Industry Market Trends

Cradle-to-Cradle -- Like Recycling on Natural Organic Whole-Grain Steroids

Apr 02, 2012

Several years ago, when I first heard of cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design, I thought, "This will never work. It's too great an idea." Two recent bits of news make me think I might have been wrong.

One news item was the announcement that the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute has joined The Sustainability Consortium. The other news item is the release of the first certifications for products under the Cradle to Cradle Certified protocol.

It might not be obvious why these announcements are significant, but I'll try to explain. Their amazingness is rooted in the extreme ambition and rigor of the cradle-to-cradle vision.

The Cradle-to-Cradle Vision

What if no product were allowed to do any environmental or human harm? What if manufacturers had to analyze and report in detail the chemical composition of any product they created? What if they had to account for every product's energy usage and verify that a minimum percentage came from renewable sources? What if they had to account for the usage of and the impact on water of the manufacture of any product? And what if, at the end of a product's life, all of its materials had to be upcyclable -- that is, not just recyclable, but 100-percent reusable in a form at least equal to if not better in quality?

If you can imagine a product life cycle with those characteristics, that might give you some idea what C2C is about.

William McDonoughIn their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough laid out some of the most important working principles of cradle-to-cradle design. (Photo: William McDonough. Credit: OnInnovation, CC BY-ND 2.0.)

To me, one of the most compelling elements of the C2C model has to do with upcycling. What we call recycling now actually results in downcycling -- turning scraps of high-quality paper into low-quality paper, turning plastic bottles into park benches and speed bumps. A cradle-to-cradle lifecycle is a loop, rather than a linear cradle-to-grave trajectory. In cradle to cradle, there is no grave, because nothing gets thrown away.

Braungart and McDonough assert that "industrial mass can be specifically designed to retain its high quality for multiple uses." They spotlight what happens to an automobile at the end of its life:

Currently, when an automobile is discarded, its component steel is recycled as an amalgam of all its steel parts, along with the various steel alloys of other products. The car is crushed, pressed, and processed so that high-ductile steel from the body and stainless steels are smelted together with various other scrap steels and materials, compromising their high quality and drastically restricting their further use. (It can't, for example, be used to make car bodies again.) The copper in its cables is melded into a general compound and lost to specific technical purposes -- it can no longer be used as a copper cable.

How would cradle-to-cradle upcycling work? "A more prosperous design would allow the car to be used the way Native Americans used a buffalo carcass, optimizing every element, from tongue to tail," the authors suggest. "Metals would be smelted only with like metals, to retain their high quality; likewise for plastics."

Rather than viewing the resources used to make products as merely materials or parts, Braunbart and McDonough propose viewing them as "technical nutrients." A technical nutrient is "a material or product that is designed to go back into the technical cycle, into the industrial metabolism from which it came." Products might be viewed more like a service -- the customer purchase the use of the product for its lifetime, then the manufacturer takes it back, breaks it down, and "[uses] its complex materials as food for new products."


Auto scrapyard

  (Photo: Last stop, the scrapyard. Credit: webhamster, CC BY 2.0.)

They identify three important benefits from following this model for manufacturing:

It would produce no useless and potentially dangerous waste; it would save manufacturers billions of dollars in valuable materials over time; and, because nutrients for new products are constantly circulated, it would diminish the extraction of raw materials (such as petrochemicals) and the manufacture of potentially disruptive materials, such as PVC, and eventually phase them out, resulting in more savings to the manufacturer and enormous benefit to the environment.

Cradle to Cradle Certification

In 1995, McDonough and Braungart together formed the sustainability consultancy MBDC. As MBDC, they developed the Cradle to Cradle Certified program, which they have licensed to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The standard evaluates products and materials according to five key dimensions:

  • Material health -- Materials must be designed as "technical or biological nutrients that are safe and healthy for humans and the environment... each product formulation is mapped out and broken down into its chemical constituents." All chemical components above .01 percent are measured for human health, environmental effects, and toxicity.
  • Material reutilization -- Products are designed "to eliminate the concept of waste" and maximize re-use of materials and components, to be "reclaimed as technical or biological nutrients in future life cycles."
  • Energy -- Manufacturers and suppliers are rewarded for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and making use of "current solar income" through renewable energy.
  • Water stewardship -- Manufacturing and other processes used to produce a product need to incorporate sound water management, "understanding water withdrawals, consumption, and healthier releases in a local context and innovating in the areas of improving conservation, quality, and social equity."
  • Social responsibility -- Products are evaluated in this category according to the manufacturer's social and ethical practices, including "fair labor practices, corporate and personal ethics (e.g., supplier relationships, competitive behavior, integrity), customer service, and local community."

The program issues certificates at several levels: Basic, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Mirra chair by Herman MillerIn a March 2012 statement, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute announced that it had issued its first certifications to four manufacturers:

Desso B.V. Polyamide Carpet Products, which received Basic certification. Desso, a Dutch company, says that its products "will not be less bad, but truly good," meaning its carpets "will be positively designed products. No more using less of the poisonous substances but careful choice of good materials that do not harm health or environment, leaving the carpet with only its benefits, not its guilt issues."

Herman Miller, which received Gold and Silver certifications for models of its Mirra Task chair. The Institute says the Mirra chair is "durable, made of a minimal number of parts, and is easy to disassemble for local recycling. Recycled content is 42 percent, and the chair is 96 percent recyclable." (Photo: Mirra chair. Courtesy of Herman Miller.)

node chairShaw Industries, which received Silver certification for its EcoWorx line of carpet products. EcoWorx carpets are 100 percent recyclable and PVC-free. According to the Institute, Shaw operates a "closed-loop" recycling process; the company "will collect and recycle EcoWorx Carpet Products, at no additional charge to the customer."

Steelcase Inc., which earned Silver certification for its Node chair, a newly-designed classroom chair. Steelcase says that it designed the Node with sustainability in mind: "From a very early stage in development we were able to create a product that uses sustainable materials, ships knocked down in a small carton (while installing in seconds) to reduce the carbon footprint, and durable for years of use in demanding environments to keep it out of the landfill or recycle network." (Photo: The node chair. Courtesy of Steelcase Inc.)

Cradle to Cradle and The Sustainability Consortium

A few days after the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute announced its first set of certifications, The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) announced that the Institute had joined TSC as a member. I thought this was a particularly significant step.

TSC began as an initiative by Wal-Mart to apply product lifecycle analysis to help build sustainable supply chains. Product supply chains can be very complex, with many players involved. So when a company wants to assure that its products are environmentally sound, it can face a nearly-impossible assessment problem. TSC has been developing a Sustainability Management and Reporting System (SMRS), a technology infrastructure that is making it possible for products to be evaluated for sustainability according to a standard, interoperable framework across multiple companies.

I would think the cradle-to-cradle design model could contribute crucial insight to a cross-enterprise effort like TSC. In TSC's announcement, Kevin Dooley, academic director for the organization, acknowledged this potential value, saying, "Cradle to Cradle has developed principles and tools that help us think completely differently about sustainable consumption."