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River Rouge and Neobiological Industry
Alex Steffen, 12 Oct 04

Detroit's Rouge River is one of those famously polluted runs of water: it has run yellow, caught on fire, even been declared biologically dead. It's still not a river you'd want your kids drinking from, but it's starting to come back. Fish swim there. Birds nest on the shore. There's grass and trees and a bit of natural marsh.

As William McDonough and Michael Braungart tell it in their book Cradle To Cradle,the story of the revival of the Rouge River is a part of the story of the remaking of the River Rouge Ford factory.

Designed by the great architect Albert Kahn, River Rouge was an icon of the Industrial Revolution, one of the largest factories on the planet, which took in at one end vast quantities of coal, metals, sand and other raw materials, "heat, beat and treated" them in smelters, blast furnaces and assembly lines of machines which rolled, stamped, cut and shaped them into the component parts of cars. At the height of its glory, River Rouge covered square miles of land; more than 100,000 people worked there. By 1999, River Rouge had become another Rust Belt casualty. The plant itself was outmoded and poorly maintained. The land around it was filthy with toxic waste. Fewer than seven thousand people still walked through its gates each day.

The next year, at the behest of William Clay Ford, Jr., Ford's chairman (and Henry Ford's great-grandson), McDonough and Braungart set out to completely redesign Ford's River Rouge factory. "The goal," Ford declared "is nothing less than transforming River Rouge into the model of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing."

Well, as it turns out, it takes a little longer to completely redesign an industrial process than you might have thought. M + G were able to achieve some real savings (both fiscal and environmental) through green building retrofits, material flow reductions and the like, but they ran up against some stiff reluctance to abandon the wide array of toxics used to make the average new car. (And true cynics might wonder how much an improvement the more efficient production of more SUVs really is.)

The Detroit News has a good explanation of what happened next. M + G had more success in incorporating ecological values into the site itself -- from solar panels and cisterns to green roofs and energy-saving trellised plants (this "vertical landscaping" shades the building in the summer) -- and the creation of a visitor's center (you can take a rather anemic virtual tour of the final result here) built from largely recycled materials and water-permeable parking lots

It's a far cry from "the Next Industrial Revolution", but as an indicator of the state of the possible, it's quite encouraging, for nothing that Ford's done at River Rouge couldn't be done by every factory in the developed world.

But... but... that industrial transformation still hangs in the air, waiting to be realized. What might it look like? It might be a biomimetic industry.

The key insight of biomimetic industry is that, as McDonough puts it "waste equals food." That is, it is possible to design industrial systems so that the products manufactured are completely recyclable, but also, more importantly, that all the by-products of the manufacturing process are usable in the creation of still more products. In such a system, nothing would be spewed out as pollution, or thrown away as garbage.

As a recent Wired piece put it:

"McDonough argues that traditional recycling is tired and inadequate. We need, he writes, to move beyond merely sorting our trash. That might help us reuse some tin and plastic but just postpones their inevitable trip to the landfill. He dismisses the familiar plastic bottles-to-fleece shtick altogether: The bottles are made with antimony, a heavy metal. Why use hazardous materials at all? Why not design a productive afterlife into materials at the outset? So MBDC created a wool-and-cellulose upholstery textile that can, when composted, serve as garden mulch. It's an example of what McDonough terms a "biological nutrient," able to biodegrade completely. Of course, not everything can be made out of plant matter. But even synthetics, says McDonough, can be fabricated to be continually reprocessed in industry. McDonough terms these "technical nutrients." Worn-out plastic consumer goods can't be composted, but they can remain useful, even valuable, to manufacturing.

"Nylon, for example, typically cannot be broken down without leaving residual waste. But a new process pioneered by the German chemical company BASF - not incidentally an MBDC client - can now yield a perfectly reconfigurable nylon fiber. The new fiber is easily depolymerized into simple molecules and then easily repolymerized to start all over. After it's woven into products like carpets, it can be returned to the manufacturer to be remade. Caught in a virtuous circle, such goods need never be discarded. Instead of being inefficiently "down-cycled" into something like a plastic park bench, your carpet can be reincarnated every time you redecorate. Herein lies the Big McDonough Idea: "The materials go back to soils safely, or they go back to industry. That's it. That's the new paradigm."

