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Column: Goofy or Good Business?

June 1, 2005
"China will lead the world into solar power. Why? Because of economics."

Imagine. No more environmental regulations. No more pollution control costs. No more pollution! What are we talking about here? Back to nature? No more industry? Will I have to learn subsistence farming? Roots and berries for dinner again dear? Sounds goofy, doesn't it? Yet, there are people, highly intelligent people (students of manufacturing even) out there who say all of the above are possible, while reducing production costs say 20 percent, without turning us all into hard scrabble farmers. In fact, these same folks say we can increase our quality of life and keep our rising standards of living by adopting and adapting to a kind of re-thought industrial revolution, a green one.

By now, everyone knows that Ford opted for 10 acres of grass on the roof of a new assembly plant at River Rouge. Truly a green roof it is and one that the designer says saved Ford millions in storm-water equipment. Similar projects followed Ford's example as well as other "green" manufacturing ideas.

One of the leaders in this green movement in industry is the co-author of a book that has become a classic in contemporary production and process design. Its subtitle is "Remaking the way we make things," and that is exactly what authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart call for in their book, Cradle to Cradle ( Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002). Printed on recyclable plastic resin paper, their book has become the text for manufacturing engineers and plant designers.

Instead of the classic paradigm of the past century and a half—"cradle to grave" industry where we extract raw materials, recycle some, make things and then into the landfill or the water it goes—they suggest a more cyclic manufacturing world, one in which more and more recycling is done and more and more pollutants and environmental negatives are removed from production entirely.

Now anyone who has been in manufacturing for more than a day knows that we've been recycling all kinds of materials for way over a century, ranging from steel (half the steel in the world is made from or with scrap) to aluminum to glass to paper. What McDonough and others are suggesting, however, is not just more of the same but a more sophisticated approach to recycling that they call "upcycling," where pollutants and dangerous chemicals are removed from the production process entirely and excess material from production becomes either " nutrient rich" (like fertilizer) or "technically rich" and therefore useful in the making of new products.

They have just come out with a color-coded branding system that evaluates products and systems in terms of their effects on human health and the environment. It's called the "Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol."

Needless to say, in the new material assessment system, Green stands for "little or no risk." Yellow is "low to moderate risk." Orange is "lack of information." Red, of course, is "high risk." The goal is to move all of production in the world into the green category. Then, of course, there's no need for any EPA-like bodies and industry-will be free to do free enterprise like never before.

McDonough likes to point out there is no waste in nature and that the Industrial Revolution has produced millions of tons of toxic waste. Much of that waste can be avoided by rethinking the way we make things, say the authors whose company is called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, MBDC, in Charlottesville, Va.

"We're not looking at zero waste however," McDonough told MHM immediately after returning from a meeting with the President of the People's Republic of China late in May. "We're trying, on the contrary, to eliminate the concept of waste."

Besides Ford's green roof other top industrial companies, as well as cities and countries, have considered MBCD's ideas. China brought MBDC into its planning process for designing housing for some 400 million people in the next 12 years. The company is working with the Chinese to design seven new cities all designed with green principles in mind. In other words, no noxious chemicals and lightweight, super-insulating walls.

Can such thinking really translate into success in industry? MBDC points to a textile plant in Switzerland that uses a fabric they designed which is so safe that you can eat it. They examined some 8,000 common chemicals used in the textile industry and came up with 38 that are safe. The effluent water from the plant is drinkable and the workers no longer need to wear special clothing. Regulatory paperwork was reduced significantly and the overall cost of production fell by about 20 percent.

What about energy costs? That's on everyone's mind these days, in industry and in general. McDonough's prediction: "China will lead the world into solar power. Why? Because of economics. Yes, they have plenty of coal and they're buying lots of oil, but they are committed to making solar work and work more cheaply than fossil fuels and in 5 to 10 years they will be manufacturing, using and exporting solar panels to us and the rest of the world. Distributed energy systems, rather than big, easily terrorist-targeted power plants is the wave of the future," he says.

Mr. McDonough is an optimist. He believes these developments will mean good news and lots of jobs for Americans in terms of installation and maintenance.

Well, would such ideas work in your plant? Grass on the roof? Solar power for your machinery? No pollution? Goofy or good business? What do you think? Let me know.

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