Club of Amsterdam: Industrialized countries generate more than 90 per cent of the world’s annual total of some 325-375 million tons of toxic and hazardous waste.
Douglas Mulhall and Diana den Held for the Academic Chair ‘Cradle to Cradle for Innovation and Quality’ – Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
Club of Amsterdam: Industrialized countries generate more than 90 per cent of the world’s annual total of some 325-375 million tons of toxic and hazardous waste. Urban outdoor air pollution is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide per year (source: WHO). Can you describe the key achievements in environmentally-intelligent design since launched in the Cradle to Cradle movement in 2002?
Douglas Mulhall and Diana den Held: The key achievement has been that hundreds of products and thousands of components have been redesigned so their materials are safe for life processes and can be recovered at the same level of quality for reuse.
Diana den Held: To be able to get there, one of the first steps Prof. Dr. Braungart initiated was to go and talk with the big players in the chemical industry, to go to the very core of intelligent design. That process actually already started in the late 80s, way before the term “Cradle to Cradle” was introduced.
It is at these companies where important innovations have been and still are taking place. Important, since their products are the basic tools to work with. You cannot go and ask a furniture company to look at the materials they are using, if healthy materials won’t be there for them to use, companies need to work together on this.
Still, a lot of work needs to be done. But at this point of time, hundreds of products and thousands of components have been redesigned. Which means: these materials and products will not become ‘waste’ in the old meaning of that word any more.
Please do get me right: Prof. Dr. Braungart is not asking people to take only these types of materials as a starting point in their concept phase. What is not available now will be there in a few years, especially if people ask for it. But it is a given fact that people can work with healthy materials if they want to.
In the Netherlands you can point out > 100 organisations that are working on C2C inspired projects or sell C2C products that are designed to go into the biosphere, or are designed for disassembly. It is amazing to see what has happened since the very first broadcast, in 2006, of the Tegenlicht documentaire ‘Afval is voedsel’ (‘Waste Equals Food’) by Rob van Hattum. It’s only 5 years later, and we see companies as well as governments and educational institutes applying the Cradle to Cradle principles. Together they change the way (raw) materials are (re)used. And it isn’t that difficult to calculate how to profit from that.
What are the current issues when dealing with waste and pollution? Is there a difference between developing and developed countries?
Douglas Mulhall: The main issue is that more than half of our topsoil for agricultural production globally has been lost. The current trends to replace fossil fuels by burning biomass and attempting to replace lost humus with poorly designed fertilizers is one of the most urgent topics to address. If nutrients are incinerated along with mixed waste, the nutrients cannot be used to replenish the soil.
Instead, mined phosphate fertilizer is used to replace some of the nutrients. This fertilizer not only fails to replace humus but also contains high levels of uranium and other heavy metals that contaminate (top)soil and water.
Topsoil is generally defined as the top metre of soil, and is central to human civilization because agriculture depends on it. Topsoil is one of the most important materials for maintaining a balance of climate change gases, because two thirds of the carbon on land and in the atmosphere globally is held as nutrients in topsoil.
Most nations, especially but not limited to those with highly developed economies, are losing their topsoil at an alarming rate, accelerating CO2 release and ultimately leading to non renewability of biological resources. However, there are opportunities to restore soil and capture CO2 by combining energy delivery with nutrient recycling. This requires assuring that the biological nutrient metabolisms that products are designed for are free of harmful contaminants.
Biodegradable fabrics, polymers, and paper for example can be designed to be compatible with biological systems so they can contribute to restore topsoil.
In Europe, each of us produces an average of 500kg domestic waste per year. What are the contributions everybody can do? Is it possible to reach zero domestic waste?
Douglas Mulhall and Diana den Held: When looking at a question like this from a Cradle to Cradle perspective, we need to start by stating that ‘zero’ is the wrong goal. As Prof. Dr. Michael Braungarts always phrases it: ‘Who wants to be zero? People want to be beneficial, they don’t want to be known as nothing’.
Diana den Held: So, let’s face it: customers are currently paying tax to get rid of products that they don’t want anymore (and in many cases, of which they never wanted to be the owner). That can be done differently: if the manufacturer designs their products so that they can easily be taken apart, they can have the material picked up again from the customer. As a customer, you then go from ‘paying to get rid of something’ to ‘being paid to supply materials’.
You really don’t need to be stuck with something as a user. For example, you can buy a number of hours of television viewing. And if you need something else, trade in your device. As Prof. Dr. Braungart always puts it: ‘Why should you be stuck with an old television set if you just want to watch television?’
I’m not trying to say that everything should end up in a lease construction. I wouldn’t want huge monthly payments because all my products are paid per month. I’d find that quite oppressive. But I can imagine manufacturers letting users choose either monthly payments or buying with a deposit, or something similar. It could be useful for offices if they could lease their office chairs on a monthly basis, for individual users it would be much better to be paid back after use for example, having your carpet picked up.
Today customers are able to have their Desso carpet picked up because it is suitable for disassembly, but not a carpet of another brand. The one is happy with what you recycle and will reward you for it, while the other you have to take care yourself and indirectly pay to get rid of it. Users are eventually not going to put up with that anymore.
However, not only buyers need clarity from manufacturers; material collectors do as well. If a disassembly company knows where a certain material can be found in a product, they can effectively ensure that the material be put back into the cycle.
The government will also have a role to play in this part of the cycle. A tax on waste needs a totally different model since discarded material is still very valuable to the end user recycling it, the collector, the material collector and the manufacturer who sees significant savings when it comes to buying it. This will be even more so the case every year, since the consumption of raw materials is still on the rise.
And then individual customers will wake up. They will realise all of a sudden that every product they throw in the rubbish bin is basically shaking their wallet above the same bin. I think that we will see some momentum when customers will demand their place in the cycle and ask companies to change the situation.