Or as M + G themselves say,

"Natural systems take from their environment, but they also give something back. The cherry tree drops its blossoms and leaves while it cycles water and makes oxygen; the ant community redistributes nutrients throughout the soil. ... We can build factories whose products and by-products nourish the ecosystem with biodegradable material and recirculate technical materials instead of dumping, burning or burying them."

McDonough and Braungart see the creation of such industry occurring in five stages. First, we would get rid of "known culprits." That means simply finding better alternatives for substances and processes which are known to be dangerous or toxic, and beginning to design industrial processes to eliminate the tens of thousands of chemicals of whose safety we're unsure.

Second, we would begin regularly researching and choosing the best available options whenever faced with a choice of technologies. This would allow us to move many of the best off-the-shelf technologies into wide use, quickly, while often saving industries money.

Third, we would identify a "positive" chemistry set and toolbox. Instead of just avoiding chemicals and industrial processes which are dangerous or destructive, we'd work to establish a growing list of substances and methods whose safety and sustainability was well-established.

Fourth, we would actively employ those more sustainable alternatives, and make sustainability a purchasing criteria for all industrial inputs, a process which would itself help contribute to the design of more safe alternatives by providing a commercial incentive to suppliers to identify how their own products might be made sustainable.

Finally, we'd reinvent the products themselves, aiming to not just change what goes into them, but how they operate throughout their lifecycles as products -- in their words we'd go beyond just reinventing the recipe, and rethink the whole menu.

This kind of thinking is already starting to spread. The classic example is the Kalundborg industrial park in Denmark. At Kalundborg's center is a coal-burning power plant, which not only generates electricity but supplies waste steam to run a nearby pharmaceutical factory and oil refinery. Waste heat from those are in turn used to heat 3,500 homes in the area. The refinery's waste water in turn cycles back to the coal plant, to provide more steam. Fly ash from the coal plant is turned into concrete at another factory, and so on. By now, the whole industrial park is piped together in a multitude of ways into an "industrial ecology." The whole system, explains Timothy Considine, is designed to help each company "make a profit by closing a loop between outputs of one process and inputs of another." Obviously, coal power plants and oil refineries are not sustainable businesses, but because it has been designed along industrial ecological lines Kalundborg as whole is much less unsustainable than it might otherwise be. Building systems that work like nature a powerful concept, one Braungart sums up by saying, "Instead of designing cradle-to-grave products, dumped in landfills at the end of their 'life,' the new approach transforms industry by creating products for cradle-to-cradle cycles, whose materials are perpetually circulated in closed loops. Maintaining materials in closed loops maximizes material value without damaging ecosystems."

But that power dims in comparison to the force of not just working like nature, but working as nature. As our understanding of nature's systems increases, we're seeing more and more of the work of our industrial civilization as clumsy, even clownish, apings of work that in nature is done with precision, ecological health and even beauty. We're beginning to realize that our industry is as nothing next to the power of living things to digest, filter, grow, sense and even compute, and that the true masters of manufacturing on this planet are microbes.

Today, to make the objects we use in daily life, we employ tens of thousands of chemicals, many known to cause cancer and mutations, and vast rivers of raw materials and energy, the getting of which has torn up millions of square miles of the planet's ecosystems, and the waste from which has polluted our air, water and soil, and is changing our climate. This way of working is drawing to an end.

Tomorrow's industry will not only seek to produce forms which aim to work as well as those in nature (like lotus-leaf paint) through processes which work off sunlight and treat waste as food. Tomorrow's industry will eat, digest and secrete the things we need not only like living beings, but through the actual cells of living beings. It will be not just biomimetic industry, but neo-biological, and it may just save the planet.

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