|For nearly a decade
we have been working closely with forward-thinking companies
to lay the foundation for an era of ecologically intelligent
design. As active partners with our clients in the design process,
we have been privileged to observe companies begin to transform
the way they do business, phasing out wasteful or unhealthy
products or manufacturing systems in favor of materials and
industrial processes with positive, even nutritious effects
on the world.
As the desire to develop sustaining enterprises grows, we thought
it would be instructive to examine the breakthroughs and innovations
that are revolutionizing product design; they offer lessons, insights
and practices that can inform a wider movement toward a life-centered
commerce that creates economic, social and ecological value. So
in this new series for green@work, well be offering case studies
that suggest some of the ways in which successful companies such
as Ford Motor Co. and Nike have embraced and benefited from ecologically
intelligent designwhat we call eco-effectiveness.
Our first case study looks at the carpet industry, the chemical
company, BASF, and the development of Savant, a fiber reconceived
for the 21st century from a material long in the marketplace.
Eco-effectiveness: Theory and Practice
First, wed like to tell you a little about our design paradigm,
eco-effectiveness. Its built on the idea that nothing exceeds
the effectiveness of the Earths natural cycles: In nature,
the abundant flow of energy and nutrients is useful, intelligent
and safe. A tree, for example, makes food from the sun, sequesters
carbon, creates oxygen, filters water, blossoms each spring and
bears fruit. Every last life-giving particle and process of the
trees existence contributes in some way to the health of its
surroundings. Even in death the tree contributes to the fecundity
of nature as it decomposes and provides food for the soil. We could
say its life cycle is cradle-to-cradleit provides nourishment
for something new after each useful life.
Likewise, designers can tap into the abundance and intelligence
of these natural systems. Employing the effectiveness of nutrient
cycling, we can, like the tree, create products that provide nourishment
and services for both people and nature. In the eco-effective design
paradigm, we actively define a products ingredients as nutrients
for the Earths two discrete metabolisms: the cycles of nature
and the cycles of industry. In a cradle-to-cradle world, a products
biological nutrients and technical nutrients would flow in one or
the other of these discrete, closed-loop cycles, providing after
each useful life either nourishment to nature or materials for new
would like to see a true transformation of commerce in which
design goes beyond using nature efficiently and, instead,
creates products that nourish the respective spheres of nature
McDonough and Michael Braungart
In the textile industry, for example, weve helped companies
conceive fabrics that become either mulch for the soila biological
nutrientor rematerialized ingredients for industrya
technical nutrient. Ultimately, products such as these eliminate
the concept of waste, yet another thing weve learned from
natures effective systems.
Lets take a closer look at a product conceived as a biological
nutrient. With Design Tex and the Swiss textile mill, Rohner, we
developed an upholstery fabric that flows in the biological metabolisma
product so safe you could literally eat it. During the design process
we looked at every chemical ingredient that would be used in the
manufacturing of the fabricthe fiber, the dyes, the finishesto
be sure that it was safe and nutritious for nature. The result was
a material of blended wool and ramie that could be removed from
the frame of a chair when the fabric wore out and tossed onto the
ground to naturally biodegrade, in effect providing food for the
soil. In addition to creating a nutritious fabric, the manufacturing
process actually filtered the water used in the Rohner plant.
While biological nutrients are ideal for products that are fairly
quickly consumed, technical nutrients are those materials that are
made of highly stable ingredients that can be used again and again.
Technical nutrients are valuable materials used in what we call
products of service, which are designed by manufacturers to be retrieved
The carpet industry, for example, has adopted our product of service
idea and is focusing its business on the concept that carpet can
be designed for reclamation.
Its important to note, however, that many carpets on the market
contain questionable, potentially toxic materials such as PVC, which
cannot safely flow in technical cycles. Instead, these materials
are shredded and blended into downcycled materials of lower qualitya
nylon reinforced PVC mush, for example. This is not really a strategy
of change as much as an adjustment within a purely economic model.
An eco-effective strategy, on the other hand, would imply a redesign
of the industry so that safe carpet materials would maintain their
value through many lives in the technical metabolism as they are
retrieved and reused without any significant loss of material or
Nylon 6 Transforms the Carpet Industry
Nylon 6 is an ideal material for use as a technical nutrient and
the key to the transformation of the carpet industry. It is first
of all highly stable, and carpet yarn made from nylon 6 is easily
depolymerized into its precursor, caprolactam. The heat used in
the process can be largely recovered, and caprolactam, in turn,
can be re-polymerized and made again into nylon 6. The entire process
recovers more than 99 percent of the materials used to make nylon
6 carpet yarn. In contrast, nylon 6,6, a popular carpet material,
is made of two constituent elementstrying to separate and
re-use them, says BASFs Ian Wolstenholme, is like trying
to unbake a cake.
Nylon 6 was first developed in the 1930s, yet only in the past decade
has a company (BASF) seen its value as a material that can be retrieved
and reused in closed loop cycles. In 1996, BASF initiated its 6ix
Again nylon recycling program, and the company is currently
following our eco-effective strategy as it works to design a carpet
yarn and develop systems for its reclamation that would make nylon
6 a pure technical nutrient.
BASFs path to eco-effectiveness began somewhat indirectly.
