Beyond recycling, from cradle to cradle

Published on Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Eliminating the concept of waste by revolutionising good production and design. The German chemist Michael Braungart, the guru of the "Cradle to Cradle" model, says it can be done. The 4 R’s, Recycle, Reduce, Reuse, Recover, only "limit damage". They are related to the concept of "reducing the environmental footprint", which must be rejected because it does not go deep enough, mainly because it operates within the same system that caused the problem. It only slows the system down by means of moral prohibition and sanctions. It implies a "mistake that men take along with them", while men have huge unexpressed potentials to benefit the planet.

For thirty years, after he left his position as director of Greenpeace's chemistry headquarters, Braungart is helping thousands of companies to express this potential through the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency that he founded, creating paint that eats up smog, air-cleaning carpets, biodegradable t-shirts, and so on. All these products bear the C2C identification mark, very popular in the US and actively promoted by many celebrities.

In the article "Credetemi, il mondo non è usa e getta” (Believe me, the world is not disposable), published on of October 23 on the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Elena Comelli explains that for Braungart the real challenge does not consist in changing the current industrial structure, which is limited to minimising damage. Instead, it is about rethinking from scratch a new production model, a virtuous industrial system, with no waste.

This is precisely the starting point, avoiding recycling, bringing back to nature what was "drawn" in terms of raw materials. Therefore, when designing a product, it is necessary to think how to avoid its death. So from the cradle to the cradle, instead of from the cradle to the grave (landfill). In the era of regenerative design, toxic materials are excluded and the distribution chain is organised so that products can return to their original source. Organic materials return to the earth, technical materials are subject to infinite reuse. When the two materials are assembled in a product, the responsibility for its reuse belongs to the manufacturer. In this way, industrial waste is virtually zero.

How can this model work in a market economy, based on customer demand? Services are sold instead of products, giving rise to a form of eco-leasing allowing to use better materials than we use today to minimise costs. The article provides the example of the car rented to travel a certain distance, whose components are no longer welded but glued, and then detached and reused.

It sounds futuristic, but it's all real. Airbus, for example, has reduced costs by 20% thanks to C2C certified biodegradable seat covers. In short, as Braungart says, "it takes patience, but eventually the circle closes".

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