In the realms of industrial design and closed-loop manufacturing systems, the international bestseller, “Cradle to Cradle, Reinventing The Way We Make Things” is a revolutionary and avant-garde work by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Braungart is the Founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, Germany.
Braungart is a chemist by profession and a founding member of Germany’s Green Party. Currently a Professor teaching Process Engineering at the University of Lüneburg in Suderburg, Germany, he is passionate in his worldview that most problems of the world such as pollution, toxicity and waste are all design issues.
He spoke recently at the Asia Sustainable Packaging Summit 2010 at Singapore. Here are some of the ideas he put forth:
The concept of Zero Waste
Braungart senses the language of guilt when one talks about Zero Waste, Zero Footprint or Zero carbon emissions. In Cradle to Cradle, waste is not seen as something bad, rather it is perceived as food and nutrient that goes back into the biosphere (to natural systems) or to the technosphere (to be disassembled and reused in a new products and technical processes).
Companies reducing their emissions or raw materials usage
Braungart spoke critically against optimising the “wrong things” such as the way some companies try to reduce their emissions or raw materials usage. What is required is a fundamental rethink of what the core product is and the kind of impact it has. Bottled water for example can be made in a “carbon- neutral’ way, but depriving communities of water, and shipping it the world over simply doesn’t make sense.
Doing “less bad” instead of the positive agenda of doing ‘good’ is like saying one beats a child only 3 times instead of 5. The outspoken Braungart on receiving the Green Chemistry Award in 2003 from President George Bush told him that the latter didn’t have to to go to Iraq to use chemical weapons. All he had to do was to give American children Mattel toys. Children’s toys have 60 to 700 problematic chemicals which are never meant for children, with profit considerations overriding children safety. Banning one or two chemicals wouldn’t make much of a difference.
When the EU banned asbestos from brake pads in cars, companies like Ford and Volkswagen used antimony sulphide, an even stronger carcinogen in its place.
Braungart reiterated that making wrong things perfect only makes things perfectly wrong! This is what eco-efficiency does. Two thirds of the world’s carbon is in top soil and the world loses 4000-6000 times more topsoil than it rebuilds. A rainforest has 7000 tonnes per hectare of topsoil. But so much is being cut down and replaced by palm oil plantations which only carry 60 tonnes of topsoil per hectare of palm. Biodiesel made this way and sent to Europe, actually makes things worse, when one is aiming for ‘less bad’.
Eco-effectiveness according to Braungart is to positively define what is the right thing to do and design from the beginning what is meant to go into the biosphere and technosphere. Waste is seen as food and production processes use current solar income.
13,000 tons of copper every year, worth about $45 million, are lost in Germany in incineration, a valuable metal with reserves left for only 50 years. Systems have to be designed in a way that they can capture nutrients and be brought back into the system.
Take a washing machine for instance, we should be selling the number of wash cycles instead of selling the machine. The washing machine is designed for disassembly so that after its life is over, it goes back to the company which can recover the components to assemble a new machine.
Designing products as a service closes the material loop, as manufacturers will take back the products, and will put in quality materials instead of cheaper ones, because they know it is going to come back to them. For example, the plate on the right is made from recycled polymers that can be recycled endlessly. It does not have chemicals such as BPA to worry about.
Cradle to Cradle in real life
Braungart and his partner McDonough work with many companies to help in their efforts towards cradle to cradle manufacturing. In the Bionorica Neumarkt building, the use of glass is leased for 25 years and will be returned to SCHUCO to make new glass. The building’s roof has solar panels producing energy for its use and the surplus is fed into the local electricity grid.
In general, urban indoor air quality is 3-8 times worse than outdoor air, because of the offgassing of chemicals from indoor fittings. DESSO leases the use of the carpet, which has fibres that actually improve air quality, instead of off-gassing VOCs and other toxic compounds. The building makes use of plant-based air filters and high performing insulating materials that also improve the air inside the building.
The human footprint
Braungart challenges the notion of the human footprint as being bad for the planet. According to him, as long as humans are considered bad, zero footprint is a good goal. Humans need to aim for 100% good by making products which are restorative and not depleting.
The biomass of ants is 4 times more than that of humans, but the difference is that ants do not make “zero waste.” They make nutrients that are good and can be reprocessed.
Another speaker at the Asia Sustainable Packaging Summit was Joachim Quoden of the Packaging Recovery Organisation or PRO EUROPE . As Managing Director of PRO EUROPE, Quoden oversees producer responsibility with respect to packaging, and packaging waste recovery and recycling schemes in 33 countries (32 in Europe and Ontario, Canada). The EU is ahead of the rest of the world, when it comes to implementing producer responsibility. But even Quoden admitted the concepts discussed by Braungart were new, and that Cradle-to-Cradle is an idea only for the coming decade.
There is much change to be brought about: We need governments to think long term and support legislations that enhance producer responsibility to ensure they take back their products and components at end-of-life. Manufacturers have to shift their paradigm to redesign products for disassembly right at the very beginning, instead of trying to improve things cosmetically at the end. Consumers have to become engaged to demand products that last long and can be returned to the producers instead of being thrown away.
This article is contributed by Bhavani Prakash, Eco Walk the Talk.