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How a new forward-thinking concept can change the circular economy

Making things less bad is simply not good enough. It needs to be
Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, founder and scientific director of EPEA

A new philosophy – a forward-thinking concept

The circular economy is currently on trend. The basic concept of circularity, however, has been around for some time. Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, the founder and scientific director of EPEA, an environmental research and consulting institute in Hamburg, Germany, co-founded the out-of-the-box Cradle-to-Cradle® philosophy back in the 1990s. Today, he works with businesses and governments to find Cradle-to-Cradle solutions. Here, he outlines the forward-thinking concept.

What’s behind the Cradle-to-Cradle concept?
Cradle-to-Cradle is inspired by nature. In nature, everything has a starting point, and is designed to be a nutrient for something else. We call it Cradle-to-Cradle because no valuable raw materials are ever lost. It stands for innovation, quality and good design, and describes the safe and potentially infinite cyclical use of materials. It is about designing products more intelligently, using materials more effectively, so that both business and nature can thrive and grow.

What does this mean in practice?
Products need to be designed so that they can be carefully disassembled to become nutrients for new products through biodegradation or recycling. Anything that wears out or degrades during use needs to go back to the biosphere. Basically, waste equals food. Everything that does not wear out or degrade belongs in the technosphere and can be used again. Our approach is not about minimizing our ecological footprint, but to maximize its effectiveness.

Why do you focus on effectiveness, rather than efficiency?
Nature is not efficient. It is effective. We need to emulate nature in its beauty, functionality and effectiveness. You first have to ask what is the right thing, rather than optimizing the wrong thing. People trying to use plastic out of recycled plastic materials is such an example. Making things less bad is simply not good enough. It needs to be beneficial. When you make wrong things perfect, you just make them perfectly wrong.

What is the right thing?
We have developed materials for train seats that end up as compost in market gardens – instead of being burned as hazardous waste. And Cradle-to-Cradle carpets that are not only free of contaminants, but which can also remove fine dust from the air.

What could the paper industry improve?
Paper per se is a beautiful material. But still here we have the chance to optimize it. For example, my book “Remaking the Way We Make Things,” that I wrote with the US architect William McDonough in 2002, was printed on paper that is perfectly compostable. We can do it. You can only have safe and economical paper recycling with healthy printing.

A final word of inspiration?
Cradle-to-Cradle combines European problem-thinking with the American attitude to getting things done. We need both. We also need to understand the Asian way of seeing humans as a part of nature. Instead of just trying to understand what a circular economy or Cradle-to-Cradle approach can do, you should see innovation opportunity. Don’t make it an ethical thing. It’s only an innovation thing. Make it a quality thing. That’s it.