The Future Belongs to Companies that Can Harvest Waste Into New Products

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

William McDonough speaking at SXSW Eco,  photo by Steve Rogers

William McDonough speaking at SXSW Eco, photo by Steve Rogers

Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1951, William McDonough remembers his mom singing to him at night in Japanese with her Alabama accent about the night soil and the workers with their honey wagons.

She was singing about the farmers who came into Tokyo at night to collect sewage to take back to their farms, McDonough said. And in the morning, they would bring back food, he said.

“I always thought the cities and the farms were one organism,” he said.

McDonough, eco architect, delivered the afternoon keynote address at South by Southwest Eco on Tuesday. His talk focused on Cradle to Cradle, the circular economy and the carbon positive city.

He envisions a bountiful world in which cities live in in harmony with industry and agriculture. An economy in which waste products are turned into new products such as phosphorus from sewage.

McDonough told the audience he is not that interested in sustainability. He is interested in growth and inter-generational value creation.

“We leave the world better than we found it,” McDonough said. “Because the world is actually designed for growth.”

The 1700s were the decade of civil rights followed by the economy century in the 1800s, McDonough said. And then the 1900s were the pollution century, he said. Then at the end of the century people decided they want to become efficient, he said.

“Let’s destroy things a little less quickly, what?” McDonough said. “Be more efficient doing what? The wrong thing.”

He’s not a fan of corporate sustainability goals that profess to be less bad with the ultimate goal to be nothing.

“The question is really how do we love all the children of all species for all time,” he said. That is our values that allow us to move to principals and behavior, he said.

“Then we have visions,” McDonough said. “And visions without execution are hallucinations.”

The process leads to goals, strategies, metrics and then value, he said. If goals are the benchmark, you don’t get your values, he said.

“We like to start with what is right. What is wrong. What is good. What is bad,” he said. “And less and more come later.”

William McDonough keynote, photo by Steve Rogers.

William McDonough keynote, photo by Steve Rogers.

McDonough’s premise is that businesses, meant to be profitable, produce pollution which is something that they can’t sell. Instead, the circular economy encourages them to harvest their waste and treat it as an asset instead of a liability.

The key is to use commerce to make the change we want to see, McDonough said.

“This century, our century, must and can be the ecological century and then we will have a civilization worth passing on,” McDonough said.

The first order of business is human and ecological health, he said.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute has created a third party standard that certifies company’s products based on five criteria: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness.

McDonough said he first became interested in ecological design when he designed a daycare center in Frankfurt, Germany and he noticed the children were eating the building. So he decided to look into toxicology of materials.

In 1994, he designed new fabrics for Steelcase. He worked with a chemist to reduce the number of chemicals in fabric from 8,000 down to 38. He made a fabric so clean it could be eaten, he said.

He also designed carpet with Berkshire Hathaway and Shaw Industries to create Nylon 6, a carpet without the carcinogens and chemicals that can be reused and recycled. McDonough said the company is essentially storing its materials on the customer’s floor because it wants it back. There is 1.4 billion pounds of carpet waste in America every year, it would be good if it could be reused, McDonough said.

“This is turning into what we are calling the circular economy,” McDonough said.

McDonough wanted to design buildings like trees. He created a building that produced its own energy, purified its water and builds nutrient rich soil.

In 1999, McDonough designed the world’s largest green roof for Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Truck Planet in Dearborn, Michigan. Saved Ford $35 million in capital expense by not using chemical treatment plants and pipes, he said.

NASA asked McDonough to work on the Mars Space Station. They created a mockup at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It has the potential to produce 120 percent of the energy it needs and it can purify its own water, he said.

In Amsterdam, McDonough is designing buildings as continuous assets. They are designed to come apart and be put back together as needed or reconfigured for a different use.

In India, he designed a factory that has greenhouses on the roof that allow factory workers to grow food for their families.

In China, McDonough is working on a conceptual city that can feed itself and produce its own power.

“The idea of just saying we’re going to be less bad is not going to cut it with future generations,” McDonough said. “They are going to say what were you thinking or not. Let’s tell the kids we’re going to be less bad but we’re also going to be more good. We’re going to reduce the badness to zero. Fair enough. That’s a noble thing.”

“But we’re really looking for 100 percent fabulous that’s what we’re really here for not nothing – 100 percent fabulous,” McDonough said.

With the carbon positive city, McDonough looks at carbon as a positive in the soil and a negative in the atmosphere. A toxin is a material in the wrong place, he said.

Cities are connected to the landscape. First, cities must do an inventory, study opportunities, assess projects, optimize, execute and share.

“Our job right now is to change the question of commerce itself from a world of limits and greed from how much can I get for how little I give,” McDonough said. “We need to change that question to how much can I give for all that I get.”


  1. Thank you for another essential article.


  1. […] vision and values, and perhaps get a dose of Friday inspiration, tech blog Silicon Hills has a thorough profile of Cradle to Cradle pioneer and architect William McDonough. Secondly, Kate Brandt of Google […]

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