A Design Revolution

Is it possible to meet today's needs without toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals? Innovators are finding it is possible when they use designs Mother Nature developed over millions of years.

During the last four billion years, countless species of bacteria, plants, animals, and fungi have co-created an exquisitely tuned regulatory system for the planet. This Gaian metabolism is woven together by unimaginably complex biogeochemical cycles, a vast shared breath of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other elements critical to life.

Beginning with the introduction of synthetic dyes in the middle of the 19th century, we have been conducting an uncontrolled toxic experiment with the health of Gaia's most essential systems. In the blink of a geological eye, about 100,000 synthetic compounds have become commercially available. Only a few hundred of these substances have undergone systematic testing for toxicity, much less for the more difficult to trace effects on endocrine systems and immune systems.

Precisely because synthetic chemicals have not coevolved over evolutionary timescales with the enzymes and proteins, lipids and nucleic acids of life, they are typically not easily broken down by metabolic processes. These persistent chemicals pass through food webs and mix in the atmosphere, soils, and oceans, combining, decaying, and burning, producing new compounds that are sometimes more dangerous than their precursors.

Toxicity, waste, and extravagant resource use are all symptoms of poor design and production processes that grew out of a hodgepodge of historical accidents, convenience, and short-term profit maximization.

Around the world, innovative companies and product designers are crafting the next design revolution. By taking ecology as the basis for design, they are phasing out toxicity, cutting waste, and greatly increasing resource efficiency. This transformation will require more skilled labor, which is in great supply, and less natural capital, which is in short supply.

Restorative Landscaping

The herbicides and pesticides currently used to manage lawns, parks, and farms are deliberately designed to disrupt living systems, so it's hardly surprising that their toxic effects cannot be neatly confined to a few target species. Landscape companies that limit their vision and expertise to using products that contain toxic chemicals may find themselves marginalized as pesticides are increasingly regulated and as concerned consumers look for nontoxic alternatives.

There are companies that are ahead of the curve in adopting an ecosystem approach, however. Among them is the Philadelphia-based Andropogon landscaping company, founded by four students of the brilliant Scottish ecological designer Ian McHarg. Named for a common prairie grass that helps wounded landscapes heal, the company shuns the use of copious quantities of herbicides and pesticides, water, and fuel necessary to maintain non-native vegetation. Instead, Andropogon reweaves the ecological intelligence of the landscape; it restores native vegetation, re-establishes water flows, and reconnects fragmented wild areas.

In New York City's Central Park, their efforts to plant thousands of native trees, check erosion, and refurbish historic paths and bridges enlisted entire communities in the equivalent of a 20th century barnraising.

Parks and yards that emulate the native landscape, drink only ambient rainfall, and provide food for native birds and mammals are ultimately much simpler to maintain and less costly.

The Next Design Revolution

Ecological design is not just for landscapers. Karl-Henrik Robért, an oncologist, started The Natural Step (Det Naturliga Steget) in Sweden after noticing bizarre tumors that could only be traced to underlying environmental toxicity. Unsatisfied with existing scientific and regulatory approaches to these symptoms of systemic failure, he helped convene a long-term consensus-building process involving a wide spectrum of the Swedish scientific community. The process was guided by a single strategic question: What are the root causes of the environmental crisis?

By looking far upstream – at the source of the crisis, rather than downstream at a tangle of conflicting scientific reports, industry claims, and disturbing distress signals – The Natural Step has been able to fashion an elegant “compass” for sustainability. This compass provides four scientifically rigorous systems conditions that must be satisfied for any company, municipality, or nation to move towards sustainability.

1. Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in nature.

2. Synthetic compounds must not systematically increase in nature.

3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.

4. There must be fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.

As an example, if the second condition is violated and synthetic compounds systematically increase their concentrations in ecosystems, at least some of them will cross thresholds beyond which they cause unacceptable health risks to human and natural communities.

Investing in a Future

In Sweden, many of the largest corporations, including Volvo, IKEA, and Electrolux, have adopted The Natural Step conditions as a long-term operating strategy. Volvo is diversifying from automobiles into public transit systems. IKEA has created a special furniture line with sustainably harvested wood and nontoxic finishes and glues. Electrolux has produced a washing machine that uses five to ten times less water than the industry average. Scandic Hotels has reduced the toxicity in its hotel rooms and now appeals to ecotourists.

The Natural Step encourages companies to make investments that gradually remove their dependence on processes and products that violate the four systems conditions. As resources and waste sinks become scarcer, as the public health impacts of toxic chemicals are exposed, as stricter regulations and taxes are imposed, and as consumers vote with their dollars for green products, companies that move toward sustainability will flourish. Scandic Hotels made a profit after three consecutive losing years when it began to appeal to the environmentally conscious traveler, for example. In addition to garnering a bigger share of the green market, proactive companies minimize potential environmental liabilities and shield themselves against increasing costs for resources and waste disposal.

Farsighted companies are also anticipating strict, new international laws governing “persistent organic pollutants,” or POPs. A treaty currently being negotiated by the United Nations Environmental Programme will globally ban or severely restrict a priority list of 12 POPs, including dioxins, which have been implicated as endocrine disrupters.

