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Economy · Technology

Cradle to Cradle - a concept for an ideal circular economy

March 07th, 2018
in:Economy, Technology
by:Frank Odenthal
located in:Germany
tags:cradle to cradle, detox campaign, EPEA, Greenpeace, organic, R&D, recycling, sustainabilty

Cradle to Cradle® is a design concept inspired by nature, in which products are created according to the principles of an ideal circular economy. Prof. Michael Braungart, explains to fairplanet how it works.

Prof. Michael Braungart is a chemist, professor for eco-design and the inventor of the famous Cradle to Cradle concept.

fairplanet: Mr. Braungart, in 1987 you founded the EPEA (Environment Protection Encouragement Agency). Should we call you a consultant?

Prof. Michael Braungart: No! We do not advise, we invent; that is something completely different. We create new products, and we are involved in the proceeds. That can be quite lucrative at times. And that goes far beyond consulting.

When did you discover your interest in chemistry and ecology?

My old chemistry teacher had probably got the ball rolling, but also the 'Club of Rome' report from 1972. Friedhelm Korte, the founder of Ecological Chemistry, who had been working for Shell back then, had a profound influence on me. Since the beginning of the eighties I was active for Greenpeace. We stopped ships that were on their way to dump sulfuric acid; We blocked the Rhine at Leverkusen with a human curtain to take samples of water from Bayer. When we wanted to forward proposals for alternative pulp processing methods, we were brutally mistreated by employees. The spots where I was hit with an iron bar, I still feel today.

In your concept of Cradle to Cradle, two cycles are central...

I do not like to call it cycles, I prefer spaces or spheres. Anything that wears out or degrades during use belongs to the biosphere; Everything that does not wear off or degrade, belongs to the technosphere and can be used again. Technosphere products are perfectly suited as service products.

You once said that digital thinking means that everything becomes a service that does not wear out. Could you explain that?

I once discovered in a study that a television contains 4360 chemical ingredients. Why should buyers of televisions have to cope with 4360 chemicals if they only want to watch TV? They do not actually want to own a TV, they just want to use it. Things that do not degrade should only be used for a certain period of time and then returned to the manufacturer who can then refit it and offer a new service product. Of course, this does not apply to products that belong to the biosphere, because they wear off in use, such as brake discs for example.

'Sustainability' is a phrase everyone talks about these days. Are we finally learning to take care of our planet?

The term 'sustainability' is awful. It's an outgrowth of a perfidious form of debt management. People should be made to have a guilty conscience. They say: be sustainable, be climate neutral, reduce your Ecological Footprint. What a nonsense! I'm climate-neutral only if I don't exist. No tree is climate neutral, because trees are good for the climate. Therefore, the approach to Cradle to Cradle is not to minimise the Ecological Footprint, but to maximize it - but in such a way that it creates a wetland full of wildlife. Sustainability nowadays is used in a near-religious context. But young people today are less concerned with morality than with individual fulfillment. We do not need systems that provide morality; what we need are systems that provide quality. If you make the wrong things perfect, you're doing it perfectly wrong! And a product that leaves behind waste has a quality problem. Today, under the banner of sustainability, things are recycled that were never intended for recycling, such as toxic rubbers on car tires or an IKEA catalog containing up to 90 toxic ingredients. They get recycled into cardboard boxes and pizza packaging, and you get them right on your dining table.

Cradle to Cradle takes a different path...

A central element of our Cradle to Cradle approach is the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency is about doing something right. Effectiveness, however, is about the question of what is right anyway. So it's about deciding which ingredients to use, not which to leave out. Greenpeace recently launched a campaign called "Detox". Companies have been asked to drop 200 specific ingredients out of their production processes. Of course, C&A, H&M and all the other manufacturers were quickly on board, because those 200 ingredients were easily replaced. But there are over 20,000 toxic ingredients used in the textile industry! But Greenpeace donors were satisfied with that campaign and the manufacturers too, because they could go on producing, now with the seal of approval of the "Detox" campaign. We have to radically change our modes of production. "Positive" products. Answering the question of which qualitative ingredients I can use; not the question of how many of the toxic ingredients do I have to reduce.

What do you think should happen?

We need a completely new definition of organic. For over 30 years, I have been examining breast milk samples for residues. None of the samples could have ever been sold as milk due to excessive exposure to harmful substances. Products that are later found in breast milk, should not actually be produced. To me, this is a form of chemical harassment. As part of an investigation, we calculated that if we change the moisture storage layers in baby diapers to Cradle to Cradle standards, i.e. do not use polyacrylates, but superabsorbents that are degradable, i.e. suitable for the biosphere, we could plant 150 trees per baby in Israel. The moisture storage layers bind the rain water that would otherwise disappear into the barren soils, and you can then sprout trees there. But what happens instead? Under the banner of sustainability huge recycling plants are built: waste incineration plants, whose capacity nobody needs. Today, the usual residual waste consists of about 20 percent baby diapers. Because they have a high calorific value, and that is good for the incinerators, because only then they can be operated efficiently. But that is not effective! It would be effective to make diapers that do not need to be burned. Today most of the products could be designed as "positive" products without any problems. And they would also increase the return on sales of the companies, since the quality is higher and they save the money for the subsequent expensive and complex waste management.

Where should we start?

We need to bring new ideas and new thinking into the companies. I think it's crucial that we get more young people into chemistry. Even though there were the environmental catastrophes of Chernobyl and Bhopal, we have lost a whole generation of smart young people for research. The best minds went to banks and other companies instead; they didn't want to get involved with an industry that was responsible for such misery. The mediocrity that was left over for the chemical companies at that time can now be found at the management level. That's a problem. We must ensure that the brightest minds consider going into R&D and to research companies again.

Mr. Braungart, thank you very much for this interview.

Prof. Michael Braungart is 60 years old and was born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. He is the CEO of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH and a professor for eco-design. His teaching at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (NL) ended in 2017, in the future he wants to devote himself entirely to his professorship at the University of Lüneburg, Germany, where he teaches Cradle to Cradle.

Article written by:
Frank Odenthal
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A Circular Economy powered by Cradle to Cradle: The Cradle to Cradle® design concept combined with the Circular Economy forms a future-proof strategy that brings together innovation and an increase in quality, working simultaneously at an economic, social and ecological level.
A Circular Economy powered by Cradle to Cradle: The Cradle to Cradle® design concept combined with the Circular Economy forms a future-proof strategy that brings together innovation and an increase in quality, working simultaneously at an economic, social and ecological level.

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