There are three paradigms in ecological thinking. The first is efficiency, where you are aiming to do better than before, such as improving gas mileage. The second is zero-sum games, for example zero-emission engines or carbon-neutral travel. The third, and most exciting, is a positive contribution to the system, where you are giving back (e.g. a car that cleans the air because its exhaust is cleaner than the air it takes in).
In this third paradigm, we are no longer talking about recycling goods, but about upcycling. As Cradle-to-Cradle founders Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough put it in their new book, The Upcycle, there is no more ‘trash.’ Everything has to go somewhere. We should think of our kitchen garbage can as a ‘nutrient rest stop.’ We tend to use things for a specific time and purpose, but we will need to think of the whole lifecycle of the object that we are using. The use of a thing is just one part of the cycle, not only the middle point between it being made and being discarded. When there is no ‘away,’ we must think of the thing in its next iteration. From the design perspective, the question should be: “What will happen next?”
The key is to make the next iteration better by adding positive effects. Braungart and McDonough call this ‘additionality.’ When the object comes in for treatment, it can be improved by using the latest techniques or materials. Just like computer software, version 2.0 will be better than version 1.0. Every time a thing passes through the system, it can be improved. Recycling becomes upcycling. This is a strange notion for us to get our heads around: the second-hand version is better than the new one, because it will have been upcycled. We will love second-hand products more than new ones, just as we prefer the latest version of a gadget.