In 1996, the company initiated a series of town hall-style meetings
across the United States with the architecture and design community.
BASF, said Wolstenholme, wanted to hear from industry professionals
what they were looking for in a commercial carpet. At these gatherings,
architects and designers typically came up with a wish list of about
20 attributes for the ideal carpet, such as wool-like luster or
increased anti-static properties. When asked to choose their top
three attributes, 80 percent of the design professionals chose stain
removal, followed closely by soil resistance and a wide, flexible
spectrum of color.
In response, BASF developed a carpet material called Savant, made
from nylon 6 fiber. Carpet yarn is typically pre-dyed, but through
a combination of polymer and fiber engineering, Savant can be dyed
in custom colors at the last possible moment to reflect fashion
and customer taste, yet it has properties that make it inherently
stain resistant and colorfast. The fiber is so stain resistant that
BASF will replace any stained carpet woven of Savant within 10 years
Those properties make Savant a competitive, high-quality product.
But what is even more interesting to us is its potential as a technical
nutrient. Because it is made of nylon 6, Savant can be depolymerized
and used again and again, which is just what BASF has begun to do.
During a second round of town meetings, BASF began to hear that
many designers wanted to use materials that enhanced sustainable
design. Revisiting Savant, the company began to use recycled content
from its carpet take back program, 6ix Again. Now, using
the chemical recycling process, BASF can retrieve old nylon 6 and
enhance its properties, transforming it into Savant. Rather than
being downcycled into a material with less value, the used nylon
is what we call upcycled into a product of higher quality, closing
the technical cycle with a flourish. The nylon is rematerialized,
not dematerializedthe essence of cradle-to-cradle design.
The implications of this for the carpet industry, indeed for many
industries, are profound. Proponents of dematerialization aim to
reduce the amount of a resource used to create a product. They want
to make thinner paper, lighter packaging, a better aluminum can.
In this world, less is more. We are proposing something different.
We would like to see a true transformation of commerce in which
design goes beyond using nature efficiently and, instead, creates
products that nourish the respective spheres of nature and industry.
Cradle-to-cradle design is the practice of this hope; it allows
todays companies to begin to bring forth products and systems
that enrich the natural world and deliver more people more of what
they want, need and love.
The Steps Ahead
For all its promise, Savant is not yet a pure technical nutrient.
BASF selects environmentally safe ingredients for Savant, but one
of the preconditions for a materials safe flow through the
technical metabolism is that all its elements are conceived as retrievable
nutrients. Working with MBDC, our design chemistry firm, BASF will
now begin to actively select and develop pigments and additives
that, like nylon 6, can be used again and again. The technology
to recover additives and pigments already exists.
The systematic approach of the eco-effective design protocol extends
to the development of the systems and logistics for the reclamation
of technical materials. BASFs nylon 6 recycling program is
a good start. Ultimately, following an eco-effective agenda, the
company could perhaps become a nylon bank, leasing nylon as a product
of service for defined use periods within a system that guarantees
the reclamation and reuse of the material in a closed-loop technical
Such a system will not only create a stable market for nylon 6,
but an expanding market, as recycling cuts costs and designers begin
to explore the materials many uses. Along with its high chemical
stability, the low toxicity of its building blocks and the ease
with which it can be upcycled, nylon 6 is an exceedingly versatile
material. As a plastic it is strong and durable; as a fiber it is
flexible and resilient. It performs equally well as the housing
for electronic equipment, automobile windshields or outdoor gear.
One pitfall to avoid in the technosphere is designing a product
with a very short lifewhat we call a product of consumptionas
a technical nutrient. Nylon stockings, for example, are made for
short-term use, and there is no effective system in place for recovering
them. If they were made of nylon 6, it would be a waste of valuable
material. A more intelligent design for stockings might employ a
fine fiber created from a biological nutrient, which, like our DesignTex
fabric, could be a compostable material that is nonetheless elegant
and comfortable against the skin.
That being said, the possible applications of nylon 6 are many.
In fact, wed like to invite the design community to come up
with a host of new, innovative products made of nylon 6 and designed
as technical nutrients. BASFs Bob Armstrong, a former research
and development manager currently a representative for quality and
environmental issues, will help you find knowledgeable sources on
performance data for nylon 6 as well as information on the availability
of the material. He can be reached at 704-423-2376. The MBDC team,
at 434-295-1111, and on-line at www.mbdc.com, is available to provide
technical consulting on the systems and logistics of designing material
recovery systems. We hope this invitation sparks the emergence of
a whole spectrum of products that help create an enduring market
for high-quality technical nutrients.
As it has been said, if it exists, it is possible. We have reached
a point in the development of the design arts and sciences in which
all the tools for ecologically intelligent design have been assembled.
The materials exist; the technology exists; the knowledge and creativity
exist. The story of nylon 6 is just one of many that illustrate
how the merging of all of those elements can yield effective, beneficial,
high-quality products. A world of intelligent design and sustaining
prosperity is not only possible, it has begun to take shape in products
already in the marketplace. Someday soon you just might find one
of them right underfoot.
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders and
principals of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy
leading a wide variety of companies into what the two call the Next
Industrial Revolution by implementing eco-effective design
and commerce strategies that will result in a future of sustaining
and long-term prosperity. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.