The Guardian Reborn (2002)

A New Government Role in Environmental Protection

By William McDonough & Michael Braungart


For more than 30 years, since the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, environmental protection has been nearly synonymous with environmental regulation. During the century before the 1960s, in the spirit of outdoorsmen like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, protecting the environment almost always meant setting aside land for national parks. Rachel Carson changed all that. Her sober indictment of the chemical industry, Silent Spring, offered a startling new paradigm. The impact of industry, long regarded as limited to the visible effects of harvesting natural resources and generating waste, was far more widespread, more pernicious, and more enduring than anyone had imagined. Indeed, the poisoning of the earth was unprecedented. Industrial chemicals were not only polluting the air, water and soil, they were changing the very structure of our cells. By Carson’s lights, Americans had every right to expect that the laws of the land would protect them from such harm.

She put it this way: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

Yet there it was. And after the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, it was a problem millions of people were reading and worrying about—and demanding that government address. In less than a decade, Carson’s critique was so well-known, and the nascent environmental movement so influential, Congress passed in quick succession the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and NEPA, while President Nixon moved to establish the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce environmental laws.

Rightly so. One of the proper roles of government, along with shaping just principles in support of social and political life, is to act as a guardian of its citizens. Against great odds, a generation of EPA officials has performed that role with an energetic commitment to the public good. Reinforcing the agency’s best work, non-governmental organizations—such as Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace—have led a 30-year public dialogue that has firmly established Americans’ right to clean air, water and soil. Environmental legislation, when it has been given sharp enough teeth, has enabled the agency to enforce the basic standards that fulfill that right. Without the Clean Water Act, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River might still be in flames.

We have reached an impasse, however. The regulatory infrastructure, as much good as it has done, is not enough to effectively protect the environment. Water quality, for example, remains a pressing issue. Sediments and microorganisms not covered by the Clean Water Act continue to pollute 44 percent of U.S. waters. When polluting substances are regulated, that doesn’t always lead to the remediation of environmental harm, a problem illustrated by the ongoing 20-year battle between the EPA and General Electric over the clean-up of PCBs in the Hudson River. If, under current conditions, protecting environmental health has proven so difficult, how will regulations deal with a projected 5-fold increase in economic activity over the next 50 years?

International environmental regulations are also difficult to enforce. The Basel Convention, for example, is a United Nations treaty adopted to stop the flow of hazardous waste from leading industrial nations to developing countries. The United States has not ratified the convention, however, so U.S. companies are not bound by it. Consequently, the hazardous e-wastes from computers collected for “recycling” in Houston, Omaha, or Portland are being processed all over the world. At one documented site along the Lianjiang River, northeast of Hong Kong, hundreds of poor, migrant workers burn hazardous materials in the open air and run toxic, riverside acid works to recover precious metals from old computers.

The international regulatory landscape is not entirely bleak. Environmental initiatives in the European Union, for example, suggest how some regulations can drive innovation and economic growth. On the heels of Chancellor Willy Brandt, who back in Carson’s day declared that he wanted to see clear, blue sky over Germany’s heavily industrialized Ruhr district, European politicians have understood the necessity of strong regulations, international cooperation, and a more pro-active role for government and industry. Regulations that successfully curbed acid rain, for example, also created opportunities to use recovered sulphur emissions to make gypsum. Today, the EU’s End of Life Vehicle Directive, which requires automakers to take full responsibility for the materials in the cars they produce, is stimulating innovations in design and manufacturing that will allow companies to effectively recover valuable resources through auto recycling. Similarly, the fast-growing environmental technology industry offers economic opportunity during this transitional step toward clean, healthy commerce.

