“We must privatise profit and risk"

For a future worth living in, we would need to take the market economy seriously, says co-founder of the Cradle-to-Cradle movement, Michael Braungart. He wants innovation and quality to be a consistent focus in order to achieve waste-free material cycles.

Interview: Yvonne von Hunnius, 3.11.2015

Michael Braungart

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart is founder and scientific director of EPEA, an environmental research and consulting institute in Hamburg. He is also co-founder and scientific manager of McDonough Braungard Design Chemistry (MBDC) in Charlottesville, Virginia (U.S.A.). Together with architect William McDonough, he developed the Cradle-to-Cradle design concept that serves as the basis for EPEA and MBDC projects. Braungart also teaches at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and at Leuphana University in Lüneburg.

For you, is the best product one that never breaks?

Michael Braungart: One product that lasts forever is nuclear waste or tyranny of design, which prevents innovations from ever reaching the market.

What is a good product according to the Cradle-to-Cradle principle?

It can be two things. First, if it is a wear product that changes chemically, physically or biologically through use, it must be made in such a way that it actively and positively supports biological systems and contains nothing toxic. Not like tyres, for example, which last longer than they used to, but poison the air we breathe with wear debris. Second, if it is a product with a defined service life, such as a television, then the material flows should be designed so that they can be used again in new products.

How can we achieve that?

We have to set positive requirements and define what a product should contain. We should take the now 40-years-old end-of-the-world discussion and the know-how we've gained in quality and beauty and apply them to positive innovations. The Gessner textiles company has demonstrated this through its innovations as a Cradle-to-Cradle company. Like Germany, Switzerland is still stuck halfway. A lot of money has been spent to be a little less harmful, and that's what we call green. But basically, nothing new has been achieved.

Isn’t it an achievement that the environmental impact has been significantly decreased?

What difference does it make if you are shot 50 or 90 times? A Swiss daily newspaper contains 50 materials that prevent it from being composted. These materials were never created for cycles. In addition, Switzerland has lost around 50 percent of its printing operations in recent years. So print products are manufactured in Asia and they contain not just 50, but 90 toxic materials. A catalogue printed in Asia may be 50 to 60 percent cheaper. But Switzerland, an expensive location for industry, is ultimately responsible for the high-tech disposal of Asian hazardous waste. If paper were instead defined as a biological material and required to be compostable by 2020, then my young scientists would have a positive task and many innovations would be able to reach the market.

And if the industry is already drained as a result of a competition played out on uneven ground?

This is critical. Then, for example, the government would have to change tack and make a statement with its own billion-Swiss-franc procurement system. And that doesn’t change the fact that for the sake of effectiveness, we must first ask, what is right and then do what is right. It is quite simply wrong to create print products that contaminate the biosphere. That is why they must be compostable – however expensive it is. Then efficiency strategies can also be implemented.

So, should toxic materials be banned at all costs?

Not at all! Wear products must be intelligently designed from the outset so that they can go into the biosphere. Products from the technosphere such as energy-efficient windows cannot be produced without toxic materials, otherwise they don’t work. Copper is extremely toxic for biological systems, but useful in all types of technical systems. Furthermore, a reasonable service life must be defined for every object so that we can retrieve the products. A window should perhaps only be used for 25 years – so it is not the window that I should sell, but rather its service life of 25 years.

Are these business models actually economical?

This is precisely how the market economy is taken seriously. Anyone who causes the risk, should also answer for it. Either we do business without scruples, or we earn money with the scruples that we have. If the service life of solar power systems were defined in Switzerland so that only the photon yield was sold, then it would be profitable to produce these systems in Switzerland. When we purchase Chinese systems, we have them up to our necks.

So, for you, recycling is the priority?

For me, recycling is not the only priority. Upcycling is better, which means keeping what is intelligent about a product and expanding it significantly. Otherwise, we continue to stagnate. Or we might even experience serious shortage problems, such as in rare metals. A Mercedes has 46 alloys. And what do we make with them? Construction steel! A mobile telephone has 41 elements, though we only recover nine. We need to design products, for example, with adhesives so that we can access the components again.

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Last modification 03.11.2015

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