Material cycle innovations
Products made from raw materials that can be reused repeatedly? It works, according to the representatives of the Cradle-to-Cradle movement. And the first products following this principle come from Switzerland: Climatex upholstery fabrics are in circulation. To stay there, the focus is placed on recycling or composting raw materials.
By Yvonne von Hunnius, 28.10.2015
“The best product is one whose raw materials can be reused over and over again", says Andreas Heydasch. The CEO of Gessner AG textile company sits in a conference chair with dark blue upholstery at the corporate headquarters in Wädenswil, Switzerland. Just how close it comes to the vision of the cycle is hardly perceptible. It is upholstered with Climatex fabrics. Due to many of the chair’s features, you might even call it Swiss high-tech. When Heydasch lists them, he makes the priority clear: “Our materials are highly functional". They are climatising so that a person sweats less when seated – extremely durable, fire-resistant and much more. This makes them perfect for seating furniture in airports or hotels. “Plus, all Climatex products are Cradle-to-Cradle certified – their components are continuously circulating, so that there is no waste", says Heydasch.
Documenting the material flows
“Cradle to cradle” is a play on the expression "cradle to grave". Anyone who does business according to this principle must ensure that their product can start life over again at the end of its service life. To do so, developers have to design products intelligently, and this starts with the raw materials. It must be possible to break down products into their individual components, which must be pure materials, so that they can be recycled or composted with the same level of quality. Poisons or inseparable components may not be used. The social conditions of the suppliers are also a key concern.
Scientists Michael Braungart and William McDonough are the architects of this movement – 3,500 products worldwide have already been “Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) certified according to the criteria. 27 companies, including Climatex and Stoll Giroflex, a Swiss office chair manufacturer, align their entire companies with these criteria. This entails documenting all material flows – and suppliers have to participate.
Climatex’s pioneering role
The first C2C product was a Climatex fabric. Since 1993, meticulous efforts have been made to combine low-waste production with functional fabrics – starting with Rohner Textiles, a company based in the Rhine Valley. For Albin Kälin, Rohner’s then managing director, this was more than just an opportunity to lead his company out of the textile crisis. It was a way to deal with the costs of treating wastewater from fabric dyes and the costs of disposing scrap waste from weaving. The new products won many international honours and much acclaim. Today, Kälin is CEO of EPEA, a Swiss consulting agency that certifies C2C products. Gessner AG continues to produce Climatex products – just like Rohner once did, its former parent company and part of a longstanding tradition. In 2016, Gessner celebrated its 175th year of existence. According to Andreas Heydasch, it still feels like a start-up. With 260 employees, the company may be lean, but is still quite productive, says Heydasch. Climatex has to be as well. Production is carried out entirely in Switzerland, and there is strong international competition in the textile business.
Gessner furnishes airplane and train compartments for Swiss partner Lantal Textiles. But it also has its sights set on the automobile industry, which is known for tough supplier management. It works closely with the electric vehicle departments of large auto manufacturers, which value climitisation increasingly. According to Heydasch, Climatex fabrics not only meet the C2C criteria, they are also lighter than their competitors’ fabrics – their temperature regulating features lighten the load for air conditioners, which saves energy and helps extend service life.
Climatex does not want to position itself in the small premium segment, but rather compete in the upper middle range by meeting all functionality requirements in addition to Cradle-to-Cradle certification. A recent Climatex development has helped with this: the patented Dualcycle System’s “textile screw”. This joining technology makes it possible to combine wool and synthetic fibres so that they can be separated at the end of the product's service life. Wool can be composted, and polyamide can be recycled. This affords Climatex certain advantages because these two important materials can be combined economically with each other. Though expensive, wool is essential because of its climatising effect, while synthetic fibres, for instance, ensure efficient flame retardation and a long service life.
“The big picture is decisive”
Norbert Egli, a life cycle and eco-design expert at Basel-based Tridee consulting firm says that this can be a good solution if the weight can be kept lower than the competitors’ products. Weight is a key criterion in lowering the total environmental impact, especially when it comes to moving goods, such as in the case of transport. It saves energy and prevents emissions such as CO2 and air pollutants. Even though the expert believes that the material cycle is a key concept, he does not think that recycling materials is necessarily the best way per se. He advocates using eco-design principles to find specific approaches that will ensure an effective reduction of a product’s total environment impact throughout its service life (see Fact box 1).