Yet, even when corporations willingly cooperate with regulations—in Europe or the U.S.—industrial production can still harm people and the environment. Consider the EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory. Established in 1986, the TRI gathers data from industrial facilities, which are required to report on the release of hazardous chemicals, as well as the location and quantities of chemicals stored on-site. The reporting is designed to notify nearby communities of possible public health problems. While the most recent TRI data shows that chemical releases have decreased roughly 48 percent since 1988, industrial facilities in 2000 released 7.1 billion pounds of toxic substances, including persistent bio-accumulative chemicals, such as dioxins, mercury and PCBs. A separate EPA report, released just weeks after the current TRI in June 2002, declared that 20 million Americans live in areas where elevated levels of toxic chemicals pose a cancer risk 100 times greater than the levels at which EPA pollution-reduction programs typically target cancer-risk sources.

As evidence mounts that even tiny amounts of dangerous emissions can have harmful effects on biological systems over time, it seems prudent, if not urgent, to add some new options to the repertoires of both the guardian and the business leader—and even build cooperative relationships between them. Considering the traditional enmity between commercial interests and regulators—as in GE vs. EPA—that might be hard to imagine. But it’s not impossible. While many corporations still see regulations as obstacles to profitability and spend undue energy looking for loopholes to protect the bottom line, others are making environmental responsibility an integral part of their business agenda—and benefiting from doing so. When seen as a driver of quality and innovation, environmental concern can be quite profitable. In fact, many leading corporations are discovering that products, services and manufacturing facilities can be designed to enhance environmental health, economic value and quality of life. As you’ll see, this is not a pipe dream. It’s the emerging future of American economic strength, a future in which the EPA could play a vital role.

The first step might be a commitment to environmental protection that begins not with aiming to reduce the release of dangerous chemicals but attempting to eliminate toxic emissions altogether—by design.

From our perspective, regulation is a signal of design failure. The government’s need to step in and manage toxic emissions does not suggest bad intentions on the part of either the guardians of the public realm or commercial interests. Rather, the conflict between nature and commerce, and between business and nature’s protectors, is the result of deep flaws in the design of our current industrial system.

Traditional manufacturing creates such a bevy of negative consequences because it is built on a cradle-to-grave model that generates products designed for a one-way trip to the landfill and incinerator. The World Resources Institute estimates that “one-half to three-quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within one year.” Attempts to limit manufacturing waste tend to fine-tune the engines of industry, diluting pollution and slowing the loss of natural resources without examining the design flaws at their source. Reforms such as these take for granted the antagonism between nature and industry. The result: business strategies and a regulatory environment built on restricting industry and curtailing growth—a dispiriting commercial and environmental dead end.

But what if our designs were so inherently productive and healthful they allowed us to celebrate the things we make? A strategy we call Cradle to Cradle Design, allows us to do so. It rejects the assumption that the natural world is inevitably destroyed by human industry, or that excessive demand for goods and services is the inevitable cause of environmental problems. Conventional industrial design is flawed because it developed in a time when few understood the dynamic relationship between economy and ecology, or the principles of the earth’s natural systems.

Cradle to Cradle Design, on the other hand, is modeled on the perpetual flows of energy and nutrients that support biodiversity. The intention: to apply the intelligence and effectiveness of natural systems to product, process and facility design.

From an industrial design perspective, this means developing a deep understanding of the chemistry of materials and applying it to product development. It means creating supply chains and manufacturing processes that replace industry’s cradle-to-grave model with systems modeled on nature’s cradle-to-cradle cycles, in which one organisms waste becomes food for another. When designers and engineers apply these principles to product conception and materials flows management, they can begin to create goods that flow effectively within closed loop systems, providing after each useful life either nourishment for nature or high quality materials for new products. Ultimately, we think Cradle-to-Cradle Design can lay the foundation for an industrial system that restores nature, eliminates the concept of waste, and creates enduring wealth and social value—human industry as a regenerative force.

Put another way, we are offering a complement—and ultimately an alternative—to environmental regulation. Consider, for example, how cradle-to-cradle thinking, applied to the design of an industrial facility, can create a profitable outcome for both business and nature—one which would have never been imagined if approached from either a purely economic or a purely regulatory perspective.

In May 1999, Ford Motor Company decided to invest $2 billion over 20 years to restore its Rouge River manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Working with Ford’s executives, engineers, and designers, we began to explore innovative ways to rebuild the complex. Rather than using economic metrics to reconcile the apparent conflicts between environmental concerns and the bottom line, we set out to restore the Rouge to a life-supporting place.

