Waste = Food (2006)

VPRO Backlight

Watch Part Number:
3 ratings
Views: 9,810
Date Added: 13 years ago.

Documentary Description

An inspiring documentary on the Cradle to Cradle design concept of the chemist Michael Braungart and the architect William McDonough.

Winner of the Silver Dragon at the Beijing International Science Film Festival 2006.


Man is the only creature that produces landfills. Natural resources are being depleted on a rapid scale while production and consumption are rising in na­tions like China and India. The waste production world wide is enormous and if we do not do anything we will soon have turned all our resources into one big messy landfill. But there is hope. The German chemist, Michael Braungart, and the American designer-architect William McDonough are fundamentally changing the way we produce and build. If waste would become food for the biosphere or the technosphere (all the technical products we make), produc­tion and consumption could become beneficial for the planet.

A design and production concept that they call Cradle to Cradle. A concept that is seen as the next industrial revolution.

• Design every product in such a way that at the end of its lifecycle the component materials become a new resource.

• Design buildings in such a way that they produce energy and become a friend to the environment.

Large companies like Ford and Nike are working with McDonough and Braun­gart to change their production facilities and their products. They realize that economically seen waste is destruction of capital. You make something with no value. Based on their ideas the Chinese government is working towards a circular economy where Waste = Food. An amazing story that will definitely change your way of thinking about production and consumption.

Director: Rob van Hattum

Research Gijs Meijer Swantee

Production Karin Spiegel en Madeleine Somer

Editors in Chief Doke Romeijn en Frank Wiering

© VPRO 2006

Synopsis and Storyline for Waste = Food

English version

VPRO presents: WASTE = FOOD

a 50 minute documentary


Everybody knows the story of the limited earth. Natural resources are being depleted on a rapid scale while production and consumption are rising rapidly in nations like China and India. The waste production is enormous and if we do not do anything we will soon have turned all our resources into one big messy landfill.

An American designer and a German chemist think they have found a way out.

Their aim is to re-design every product according to the principle nature uses to grow: Waste = Food. Use waste products as valuable nutrients for the biosphere or the techno-sphere. Re-cycling is old fashioned, up-cycling is the new paradigm.

High production, high consumption, economic growth and a clean environment go hand in hand according to this new paradigm. An idea that is not only embraced by some of the world largest companies but also by the fastest developing economy: China.

Are we on the verge of the next industrial revolution?


Waste = Pollution

We invest a huge amount of energy, production capacity, intelligence and whatever else is needed to create the objects surrounding us. Objects with a limited lifespan.

We finally bury them, dump them, burn them. We leave them somewhere, useless, obsolete. Slowly we turn the world in one big landfill. Economically seen a complete waste and environmentally a threat to the future of our globe.

Waste = Food

Imagine a blossoming cherry tree. Have you ever heard of a cherry tree poisoning its environment with its enormous amount of blossom?

Nature loves abundant growth. In fact nature obeys very strictly the western economic principle: Grow or die! It can do so because all its materials are being recycled in the biosphere over and over again. The waste nature produces is the food it uses to grow.


The Rohner textile mill in Switzerland almost had to shut down. They were unable to meet the heavy environmental waste regulations. So they called in an American Designer and a German chemist. They designed a textile that only contained non-toxic materials. A biodegradable textile that could be put underground where it would become soil again. They designed a production method where the waste water coming out of the factory was cleaner then the water entering the factory.

Rohner ended up with an economically successful product. The environmental regulating body had nothing to regulate anymore because the textile and its waste became non-toxic, clean and completely biodegradable.

New York 1991

The story of Rohner begins in 1991; designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart met on a roof garden somewhere in New York. They got into a conversation about the toxicity of waste and the designing of products. Michael told William about his idea to manufacture a biodegradable soft drink bottle with a seed inside. The bottle would decompose naturally and act as food for the seed. McDonough and Braungart realised that the Waste = Food principle could be applied to all man-made products. Three years later they started their company: McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). They could not foresee that they would start a new Industrial Revolution.

Washington 1999

Time magazine recognized William McDonough as a 'Hero for the Planet'.

His ideas and efforts were also honoured when, in 1996, he became the only individual to receive the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the nation's highest environmental honour, presented by President Clinton in a White House ceremony.

What made their design Philosophy so successful? They love consumption and production.


Production, consumption and growth go hand in hand in nature’s circular organic system. So why not use this proven concept and extend it to the products mankind is making? McDonough and Braungart formulated a simple design principle based on the natural principle of Waste = Food.

Design any material and product in such a way that it is non-toxic for man and nature. Design any product is such a way that at the end of its lifecycle it can become either food for the bio-sphere (the natural environment) or food for the techno-sphere (the man made technical environment). Any industry should see their products as resource matter for future products. Instead of a cradle to grave lifecycle production one should start to produce cradle-to-cradle products.

