Cradle to Cradle - make a positive contribution

30th of April 2012
Cradle to Cradle - make a positive contribution
Cradle to Cradle - make a positive contribution

Michael Braungart is a German chemist and former Greenpeace activist who advocates that we humans can reduce our negative environmental impact by redesigning industrial production processes. He will be the keynote speaker at the ISSA/INTERCLEAN Amsterdam Innovation Awards presentation next month, and here he talks to ECJ editor Michelle Marshall.

A highlight of the ISSA/INTERCLEAN exhibition in Amsterdam is always the presentation of the Amsterdam Innovation Award on the opening day of the show. This event rewards and recognises the best of the industry’s most innovative companies – the companies that are looking to the future of design, and of the planet.

It is appropriate then that the keynote speaker at this year’s award ceremony is responsible for a truly pioneering concept of design called Cradle to Cradle. Prof Dr Michael Braungart’s philosophies go far beyond what the cleaning sector would call ‘sustainability’ – Cradle to Cradle is a design concept based on nature, whereby there is no such thing as waste.

Based in Hamburg Braungart, a German chemist, spoke exclusively to ECJ in the lead-up to his presentation at ISSA/INTERCLEAN. He explained the background to his Cradle to Cradle concept. “I trained in chemical engineering and chemistry, and have always had an enthusiasm for examining the environmental impacts of chemistry, so I studied environmental science throughout Europe.

“I concluded sustainability is simply compensating for what we as a human race have done wrong in the past – we are trying to put right our abuses of nature. I believe in defining our impact as human beings in a positive way. For example, one of the key sustainability phrases of the moment is ‘carbon neutral’, but who can be carbon neutral? You can only be carbon neutral if you do not exist!”

There are three basic principles in the Cradle to Cradle concept:

•Everything is designed to be a nutrient of something else
•Everything is produced by renewable energy from current solar income
•Everything contributes to diversity, whether it's conceptual, cultural or biological.

The ultimate aim is to improve the quality of products for the consumer; for them not to pose any health risk to anyone coming into contact with them; and to be of both economic and ecological benefit.

“Human beings must learn from nature,” said Braungart. “In nature all things are products of a metabolic process and useful for other processes. Leaves of a tree are nutrients for the tree itself and other plants. Among leaves there are places to hide for mice or to hibernate for hedgehogs. Or think of a cherry tree: an abundance of blossoms creates new cherry tree generations. Every product, no matter how useless it may seem, is beneficial in nature.”

Products designed in line with Cradle to Cradle work in exactly the same way. They envisage their redesign into circular nutrient cycles in which value, once created, remains of worth to both man and nature. They are part of the lifecycle.

The Cradle to Cradle design process distinguishes between two types of products: those for consumption which safely enter biological systems, and products for service that safely enter technical systems to be part of new future product generations.

Products for consumption are, for example, food, biodegradable fibres, cosmetic products, washing powders, brake pads or comparable products. They are designed so that degradation products generated during their use (eg, digestion, abrasion or dilution in water, air or soil) can support the biological systems they enter.

As biological nutrients they are absorbed and processed by organisms and ecosystems to support growth. Biological resources such as plants can be renewed through agriculture, forestry or gardening – leading to next generations of products for consumption.

Products for services are objects such as electronic appliances, vehicles, cleaning machines, etc. They are chemically stable during use and get dismantled into technical nutrients after they have fulfilled their function. Renewed technical nutrients are materially defined so they can serve as a reservoir for the production of next generations of products for services.

“So tracking of products for services and their collection for technical nutrient recover works via a service concept,” Braungart explained. “This means a rethink of many societies’ attitude towards owning objects – something we have become very fixated with in the material world. This is a concept of not owning, but using an object as a service: whether it’s a cleaning machine, a wind farm or a television.

“The customer receives the right to a service, for example using a cleaning machine for a given time, but the materials the device is made of remain property of the producer or recycler, or are part of a guaranteed take-back scheme. They go back into the system for their next use.”

Braungart feels this could be a particularly interesting idea for cleaning machine manufacturers to consider. “They could perhaps sell use of their machines in terms of hours rather than just selling entire machines to the customer. There could be a counter to measure hours, and support systems in place for training, back-up, etc. At the end of the machine’s life, the users are not stuck with an object that must be disposed of. It can go back to the manufacturer and the materials used put back into the technical cycle.

“Manufacturers from different industries could also pool resources when purchasing materials, which is more cost effective, and the next use of those materials could be planned more efficiently. Materials are in effect ‘rented out’, in that it is their use that is being sold to the end user. Their next use could already be mapped out.”

All aspects of the cleaning sector have a crucial role to fulfil in taking the Cradle to Cradle concept forward, Braungart feels, and he is excited about the possibilities. “The way forward is to construct surfaces, whether they be façades or carpets, that can actually absorb contaminants and find particulates that are potentially hazardous to people.

“For example, façades could incorporate coatings that actually absorb those fine particulates that pollute our air and cause so many problems. Same with carpets.” His vision is that we build our cities like forests – trees clean the atmosphere so buildings can perform the same function. “We need to develop more high performance additives that can really attract and absorb particulates, and enhance the environment.”

