Everything is useful
Compostable T-shirts and renewable washing machines – how Cradle to Cradle could revolutionise consumption.
Michael Braungart developed the Cradle to Cradle concept with the US American William McDonough: it aims to make products completely reusable technologically or biologically. He teaches as a professor at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
Mr Braungart, Germany is seen as the world champion at recycling. Is that a reason to be proud?
Michael Braungart: No. Recycling packaging is downcycling and therefore inferior. A product that becomes waste is of poor quality. Furthermore, I consider recycling detrimental to innovation. New things do not make it onto the market because the old ones are highly optimised. We have perfected the waste industry instead of developing better products.
“Recycling is detrimental to innovation.”
Why is Cradle to Cradle better than recycling?
Michael Braungart: Because the materials can be completely used in the biosphere or in the “technosphere”. For example, I have developed materials for train seats that end up as compost in market gardens – instead of being burned as hazardous waste.
In Germany, environmental protection means preventing, saving, doing without, reducing. The kind of sustainability that this leads to is technophobic and turns the customer into an enemy. Cradle to Cradle is not about ethics, but innovation and quality: everything is useful rather than less harmful. The more you buy the better.
How is industry responding?
Michael Braungart: Industry’s response is euphoric, because the focus is no longer on avoidance, but on innovation, quality and beauty. Furthermore, in the digitalised world industry has to change over to selling the function rather than the machine.
Can you make that clear with an example?
Michael Braungart: A washing machine that lasts 50 years is a huge curse because you don’t get the materials back and new water-conserving technology doesn’t enter the market. If, however, I only sell the use of the machine, then innovation can spread. We have developed a washing machine with which you only sell the customer 3,000 washes. In production I then make do with only five to eight high-value components instead of using 150 cheap plastic parts.
And do I receive a new machine after 3,000 washing cycles?
Michael Braungart: No, the 20 per cent of the components that are obsolete are exchanged, and the other 80 per cent remain in place.
Do marketable Cradle to Cradle products already exist?
Michael Braungart: Yes, there are already over 11,000 certified Cradle to Cradle products.