A simple idea but is it economically feasible?

Nice walking

A running shoe is monstrous hybrid. Made of leather tanned with chromium in developing countries where the waste pollutes the water and soil. The rubber soles contain lead and plastics and each time you run fine dust particles are thrown into the atmosphere and the soil. After use the materials are lost in a landfill, useless and obsolete.

John Hooke NIKE’s head of Shoe Design is taking a new look at shoes: Create a toxin free shoe that can be recycled completely, re-using its valuable material. Maybe in the future you do not sell those shoes but sell a service, the service of ‘Perfect Walking and Running’. The producer is very keen on taking them back when you are finished with them because it is their new ‘production-food’. NIKE is trying to do so and it looks very promising.

Sitting on growth

Herman Miller is one of the world’s largest Office Furniture manufacturers. They successfully embraced the design principle of MBDC. Their office chairs are the best in the world. The plastic was designed with the help of Braungart. It can be re-melted about 200 times without loosing any of its original properties. Thus the plastic can be used thousands of years….

But not only the plastic was redesigned. Special ‘Design for Environment teams’ look for non-toxic materials and design chairs that can be disassembled completely. They designed ways to re-use old material and give it a new life.

In fact their complete factory was redesigned by McDonough to make it into an environment and human friendly building.

If you want growth you can get it at Herman Miller…. look at their website and they forecast a huge growth with a net Earnings Increase of 66% in the First Quarter of 2006.

A soy car on corn tires

Ford has presented a new type of car. Model U, a concept car fully based on the cradle-to-cradle principle. A hydrogen car with body parts made of soy resin, seats from soy foam and tires made from corn. A car that can be dismantled completely, in order to re-use its materials in new cars. But Ford does not only want their cars to be clean. Inspired by McDonough and Braungart, Tim O’Brien Vice President Corporate Relations is leading Ford into a new era. Within 20 years the entire giant Ford River Rouge production plant has to be transformed in a total clean production facility.. Ford is serious about it and puts 2 billion dollars apart to make it happen. McDonough is doing the design, trying to work out a new design principle that is unprecedented. They are trying to establish a clean, abundant and profitable world. Trying to say that energy wasting buildings, pollution and useless waste is an old fashioned industrial concept.

Natural Buildings

The idea to re-design the Ford Rouge plant is based on the fact that buildings are products as well. Most buildings are built in a very destructive way. In almost any case nature is discarded, we flatten the soil, get rid of all the living material, dig a hole and build brick or concrete walls. On top we put a dark roof that does not allow sunlight in but takes up so much heat that the building needs air conditioning. We use energy to get rid of the excess energy. MBDC is designing buildings that produce clean effluents and more energy than they consume. There are examples in Europe and the USA. And there is a country where they are dying for a new type of buildings.... because they need them in a staggering amount.

China’s problem

The coming 20 years the Chinese are going to build 400 million houses. Moving people to these houses will be the largest migration of man in history. But there is a problem. The China Housing Industry Association did a mass study on this planning and concludes that if they were going to build these houses with brick, they would lose all their soil and use all their coal to make it. Using brick has in fact been made illegal in 174 jurisdictions. McDonough grew up in Hong Kong, so he is familiar with the Chinese. Together with Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Nan, he is co-chair of the China-U.S. Centre for Sustainable Development. He and Braungart were asked to look at this problem. Together with the chemical company BASF they developed a new type of building material, efficient and environmentally clean. The village of Huangbaiyu is now becoming a model cradle-to-cradle village….an example for the many new cities under construction.

Circular Economy

The 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held in November 2002, presented an ambitious blueprint for China’s development in the next twenty years. One ambition is to quadruple China’s GDP. To reach this ambition they have to grow, very rapidly. They know the environmental consequences of the old industrialisation process so they decided to change over to a circular cradle-to-cradle nation. The president of the people’s republic of China Hu Jintao states in a recent speech: “We must follow a new course of industrialization, endeavour to overhaul the economic structure, quickly transform the ways of economic growth by improving its quality and efficiency, vigorously develop the circular economy and build a resource-effective and environment-friendly society, thus blazing a trail of development characterized by higher productivity, comfortable life for the people and a sustainable eco-system.”

President Hu Jintao is familiar with McDonoughs and Braungarts work and he seems to take it very seriously and make China an example of the new industrial revolution. A nation where growth is natural and waste becomes food.

© VPRO Tegenlicht/Rob van Hattum


There are no comments. Be the first to post one.
  Post comment as a guest user.
Click to login or register:
Your name:
Your email:
(will not appear)
Your comment:
(max. 1000 characters)
Are you human? (Sorry)
All external videos in CosmoLearning are merely links to outside video hosts that make available embed codes to be used by external websites or blogs. CosmoLearning will never be responsible for any kind of hosting of external productions. To contact the original host company or uploader, please click on the video displayed to be forwarded to the original video.