Intelligent products

In Hamburg, Germany, chemist Dr. Michael Braungart has been pioneering approaches to nontoxic production through his nonprofit research firm, the Environment Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA). Braungart has developed the Intelligent Product System (IPS), which is helping to guide Germany's visionary legislation on product packaging and cradle-to-cradle design. The Intelligent Product System divides products into three types: consumption products, service products, and unmarketable products.

• Consumption products, such as food or soap, are released directly into the environment during normal use. These products must be completely biodegradable and nontoxic. They are completely reintegrated into the biosphere as natural nutrients.

• Service products are goods that provide on- going services, like automobiles, television sets, and computers. Under the IPS system, such goods are not owned by the customer; instead, they are leased from the manufacturer, which is responsible for the product's ultimate fate. Their embodied materials are completely reintegrated into the technosphere (industrial economy) as technical “nutrients.”

• Unmarketable products are those that cannot be consumed or used without producing unacceptable levels of toxicity and for which no adequate recycling technology exists, for example PCBs. These are to be phased out. In the interim, they are stored at the manufacturer's expense in carefully monitored “waste parking lots.”

Germany leads the world in implementing the Intelligent Product System. Already, German law requires manufacturers to take back and recycle most product packaging. German automobile manufacturers must take back their cars at the end of their useful life and recycle as many of the components as is feasible. Soon, electronics manufacturers will do the same.

This requirement has led to great innovation in cradle-to-cradle product design among German manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz. When “service” products are leased rather than sold, manufacturers have an incentive to make products nontoxic, durable, modular, and easy to repair, upgrade, reuse, and remanufacture.

The service product model is so powerful that it has been adopted by many companies even in the absence of national legislation. For instance, the Atlanta-based manufacturer Interface, an early US Natural Step adopter, plans to move from selling carpet to leasing a service: comfortable and convenient floor covering. Interface leases seamlessly interlocking carpet tiles and replaces them as needed. The tiles then go back into a closed-loop manufacturing process, which creates the next generation of tiles.

Recently Braungart collaborated with American architect William McDonough to develop a new line of completely nontoxic upholstery fabrics for office furniture. A small Swiss textile mill was anxious for a new product line after the trimmings of its previous lines of cloth were declared hazardous waste by the Swiss government. The new fabric blends wool from free-ranging New Zealand sheep with ramie organically grown in the Philippines. The EPEA's criteria were applied to the dyes, requiring them to be free of mutagens, carcinogens, persistent toxins, and endocrine disrupters. After approaching and being turned away by several dozen large dye manufacturers, chemical giant Ciba Geigy agreed to apply the EPEA criteria to its 4,500 dyes. The 16 dyes that passed were sufficient to produce every color except black.

The Swiss textile mill was significantly retooled for the project. Many chemical additives, including those that lubricate yarn, were eliminated. All remaining chemicals also had to pass EPEA filters. The manufacturing process is now so environmentally friendly that outgoing wastewater is cleaner than incoming process water. The fabric is completely biodegradable; local strawberry growers use the textile scraps as mulch.

Ecological intelligence

Like the tobacco companies, companies that on toxic chemicals are vulnerable as the true health costs of a toxic economy are revealed. Companies with vision are beginning to substitute ecological intelligence for a massive reliance on hazardous chemicals, water, energy, and materials.

This is good design, but, more importantly, it is the great work of reweaving the human economy, process by process, product by product, industry by industry, back into the Earth economy. These examples can help us reimagine Earth extravagant with health, infused with the juicy greenness at the core of life that the great 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen called veriditas. A world free of endocrine disrupters, carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens – a world made whole.

Strategic Questions for a Less Toxic World

Questions to use in evaluating which products, companies, and initiatives will lead to a nontoxic world:

• Is this chemical synthetic? Does it persist in the environment? Does it bioaccumulate in living tissues?
• Is this chemical a known carcinogen, mutagen, teratogen, endocrine disrupter, or acute toxin?
• When this chemical degrades, off-gases, combusts, or reacts, does it pose any of the above threats?
• Are there nontoxic or less toxic alternatives for this chemical or product ?

• How toxic is this product during its full life-cycle (extraction, manufacturing, use, recycling, disposal)?
• Is this product durable? Easy to maintain and repair, reuse, remanufacture, or upgrade?
• Does this product have replaceable or reusable components? Few parts and materials?
• Will the manufacturer take responsibility for this product and its packaging and completely recycle them?
• Can the benefits of this product best be provided by turning it into a “service product?”

• If “waste equals food,” what processes does this chemical or product “feed” during its entire life-cycle?
• How can this entire class of chemicals or products be phased out by reconfiguring industrial ecosystems?
• At the most basic level, what services are this chemical, product, or industrial sector providing?
• How can these services be increasingly provided by healthy ecosystems rather than chemicals?

• Despite all efforts, does this product remain unacceptably toxic? If so, is the product truly essential?
• Can I use this product for several different purposes? Does it meet basic needs?
• What level of this product or service genuinely contributes to the quality of my life?
• Can this level of service be best supplied through my own initiative and that of my local community?
©1998 Sustainable Systems Design