As a chemical engineer by training, Michael Braungart can trace the cause of an environmental conflict back to its most irreducible components. When a devastating earthquake hit Turkey in the early ’00s, he went on a fieldtrip to take samples of the steel rebars of collapsed buildings.
He discovered that there was too much copper in the steel; above 2%, copper produces “osteoporosis” in the rebars.
This unacceptable metal composition was the consequence of the recycling standards in use in the US. The difficulty of properly separating the metal components of cars, for example, led to their being sent to Turkey, where they were transformed into defective rebars. An originally well-intentioned law aiming to protect the environment generated a fatal side effect in the building industry elsewhere. Braungart’s proposal is to regulate the way metals are alloyed so that recycling is not merely downcycling.
We tend to think of sustainability as reducing harm to the planet: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced energy consumption, and the generation of less waste. From this point of view, the most sustainable building is the one that doesn’t get built at all. Braungart proposes that this approach be reversed and that sustainability be redefined as something that produces a benefit to the people and a gain for the planet, replacing a “less is more” with a “the more the better” attitude. “Why should we clean the air with our lungs?” he asks. We have the technology to capture dust (which kills more people than cars every year in Europe) with building components. If so, the more such buildings there are, the better. In the same way, we tend to complain about cities (streets and roofs) water proofing the planet.
The “conservative green” would try to develop porous permeable cements that try to make as if streets and sidewalks were not there. But we could look at roofs and streets as giant water collectors, which could enable us to manage water in an efficient (programmed) way, instead of letting it “get lost.” It is not about interrupting the natural cycle, but about producing, thanks to the right infrastructure, a planned benefit in the process. If so, the more roofs and streets there are, the better.
Braungart has understood that in order to bring about a significant change we have to replace the weak force of responsibility (guilt) with the powerful force of a potential gain (desire).