The systems for storm water management were one of our key concerns. Typically, expensive technical controls are the response to storm water regulations. Following industrial protocol, Ford had estimated that new pipes and treatment plants would cost up to $48 million. If we had approached the flow of water on the Rouge from an economic or regulatory perspective we might have tried to cut costs by using pipes made with less material, or by finding ways to treat water with fewer harmful chemicals.

Instead, we designed the plant to create habitat, make oxygen, connect employees to their surroundings and invite the return of native species. The result, now under construction, is a daylit factory with 450,000 square feet of roof covered with healthy topsoil and growing plants—a living roof. Along with porous paving and a series of constructed swales, the living roof will slow and filter stormwater run-off, making expensive technical controls, and even regulations, unnecessary. All this with first cost savings of up to $35 million, with the landscape thrown in for free.

This is clearly an example of the carrot being far more compelling than the stick. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if EPA could create a new relationship with commerce that encouraged designs such as these to emerge and evolve throughout American industry? Imagine the EPA offering incredibly sweet carrots to industries hungry for new ideas. Imagine an agency supporting innovative, ecologically intelligent designs. Developing cradle-to-cradle benchmarks for materials, products and facilities and presenting them to industry as practical, productive strategies that effectively protect, and even restore, the environment.

This is not at all far fetched. The EPA is already developing pro-active projects and reaching out to industry through its Green Chemistry, Design for the Environment, and Product Stewardship programs. Admittedly, these are small efforts in the grand scheme of things, but they show that EPA has something it can grow.

“While keeping current regulations in place, we are going to have to develop some new tools,” said Derry Allen, Counselor to the EPA Office of Environmental Policy Innovation. “When you look ahead a generation, the future of the EPA has to include thinking about new strategies for material use and product design.”

When sufficient energy develops within the agency to pursue a new path, the benchmarks are out there to be studied and presented to industry. Ford’s Rouge River plant is only one of many examples of inherently healthful, productive designs that are extremely attractive from the perspective of both the guardian and the business executive. The EPA and other government agencies could encourage designs such as these, supporting industry with information and know-how as the U.S. becomes a world leader in intelligent design and resource recovery. The result: A healthy environment, a growing economy and a better quality of life for all Americans—and for the rest of the world.

This is a crucial step for American business. In recent years, as trade has rendered the boundaries between nations more fluid, American manufacturing has undergone a transformation. Corporations bent on achieving global reach have increasingly moved manufacturing operations overseas to nations that provide cheap labor and a less strict regulatory environment. This has proved to be a double-edged sword. While many businesses see their bottom line growing, they are increasingly reliant on factories and supply chains they do not own or manage. Consequently, few products are completely produced in the U.S and few American companies know what’s in their products—consumers and regulators don’t know either. The international recycling of computers is just one example of how toxic products are made offshore, used by U.S. consumers and then shipped back overseas, creating a toxic flow of liabilities.

We need to reinvent our global business strategy. We need to re-design our manufacturing model so we can offer the world a system built on product quality, on design protocols founded on a thorough understanding of the chemistry, the value, and the beneficial effects of industrial materials. If we begin now to develop our commercial industries around cradle-to-cradle protocols, the U.S. can become the world leader in high-quality product design, rather than competing on uneven and unhealthy terms within the old industrial system. This would not only protect the health and well being of American consumers, it would nourish the American economy and the American land. It would also yield exceedingly smart, effective benchmarks to export to developing nations, rather than exporting harm. And as we renew product quality, we will also be developing an intellectual infrastructure supporting the making of things that will give us long-term prosperity rather than short term gain.

What an interesting irony that the U.S. EPA, so long considered the bane of business sense and productivity, could position itself to support this bold environmentally sound vision of American economic strength.


The Guardian Reborn © 2002 William McDonough and Michael Braungart

The Environmental Future (Woodrow Wilson Center)