Adaptive Reuse for Products

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle is the current paradigm for what sustainable product design should look like. Emphasizing materials with low embodied energy that are easy to disassemble and recycle, Cradle to Cradle products are designed to be made and used in a way that replicates natural processes of regeneration.

Which is great for the next generation of consumer products. As of yet, though, only a handful of products meet Cradle to Cradle standards. 99,999 out of 10,000 products – even recycled or other environmentally-friendly ones – continue to follow the traditional cradle-to-grave lifecycle. These products are all causing net harm to the Earth in some form or another, whether through their manufacturing process, their packaging, or their disposal. Cradle to grave products continue to be produced in greater quantities than ever, and shifting trends and improvements in technology will make most of them obsolete after only a few years.

What are we supposed to with all of this year’s 9-megapixel cameras when they seem old and clunky in 2012? What’ll happen to all the Hummers when they finally become too offensive to own? Throwing items like these “away” on a mass scale, even if they get twenty years of good use, would be an ecological crime.
A more sane alternative is to find new uses for our old products. The EU has already figured this out, and has instituted standards making elecronics manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their products. The producer takeback model is gaining ground here (got an old Apple or Dell?), but the challenge of finding new life for old stuff still rests largely on us, the consumers. ReadyMade magazine has been showing its readers how to reimagine household items for a few years, while the British site How Can I Recycle This? (via Treehugger) is a new open-source database of ways to reuse everyday products. Bubble-wrap travel pillows, anyone?

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