After a certain period of time those coatings will need to be cleaned and the particulates desorbed, which is where the role of the cleaning sector is vital says Braungart.

Key role for cleaning

Cleaning is also more relevant in a Cradle to Cradle world because it is vital key materials are not cleaned with products that may contaminate them.  If cleaning contaminates a product, it cannot be recycled anymore. “This is about more intelligent design, enabling business and nature to grow. The key is continuous cycles.”

For cleaning service providers too, this is an important opportunity to raise the level of service and professionalism of the sector. “Cleaning personnel are performing a vital job for human health. This results in better self-esteem for the people working in the industry, and the industry as a whole.”

In order to spread the word about Cradle to Cradle and assist companies wanting to follow its principles, Braungart founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in 1988. Since then EPEA has worked with Greenpeace and companies across the globe that now offer products designed under the concept. And in some countries local authorities are using it in their procurement.

In Europe the Netherlands is at the forefront of adopting Cradle to Cradle processes and one cleaning industry business that is now operating in this way is Van Houtum, which specialises in manufacture of tissue paper and dispensing systems. Henk van Houtum told ECJ how he first became involved.

“In this area of Holland there is a large horticultural show called Floriade, World Horticultural Expo, taking place from April to October this year which has been four or five years in the planning and has adopted the Cradle to Cradle principles. In connection with that, the local Chamber of Commerce has been encouraging local companies to become involved in Cradle to Cradle.

“We had discussions with Michael Braungart and found it very much fitted in with our existing sustainability strategy. So we decided to become involved. At the beginning of the process, however, we did not have particularly high expectations of what it would do for our business. We decided to try it and see if it could work for us.”

The first task was to analyse the entire production process for its range of tissue products. Braungart’s organisation EPEA was closely involved in analysing those processes and helping the company to find alternatives. “The result of that exercise was that we had to replace all the chemical products involved in our production,” van Houtum explained. “This meant finding alternatives – we met with our existing suppliers, and found some new ones. Then we went through extensive testing to ensure the solutions we had found had no adverse effects whatsoever.”

This stage took two years, meaning a significant investment in time, testing, machine time, etc. “The good news was that we did not have to make any changes to the machines involved in our production.

“Once we had made the necessary changes we found our work was attracting a great deal of attention, which surprised me. The prime minister visited our factory first, and the visits have continued ever since. Van Houtum is the first tissue company in the world to adopt the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, which gives us a unique position.”

The greatest impact of Cradle to Cradle, according to van Houtum, is that it is a totally different agenda to what most people term as ‘sustainability’. “Traditionally companies work to reduce their negative impact on the world – striving to reduce waste water, energy use, carbon footprint. To be less bad.

“Cradle to Cradle is where you work to leave behind a positive legacy. As a company we want to make a positive contribution to all our stakeholders – customers, employees, the local community. We have 200 employees and we want to be a good employer to them; we work alongside our customers to enable them to fulfil their sustainability policies; and we aim to supply our local community with energy from our own power station.”

Having now made its processes safe for man and the environment, the next step is for Van Houtum customers to give their waste paper back to the company and for Van Houtum to then use what would have been waste to make new tissue. “We have this closed loop system in place
already in some parts of the Netherlands with local authorities, and it’s working very successfully.”

And the Cradle to Cradle transition has resulted in new product launches for Van Houtum, namely Satino Black, a 100 per cent biologically degradable toilet tissue that complies with Cradle to Cradle principles. And van Houtum sees this mission as one that will continuously evolve. “All our new products are now geared towards Cradle to Cradle,” he said. “For example, the Satino Black line of dispensers was launched last year which will also be certified Cradle to Cradle. And we have introduced a Cradle to Cradle certified soap too.”

Any company can do it

Van Houtum is living proof that adopting a Cradle to Cradle philosophy is well within the reach of small and medium sized companies. “Any company can do it, and in the Netherlands many have,” said van Houtum. “Smaller and medium sized companies are usually more flexible and better able to implement change, and that is essential.

“The philosophy must start at the top of the organisation, you have to be fully committed to going down the Cradle to Cradle road and completely changing your thinking about how your business operates.”

Michael Braungart is clearly passionate about the philosophies of Cradle to Cradle, however he is keen to emphasise that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ philosophy and he is not preaching to the world about what we must all do. “My mission is to encourage everyone to develop innovative products while positively impacting on nature – and also saving costs. Because as many companies are discovering, Cradle to Cradle methods make for commercial success too.

“There are so many opportunities for businesses in the cleaning industry to introduce quality products, quality services and for those who are willing to invest to set themselves apart from their cheaper competitors.”

In this way Braungart firmly believes we can actively protect nature. “Everyone talks about ‘environmental protection’ but currently that only means we are destroying less. We must not be a burden, but an opportunity for the planet.”

He concluded: “We have been abusing nature and sustainability is a guilty reaction to that. Cradle to Cradle is about quality, innovation and positive impacts on our world. It’s not about morals.”

•Prof Dr Michael Braungart is the keynote speaker at the Amsterdam Innovation Award ceremony on the opening day of ISSA/INTERCLEAN, May 8. For more details visit


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