Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.
Let us consider, for a moment, a cherry tree.
It’s branches reach high above the ground and in the spring time are festooned with delicate flowers that buzz with pollinator activity and send a delectable scent wafting through the air. Over time, the flowers loosen and drift towards the ground, forming a deep litter that blankets the space under the tree’s canopy.
They become bruised and torn as animals walk through, the wind and rain reshape the space, and the insects turn what was once something beautiful into battered trash. Then the ants and earthworms and underground crawlers gather up the remnants of the cherry’s show, pulling the scraps down into the soil to digest and decompose. This action releases the last nutrients from the petals, and those nutrients become available to the soil organisms, the bacteria, the fungi, and – once again – to the tree itself.
Up above the surface, the blossoms have been replaced by green leaves that collect the solar energy and pass it throughout the tree and the organisms that depend on it. Root bacteria drink up sugars from photosynthesis and excrete substances that make other nutrients available to the tree. The tree moves those nutrients up into the budding fruit, which grows by the hour in the sunlight.
When the cherries are ready, perhaps humans will come to pick some. So will birds and squirrels and countless other woodland creatures. Some fruit will simply fall to the earth to follow the way of the blossoms. Other fruit will pass through various digestive systems and lead to new seedlings, conveniently deposited in a small packet of fertilizer.
After the weather gets colder, the leaves will change color and fall, once again littering the ground and providing food for the system that the tree inhabits.
In nature, nothing is wasted.
Now let us take another moment to consider something just as beautiful as a cherry tree – a cut crystal pitcher.
Unlike the cherry tree, a cut crystal pitcher must be created before it can be beautiful. Silica sand, sodium carbonate, calcium oxide and lead oxide are most commonly combined in a kiln and heated to liquid at anywhere between 1500 and 2500F. Each of the raw materials must be extracted and shipped to that kiln, and the kiln itself requires large energy inputs to reach the required temperature. Once formed, the pitcher must be cut on a powered cutting wheel and annealed in the kiln again, this time at 750 to 1000 degrees.
Unless you, the end user, happen to live within walking distance of where the pitcher is made, additional energy must be used to get it into your hands. Some sort of padding must be manufactured and shipped to the factory, and wood pulp must similarly be fashioned into a box to hold the padded pitcher. Then said box must be shipped to your door.
In use, the pitcher requires little energy – a fraction of the manufacturing needs of the soap and clean water which are used to wash it. But the pitcher is fragile, and in all likelihood, the first crack or chip will render it unusable and send it to the dump. Once there, the pieces will take 1 million years to decompose – until then, the components of the glass are unavailable for further use.
And, for a third moment, let’s consider something somewhat less beautiful, but nevertheless used daily by a good portion of western civilization – the electric coffee pot.
The raw materials in the coffee pot are start off with a similar list to the crystal pitcher, but continue on to include oil, copper, rubber, and the chemicals needed to turn the raw oil into the various types of plastics used in the body of the coffee pot. There are the die used to create the pieces of the pot, the screws that hold it all together, and computer chips that let you customize your brew. The heating mechanism of the pot is typically aluminum or stainless steel, and the filters that most of us use in our pots are typically some form of paper fiber.
Each of these components requires energy for extraction, purification and molding, and then there’s the energy used in the actual construction of the unit. The pot is then packaged in styrofoam and cardboard, shipped to a store using oil, and in all likelihood driven to your house using gas.
When you use the pot, you’re probably using the aforementioned coffee filters with coffee that has been grown halfway around the world and shipped to you using additional oil. The coffee may or may not have been grown on rainforest land cleared for coffee plantations, resulting in loss of biodiversity and all the services provided by the forest. Running the pot requires electricity, as does the dishwasher that you likely use to clean it out at the end of the day. The dish soap that you use to clean it with has its own embodied environmental and energy costs too.
And then what happens when the pot breaks? Let’s say you drop the carafe one morning when you’re not quite awake. Perhaps you purchase another carafe and continue to use the rest of the unit, patting yourself on the back for being sustainable and sending the broken glass pieces to sit in a landfill. Perhaps you use it as an excuse to toss the whole unit. What if the wiring in the pot becomes faulty and the timer no longer goes off to provide you with hot coffee in the morning? Chances are, you’ll chuck the whole thing in the trash, though you may attempt to take it apart or put it up on Freecycle. But depending on the design, you may need to be a rocket scientist to get into the unit to fix it – leaving you little practical choice but the trash can.
This post isn’t intended to make you feel guilty as a consumer. We all are – just today, I bought two paint samples in little plastic jars to test out in my spare bedroom, followed by a box of gluten free macaroni and cheese and three bags of Snapeas. I don’t want to stop buying paint samples or boxes/bags of food. Instead, I want the things I buy to be designed in such a way that they could be taken apart at the end of their natural use cycles, and the constituent pieces formed into something else of equally high quality.
Isn’t that recycling?
I’ll go into the distinction in the next post.