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Cradle to cradle: A world without waste

Karin Jäger ibr
July 10, 2018

People buy, consume and then discard. But can you imagine a reality where the concept of waste had no meaning? That's behind the growing "cradle to cradle" movement.

Image: Ultrashoes

Second-hand furniture, repair cafes and clothing swaps are booming — and not just among those can't afford brand-new consumer goods. More and more people are looking for alternatives to built-in obsolescence and rampant consumption.

It's easy to see why. The more we consume, the more energy we burn, the more garbage we produce and the bigger our carbon footprint. And that’s before you even consider the extraction of resources and human rights abuses that go hand-in-hand with producing cheap, throwaway goods.

The under-30s, in particular, are increasingly into recycling and the sharing economy. Yet, vast quantities of resources are still used once before ending up in landfill or the blast furnaces of waste incineration plants.

"From cradle to cradle" refers to the ideal of an end to waste. Advocates want products to be part of a closed cycle. Nature itself is the model — where everything that dies is broken down into nutrients that feed new life.  

Michael Braungart, a German chemist credited with coming up with the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) concept, says we too should reintroduce everything we use back into the biological cycle.

Demokratische Republik Kongo Mine Kobalt Kobaltmine
Cobalt mining is linked to human rights and environmental abuse. The tech products it's used in often have a short lifespanImage: AP

The movement is slowly gaining attention. Hollywood star Brad Pitt promoted Braungart's book "Cradle to Cradle," which he co-wrote with US architect William McDonough.

Braungart believes we can only protect our environment if the whole lifecycle of a product is pre-planned, from the beginning of its development. There is no waste in Braungart's understanding, only biological or technical raw materials.

Products such as detergents, car tires and shoes, which break down and rot through use, should be composted. Electronic goods should be part of technical cycles, broken down into "technical nutrients" — materials such as metals and plastics that can be recovered and processed into new devices.

Within this system, the consumer pays for their use of a device or service and not for the product itself, which goes back to the manufacturer after use.

Consumers would pay for 10,000 washes or 10,000 hours of light, but not for the washing machine or the lightbulbs. The producer would then have an interest in producing durable products and recycling them.

Infografik Cradle to Cradle Stoffkreisläufe EN

Fashion as compost

In the US, hundreds of products are already C2C-certified. Companies in Germany — mainly in the textile industry — are also investing in the circular economy.

Since 2013, sports giant Puma has been producing a biodegradable collection called InCycle. A shoe, jacket and backpack are made entirely from recyclable plastic. But other materials such as leather, cotton and rubber, as well as their production and transport, still have a high environmental impact.

Fashion house C&A was the first retailer to bring C2C-certified, fully compostable t-shirts to market. They are woven from organic cotton, and energy and water consumption is kept low in the manufacturing process.

From textile waste to stationery

Theoretically, discarded C2C clothes could be used for garden compost, decomposed by microorganisms. In practice, such textiles can be handled by industrial composting, where they are exposed to constant temperatures over a long period of time. But for many organizations, this process is still considered too time-consuming.

There is an additional challenge to recycling C2C textiles, compared to glass or paper. Mixed plastics cannot be converted back into raw materials, so garments should be made of a single type of plastic, including buttons and zippers.

The German company Werner & Mertz manufactures detergent bottles from 100-percent recycled plastic, sourced from household waste.

Bringing C2C to the mainstream 

C2C is still a way off the mainstream. Braungart's daughter, Nora Sophie Griefahn is managing director of the non-profit Cradle to Cradle association and organizes events to promote the concept.

Gelbe Säcke Müll Verpackungen Abfall
These bags of household waste have been sorted for recycling. But much of it will still end up in the incineratorImage: picture alliance/dpa/P.Pleul

"We have to understand people as useful creatures in the world, and rethink our current notion of quality and the purpose of the economy,” Griefahn argues. “Economics and environmental protection must not compete, but pursue common goals."

"That won't work by just reducing our carbon footprint. We need a world in which producing according to C2C is taken for granted," she added.

Economist Tim Janssen, co-founder and second managing director of the Cradle to Cradle association, believes the main barrier to that is "that so many people don't understand what we're talking about." Even environmental groups have criticized the compostable t-shirts.

"They warned that T-shirts had to be long-lasting. Of course, they have to. They have to be harmless, so that we can use them for a long time and the fabric does not disintegrate on the body," Janssen said. "The shelf life and the subsequent usability do not exclude each other."