Interview: Jay Bolus of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry

GreenBuild 2010

One of the highlights of last week's GreenBuild, was a meeting I had with Jay Bolus, the vice president of technical operations and director of science for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). He has done Cradle to Cradle consulting work for companies like Method, Replenish, Herman Miller, and is a great resource on evaluating healthy materials and products for the home.

Here on Re-Nest we try to not only guide our readers on healthy products, green building techniques and ways to live eco-friendly lifestyle, but we also emphasize the importance of understanding chemicals and the lifecycle of products and materials. Founded by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), Cradle to Cradle is a third-party certification that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles. Jay Bolus manages the technical side of the business: the chemistry, the certification program, the material evaluation and the protocols.

In my meeting with Jay I grilled him about his background, how he became involved with MBDC/Cradle to Cradle, and I asked him for his best tips on living healthy at home:

What is your background on environmental design and how did you end up working at MBDC?
JB: I have a biochemistry undergrad degree and was a professional tennis player and traveled around the world. It was interesting to see how different cultures interacted with their environment and their living space. It was really eye-opening for me to go to some different places in Africa and Asia and see the different kind of respect they have for their environment.

I've been working at MBDC for about 14 years. I first met Bill [McDonough] at grad school at the University of Virginia and Bill was the dean of the architecture school. At the time I was studying environmental engineering and at that time it was all about cleaning up contaminated stuff: surface and ground water, air and soil. I took an elective class that Bill was teaching called 'Environmental Choices' and he started out the class with his typical stump speech and threw out the concept, 'why don't we put design filters in our head instead of putting filters at the end of pipes, and just design out these toxic things up front instead of having to clean them up at the end of their life?' I was like, 'duh' that makes perfect sense, and that was sort of my seminal moment and when I graduated he was just starting MBDC.

On a day-to-day basis, what is that you do for MBDC?
JB: A lot of it focuses on certification: working with clients to get their products certified, assessing materials and doing site visits to see the manufacturing process. I'm also working on the new version of the certification process — it's a living thing and we try to update it every two years. We're in the middle of the next update so I'm doing some research related to that. I also travel a lot and do presentations whenever I can to promote the brand.

Is there a part of the certification process that you find the most difficult?
JB: The most difficult part is getting the information from the supply chain for a product. It's become more difficult because companies are less and less vertically integrated. Everybody now is primarily just assembling stuff and they're buying components from someone else, who is buying materials from someone else, who is buying chemicals from someone else. The supply just explodes, but for us to assess anything we need to understand what's in it, so that means asking each of the suppliers what is in their stuff. Often they'll tell us to go away because it's proprietary, so the biggest challenge is getting that transparency of information for a product. If we don't know what's in it, we'll have to recommend to our client choose a different material or use a different supplier.

How involved do you get with the way a product is made, or changed for Cradle to Cradle certification?
JB: For example for Replenish, we did everything from the ground up. They came to us with a concept and their delivery system, but asked us what to make it out of. We had an opportunity to create this from the ground up, so we went to formulators that we'd worked in the past with on cleaning products and gave them our constraints from a toxicity and biodegradability perspective. We looked at the dyes that we knew were safe, because we know that this stuff is meant to go down the drain and into the biosphere — we know everything we use has to be really really safe. To me that's the really exciting part of the job, when we can create things from scratch rather than taking one that already exists and trying to retrofit it.

What kind of advice can you get our readers to on buying eco-friendly items, and how can they navigate all the abundance of eco-labels?
JB: It's really hard to compare products on a level playing field because each manufacturer is making different claims on why their product is green. That's the problem with sustainability in general is there's a thousand different definitions of it. When we talk about Cradle to Cradle, it's not 'sustainability' it's Cradle to Cradle — we have a definite focus on toxicity, recyclability and compostability of materials and to us those are the most important things when evaluating a product. You need to prioritize the things that are important to you, but if Cradle to Cradle makes sense to you, then it's really about the things that have the lowest toxicity and the things that are either recyclable or compostable safely at end of life. In the residential space, Cradle to Cradle has things certified such as cleaning products, towels, flooring, window treatments, diapers and we're working on a textile product for bedding.

The best thing consumers can do is educate themselves on product types. For example, if you're buying a new mattress, flame retardants are the big issue — stay away from ones that have the brominated flame retardants, PBDEs, decabromodiphenyl, octabromodiphenyl and pentabromodiphenyl ethers. You also want to get away from PVC — that's everywhere in the home unfortunately — anything from your shower curtains to your plastic wrap.

Don't be afraid to ask where you buy your stuff or ask the manufacturers what's in their products. People underestimate the power they have as consumers — it's your money, so don't be afraid to ask!

We have a 'Decoding Household Chemicals' feature on Re-Nest — are there any other common chemicals that we should be aware of?
JB: Teflon. There was Johns Hopkins study that looked at newborn babies — 99-percent of them had Teflon, or broken down Teflon chemicals in their bloodstream. So it's clear that this stuff is getting into places it's not intended to be. All you have to do is look at your nonstick cookware that's a couple of years old and it's not nonstick anymore — where did it go? It's in your eggs, in your body, in the water — in places where it shouldn't be.

I think we've gotten a little bit lazy as a society and we want an easy solution — it's that extra step that people are looking to avoid. We, as a society, tend to be narrow minded when we problem solve. Instead of looking at the unintended consequences in the big picture we tend to just look at what it is we're trying to solve at that moment. For example lead in paint and refrigerants, are good examples of not looking at the big picture and unintended consequences. From our perspective that's why a holistic approach is such a good idea — have your priorities in the right order and don't look at toxicity last.

Do you see any common misleading, or particular greenwashing of products that people should watch out for?
JB: The most egregious is recycled content. People think it's green just because it has recycled content, but they never ask the underlying question of what is it that's being recycled. There's a lot of PVC products that have recycled content, but it's recycled PVC. It's recycled crap — do you really want that in your house? Sometimes recycled content is a bad thing, it's not always a good thing.

A large problem with sustainability is our consumer-based society's consumption of stuff. How is MBDC addressing this?
JB: That's a really great question. The problem is we're in a society that likes stuff, so the question is, do you try to change the mindset of society to want less stuff, or do you change the way stuff is made so that it's not as problematic. It's going to be easier, and it's our approach, to change the way stuff is made. We'll say okay, you want your iPod and flatscreen TV, that's okay because we know that it's going to be taken back at end of life, get disassembled and not end up in a landfill or third-world country. We know the stuff is manufactured in a responsible and intelligent way. Instead of creating waste we're creating jobs because everything is existing in closed cycles of capture and reuse. Now consumption becomes a good thing — if we redefine the way we make stuff, then having stuff is okay.

Does MBDC have a specific area it's currently tackling, or a larger long-term goal?
JB: We are trying to get into consumer products. We had our initial focus on building materials and the built environment because Bill's an architect and that's where our stuff resonated. But, we really want to get into all the things we see, touch, smell and interact with on a daily basis, in particular toys. They're the low hanging fruit, so we're jumping to get it. Our most sensitive population is interacting with these things in a really intimate way — everything ends up in their mouth. Think about all the [bad] things that are going into toys; it's because they're cheap and easy to make.

Thanks, Jay!

More: MBDC l Cradle to Cradle

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Related: Deep Dive with William McDonough: Less Bad, More Good!

(Image via MBDC)