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Better than recycling

Compostable T-shirts and renewable washing machines – how Cradle to Cradle could revolutionise consumption.

Cradle to Cradle: this T-shirt is compostable.
These T-shirt are compostable. © C&A

Michael Braungart developed the Cradle to Cradle concept with the US American William McDonough: it aims to make products completely reusable technologically or biologically. He teaches as a professor at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Professor Michael Braungart
Professor Michael Braungart © dpa

Mr Braungart, Germany is seen as the world champion at recycling. Is that a reason to be proud?
No. Recycling packaging is downcycling and therefore inferior. A product that becomes waste is of poor quality. Furthermore, I consider recycling detrimental to innovation. New things do not make it onto the market because the old ones are highly optimised. We have perfected the waste industry instead of developing better products.

Recycling is detrimental to innovation.
Professor Michael Braungart, inventor of the Cradle to Cradle principle

Why is Cradle to Cradle better than recycling?
Because the materials can be completely used in the biosphere or in the “technosphere”. For example, I have developed materials for train seats that end up as compost in market gardens – instead of being burned as hazardous waste.

In Germany, environmental protection means preventing, saving, doing without, reducing. The kind of sustainability that this leads to is technophobic and turns the customer into an enemy. Cradle to Cradle is not about ethics, but innovation and quality: everything is useful rather than less harmful. The more you buy the better.

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How is industry responding?
Industry’s response is euphoric, because the focus is no longer on avoidance, but on innovation, quality and beauty. Furthermore, in the digitalised world industry has to change over to selling the function rather than the machine.

Can you make that clear with an example?
A washing machine that lasts 50 years is a huge curse because you don’t get the materials back and new water-conserving technology doesn’t enter the market. If, however, I only sell the use of the machine, then innovation can spread. We have developed a washing machine with which you only sell the customer 3,000 washes. In production I then make do with only five to eight high-value components instead of using 150 cheap plastic parts.

And do I receive a new machine after 3,000 washing cycles?
No, the 20% of the components that are obsolete are exchanged, and the other 80% remain in place.

Do marketable Cradle to Cradle products already exist?
Yes, there are already over 11,000 certified Cradle to Cradle products.

Interview: Tanja Zech


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