. And no tree was sacrificed to make it.

Likewise, many products can be made from “biological” nutrients, substances that break down into molecules that fit seamlessly into nature’s cycles. For instance, most detergents contain harsh chemicals that are harmful once they are released into the soil or water. McDonough and Braumgart argue this challenges the manufacturer of laundry soaps to ask a question beyond, What kind of detergent do customers want? In addition, they should ask, What kind of detergent does the river want? Can they design a product that will biodegrade harmlessly into the water when it is rinsed away, or contribute nutrients to the soil?

Braumgart helped a German soap manufacturer create a shower gel a model of this approach. He first identified the twenty-two chemicals in typical shower gels, many of which were unhealthy either for the skin, or the water ecosystem they ended up in. They then selected just nine ingredients, all beneficial for the skin and the water.

This approach fits well with a proposal I made in my essay “Transparency Is Inevitable,” posted on the Edge.com website on January 1, 2007 (and also on this blog). I pointed out that electronic tagging makes it possible to know exactly what factory made a given item on a store shelf – and so what manufacturing methods were used, as well as its ingredients. By further applying to this information the principals in Cradle to Cradle to sort out the toxic items from those made of biological and technical nutrients, we one day could have clear decision rules for voting for a healthier planet with our dollars when we go shopping.

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