From C to Shining C, April 2008
By Catie Quanrud
There's a 19th century proverb that "mighty oaks from little acorns grow." Consider for a minute the literal message. An oak tree grows from a little seed encased in a little nut. It drops its foliage every year, enriching the soil around it. Mother Nature expresses her gratitude by providing many nutrients to its roots, and it continues to grow in strength, height and girth. After twenty years of growth, the acorn-turned-tree produces its own seeds, dropping them to the ground and continuing the life cycle of the incredible oak. It's amazing in its simplicity, but where in real life do we find such a successful cycle replicated?
A well-known architect, William McDonough, wrote a book about applying the oak's life cycle to our own lives, terming it the Cradle-to-Cradle method. Imagine: you are standing in a flooring showroom on a sunny afternoon, selecting a new material for your bedroom floor. Daunted by the racks of carpet and endless samples of wood, tile and laminates, you look around. Take a breath and consider the life span of your new floor. Start at the very beginning - raw materials are harvested, manufactured into flooring material and shipped to the showroom in which you are now standing. You purchase "material X", take it home, install it in your bedroom, and then five, maybe ten or even twenty years later, you'll be standing in a showroom again, choosing its replacement. Where will "material X" end up - in a landfill, a recycling center or maybe ground up and used as mulch or gravel?
Most of us would most likely choose a nice plush carpet, have it installed only to rip it up years later, put it in the dumpster and forget about it. That's cradle-to-grave thinking. An alternative is to purchase Shaw's recycled nylon carpeting with PVC-free backing, which is manufactured in a healthy environment and is totally recyclable? When the time comes, years later, you could skip the dumpster, return the used materials to the manufacturer, who will grind it up and recycle it into new carpeting. That's a prime example of cradle-to-cradle behavior, which is more sophisticated than the traditional "Recycle-Reduce-Reuse" format, but is more interesting and yields better results. Like the oak tree, growth is important, but we also need to, periodically, drop some branches and leaves in order to support the environment around us. We should take time to support the squirrel's example in its wintering efforts by opening a spot in our trunks for the good earth to stash its treasures. In other words, an oak tree lives by a triple bottom line: (financial) growth, environmental protection and social justice. It works, too; most of them will outlive us by tens, even hundreds of years.
In kitchen design, there is an opportunity to act like an oak tree. When remodeling, eighty percent of the existing kitchen can be recycled. If sent to an industrial recycling center, your old cabinets would be shredded and sold to the sugar cane plants for fuel, and old tile and countertops would be crushed and recycled into new construction materials. New cabinets can be manufactured with wood from sustainable forests, in a factory with stringent environmental and social policies. Countertop, tile, sink and faucet companies that promote environmental safety, social justice, and have competitive pricing are becoming more available. If care is taken to design with quality materials that will withstand decades of use, a new kitchen could live have a long life and when the time comes, it too, can be sent off to a recycling center. Although today we can't recycle old cabinets into new ones, it's only a matter of time before we get there.
Just because a product utilizes recycled materials or has bright green packaging does not mean it's the appropriate 'green' product for your needs. When comparing green countertop options, is recycled glass or recently quarried granite the better choice? Your response to the following questions holds the answer: "How long will the material be used as a countertop? Where did the components come from and where will they go when you replace them? What effect did its creation have on our environment and society? Finally, what is its monetary cost, and does it fit your design and budget?" Oh, and for the record, the recycled glass tops are pretty amazing.
You don't have to wait for a remodeling project to start changing your behavior. Conservation is the way of the future - start practicing today. Renowned companies such as Nike and Honeywell are on board. Even the United States Postal Office has undergone a lengthy process to gain a silver Cradle-to-Cradle rating from McDonough Brangart Design Chemistry (MBDC) for their Priority and Express mailing envelopes.
Monthly "Get Green"
On your next big purchase - be it jewelry, handbags, golf clubs or kitchen cabinetry - stop and try thinking Cradle-to-Cradle instead of Cradle-to-Grave. Be proactive, answer the following questions before making your purchase:
- Where did it come from?
- What effect did its making have on our world?
- How long will you use it?
- Where will it go when you're finished with it?
Catie Quanrud is a kitchen, bathroom and library designer educated and active in the green building movement. As a member of the South Florida chapter of the United States Green Building Council, she is continually pursuing new and exciting health and enviro-friendly materials to employ in her projects. The Kitchen Strand is unique among its industry for its commitment to providing green alternatives. Send us a comment if you'd like more information on your green design options.