An Environmental Problem Slipping Through the Quacks

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 27, 2005

Environmental architect William McDonough made a powerful case for a "new industrial revolution" when he planted a living roof in 2002 atop Ford's sprawling, grime-choked River Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, Mich. The feat of green design is said to have saved the beleaguered carmaker $35 million in environmental cleanup costs. Birds now lay eggs in the flourishing 10-acre blanket of sedum, which cleans runoff naturally.

On Wednesday, the visionary from Charlottesville made an even stronger argument for change with a little yellow rubber ducky.

In a speech to the Industrial Designers Society of America, which is meeting at the Marriott Wardman Park through Saturday, McDonough noted that in California, the $2.99 bath toy comes with a warning. Toxic chemicals in that sweet, squishy body have been known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

"What kind of society would make something like this to put in the mouths of children?" McDonough demanded. "Design is the first signal of human intention. What is your intention?"

No designer rose to defend the duck.

McDonough moved on to the usual suspects: belching smokestacks, chemical fumes in carpets, hazardous high-tech garbage. IQs are declining in industrial Ohio. A graveyard of plastics is growing in the Pacific Ocean. Acidification is turning coral, the bottom of the food chain, to jelly.

"Our current society has a strategy of tragedy," he said. "These are the things that are happening because we have no other plan."

McDonough has been practicing, writing and preaching ecologically sensitive, socially just design for more than 20 years. Style is one thing, but in terms of transforming the planet, no designer is more important to watch now.

He argues that a "diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power" is attainable by redesigning the way we make things, without waste and in harmony with nature. PepsiCo, Shaw Industries, Steelcase, BASF and Nike have signed on. But change comes in fits and starts.

On the other side of the wall, the year's neat new products and prototypes were arrayed in an exhibition hall. An Erik Buell motorcycle and Gerber's new plastic snack-and-sippy cup drew admiring glances. On the edge of the bazaar, companies that supply designers with polymers and other synthetic materials were marketing their wares.

"Benzene coming off gaskets," McDonough warned as he passed through. A clear danger of phthalates, the chemicals used to soften plastics, which have just been banned in toys in Europe. McDonough's 10-year-old son, Drew, was briefly mesmerized by a display of hot pink, green and orange plastic guitars.

How much time before we self-destruct?

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