Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart © Edith Stenhuys
Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart © Edith Stenhuys

We talked with Dr. Michael Braungart, Head of EPEA about intelligent waste instead of fanciless abstinence.

He enjoys being provocative with surprising approaches and is known to annoy his conversation partners with astonishing analogies. Yet his unconventional statements are well founded. For ten years, Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart has been a global advocate of the Cradle-to-cradle principle for a more creative use of the world's resources.

While fighting in favour of environmentally friendly production, he baffles with his faith in consumption. The scientist who is often seen by his critics as being a green extremist does not in any way believe in producing less and less. All attempts at being more efficient and frugal ultimately only mean being less bad.

"It means companies are making enemies of their customers. With these measures they are telling their customers that it is better when they don't buy anything."

This is a pretty sorry business model which is not economically viable either. And in ecological terms this approach is not worth pursuing because less bad is simply not good enough.

Change of production perspectives: Biodegradable materials are the focus

Braungart, a doctor of chemistry, therefore envisages there to be big opportunities in a fundamental change of production perspectives. Ensuring materials are biodegradable should be the focus as soon as they are chosen, which would be of benefit to people, the environment and also the economy. It is clear to him that a reorientation of this kind is not easy, especially in an era of global production. Companies themselves are often unaware of what substances their products contain. A supplier may be based in China, but they may receive their components from India and so on. Michael Braungart once researched toys from a branded manufacturer in the USA and found chemical compounds far from suitable for children. The manufacturer was also outraged.

"With this concept we are going further than Greenpeace and their Detox campaign, where if something is poisonous it has to go. What is the use when the labelling says "does not contain pentachlorophenol" if it has simply been replaced with tetrachlorophenol which is even more carcinogenic? It isn't about what is inside but about what is contains."

This apparently straightforward paradigm change mostly means a long and drawn out process, of which Braungart provides an impressive example:

"We took 18 years to develop a paper that can be burnt without creating any residue. It is a highly optimised paper that contains alternative optical brighteners, other coatings and uses other auxiliary materials during its processing."

This required a series of tests and developmental sequences. When normal paper such as a newspaper or a brochure is burnt, for instance, the ash is contaminated and cannot be used in farming.

Chair Hermann Miller Mirra
Completely biodegradable or forrecycling: The Mirra© office chair from Herman Miller, a company that has committed itself to the C2C concept.

Cradle-to-Cradle in Germany

Sometimes perseverance and patience are required. For this reason, Braungart and his company EPEA value long-term cooperation. According to him, in Germany a lot still depends on individual executives. It was therefore a stroke of luck that with sportswear and fashion brand Puma, the new executives decided to continue the C2C line by initiator JochenZeitz.

Achieving ever more efficient and frugal production methods ultimately only means being less bad, and not good.

"By 2020 Puma will have completely changed over to C2C. The first collection is to be launched in the market in February. We are certain we will succeed in changing the entire textiles industry on the basis of this approach.

Even if there are cooperations with big companies such as VW and BASF, the response in Germany, in contrast to Belgium, the USA or Switzerland, remains subdued. For the C2C pioneer this is due to a national misunderstanding:

"We have noticed that in Germany, sustainability and the Cradle-to-cradle concept are still being seen as a moral duty. Yet this is fatal, as this moral sense always depends on growth. As soon as you are under stress or there is a downturn in the economy, the morals are forgotten – and I am no better than anyone else in this respect."

Nature is our teacher and our partner but she isn't our mother.

Then there is the mistake of seeing nature as a "mother":

"This romanticised view of nature makes us engineers and scientists small, like a disobedient child, so to say. Nature is our teacher and our partner but not our mother. The fact that people are living longer than 30 years is not due to mother nature but to us, the engineers, doctors and scientists."

The understanding is different elsewhere, such as in the Netherlands, with the entire country now taking a different view of C2C. This is also due to the position and history of the local people.

"The Dutch have never been able to romanticise nature. The house in which I live in Rotterdam is seven metres below sea level. Mother nature, in the form of the next flood, could take me with her at any time. So, you have to make an arrangement with nature. The constant threat means that the Dutch have a culture of support."

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