Where there’s muck there’s brass: dumpster diving for a waste-free world

A new cross-sector partnership will attempt to link design with what’s in the dumpster, to eradicate waste and scale up the circular economy.

The master moves like water to the low places that others disdain.

William McDonough, the creator of the cradle to cradle approach to design, quotes the ancient Chinese philosophical treatise the Tao Te Ching to describe the creation of an innovative collaboration he has formed with Waste Management, North America’s largest environmental solutions provider and leading residential recycler.

Sifting through the dumpster

The partnership, which was announced today, links design with “what’s in the dumpster,” and McDonough hopes it will put pressure on producers, manufacturers, retailers and suppliers of packaged goods and products to eradicate waste altogether and scale up the circular economy.

For Waste Management, it offers the opportunity to transform over time to a resource management company that makes money from the breakdown and re-use of materials.

The reason that McDonough is excited is that the new collaboration not only brings a Fortune 200 company into the heart of the circular economy but also links the entire value chain together in driving change to create a world in which nothing is thrown away, but is broken down into component parts which benefit the surrounding environment.

“By bringing logistics partners and material science together, we can design up from the dumpster,” McDonough tells the Guardian at theSustainable Brands conference in San Diego. “If I am in the dumpster, I have all sorts of authority as I can say to companies why are you sending me materials that cannot be re-used.

“We will surprise people from there, it is authentic. What kind of business would produce something that ends up costing me money to dispose of.

“By analysing what’s in the dumpster, we will be able to see the worst offenders and then offer to help them to change. Reduce, reuse and recycle are not enough if the materials that are used are not safe. We see resources as nutrients in the biosphere or technosphere. Once you reframe materials this way, the future of abundance becomes possible.”

McDonough currently has in his crosshairs the rapid rise in the use of refillable pouches for products, which companies are hailing as sustainable because they reduce the weight of packaging, but are made from multi-layered polymers that cannot be recycled.

What excites McDonough is that the new Waste Management McDonough Sustainable Innovation Collaborative is an example of true innovation by getting a massive waste company to think upstream and become a materials expert.

“Waste management is immediate so the company has in the past not done material science,” he says. “They do logistics so this is a transformation in their business model. They have never had a conversation around materials, so there has been no signal going back upstream.”

Start from values, not metrics

While McDonough believes we could be on a cusp of a sustainability revolution, he remains worried that too many companies remain stuck in a world of metrics and reporting.

He takes a particular swipe at sustainability consultants who he says charged $9 billion last year “to help us record our metrics but fail to ask what are we doing and why are we doing it, but how do we do it and what is it.

“One of biggest things I have discovered in sustainability is that people are so focused on metrics and measurement. You can work up from that to tactics and strategy and goals but you cannot get to your values from there.

“If you start from values, you can think about principles and then goals and then metrics. People are tired of consultants and advisors when it is all about metrics – we need to be talking about creativity.”

Changing mindsets

Like other leaders in the field, McDonough recognises that the biggest block to transformational change is people’s minds rather than what is actually possible.

He says thinking outside of the box scares people because it is disruptive and managers and employees easily take offence, because it makes them think they have been doing their jobs wrong all along.

Our use of language is also important, says McDonough, and just by having the word waste in common use, it makes us think about waste. Better to stop using the word altogether.

Science and spirtuality

McDonough, who also runs an architecture and urban design firm, is an unusual figure in the field of sustainability because he sees the power of integrating science and spirituality.

His cradle to cradle approach has scientific rigour, including an enormous library of materials and their properties, while the buildings McDonough’s architectural practice are designing can locate every material and where it is placed inside a building, which increases its overall value as they can extracted and re-used when their lifespan is over.

But McDonough also works with spiritual principles. “If something is possible, therefore it can exist,” he says. “Our job is to make it exist and that is a fierce thing. Physicists say the most powerful force in the universe is the vacuum, the emptiness – that’s where the fierceness is and the fear is.”

Asked what is at the core of his drive for change and McDonough responds that “it is the mystery that holds me. I like to have fun and never think of the glass as half empty or half full but that it is always full of life and air and it is never big enough.

“Science matters because why would we not want to see the facts and observe but the mystery is the incredibly power. The value of a vessel is in its emptiness.

“Being from the arts you see the merger of science and beauty. When things are becoming more beautiful I know I am on the right track.”

As McDonough turns to go, he points to a quote in his new book The Upcycle, from Murray Gell-Mann, an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particle: “We have this remarkable experience in the field of fundamental physics that beauty is a very successful criterion for choosing the right theory. And why on earth could that be so?”