EcoEng Newsletter No. 8, December 2003


Reinvent everything

Michael Braungart and the idea of cradle to cradle design

Report on Braungart's presentation at the Ecological Engineering Conference in Harvard, Nov. 2003

By Dr. Carl Etnier
EcoEng-Newsletter co-editor
Vermont, USA



Do you want 4300 chemicals in a TV...


Braungart began by linking himself firmly to the world of the conference hosts, Harvard School of Design. "I don't want to talk about sustainability or environmental protection, but design." He went on to say much about design that could be said from the point of view of sustainability or environmental protection. Many of the things that other people would call unsustainable or incompatible with environmental protection are what he would call examples of poor design.

For example, showing a slide of a computer monitor, he said that it offgasses thirty chemicals that we wouldn't want to breathe. "This was never designed to be used in a building." Other products usually used indoors that he reported offgassed a witch's brew of toxic chemicals included Time Magazine and Barbie dolls. The huge number of chemicals in a typical television is also an example of poor design. "Do you want to own 4300 chemicals in your TV," Braungart asks, "or just watch Larry King Live?"


Eco-effectiveness instead of eco-efficiency


Braungart was not content to introduce the designer's perspective into the usual discussions of public health and the environment. He went further, and criticized concepts normally held up as being good guidelines. Talking about "eco-efficiency," for example, Braungart asks, "Do you need to control human beings to make them less bad? My perspective is, we need to support them to be more good. Factor Four* leads to systems which are ugly. Think about an efficient dinner. It would be a tablet with Italian flavor and glass of water. Everything, which is efficient, is ugly. Think of a cherry tree in the spring--what a waste of resources all those blossoms are, for making new cherry trees. To make a baby, 15,000 sperm are wasted. Think how ugly Mozart would be if efficient - or sex."

Rather than eco-efficiency, Braungart promoted "eco-effectiveness," by which he means designing products in a way that is good for humans and the planet. Rather than making products that have less of a negative impact, an emphasis on eco-effectiveness leads to products that have more of a positive impact. The producer can then say to the customer, "The more you buy, the faster we make a change to well-designed products that do good."

The fundamental design principles of eco-effectiveness are:

  • Waste equals food
  • Use current solar income
  • Celebrate diversity

As an example, Braungart said he had developed ice cream packaging for Unilever, which is, becomes liquid at room temperature, and then it biodegrades. The packaging also includes seeds from plants. "Enjoy littering!" Braungart enthused. "It's a way to mark your territory."

To the usual design criteria of cost, performance, aesthetics, Braungart suggests adding ecological intelligence. "A product which is toxic is unintelligent. If it's toxic it's just not beautiful. Also, justice and fun are important. If it's not fun, don't do it."

Braungart underlined the need to define things positively, not just in terms of what they are "free of." Would a vegetarian like to be served a dinner "free of chicken"? The "free-of" mentality can lead to things like lead in solder replaced by metals which are more toxic.


Five steps to eco-effective design


However, the "free of" mentality, while insufficient, is the first of five steps to more intelligent, more eco-effective design, Braungart says. There are substances that are bioaccumulative and which cause such obvious harm that avoiding their use is almost always positive. For example, EDTA is a chelating agent used in industrial processes which keeps heavy metals like nickel always bioavailable after they leave the factory; they never sediment completely and become sequestered. Braungart issued a plea to substitute IDA or some other biodegradeable material.

The second step is to follow informed personal preferences. You may not have all the information--or any information--on the chemicals used in carpet adhesive, but it's a pretty good bet that tacking down the carpet rather than gluing it is friendlier for the people in the room where the carpet is installed and for the planet.

The third step to eco-effective design is to create a more comprehensive list of materials. The first is an "X list," of materials to phase out soon. The second is a "gray list," of materials to phase out, but less urgently. In the book, McDonough and Braungart give the example of cadmium as a material on the gray list. It is a highly poisonous metal which is useful and, for the time being, indispensable in manufacturing photovoltaic cells. However, cadmium is unnecessary and can be phased out in rechargeable batteries, whose cadmium is spread in the environment when the batteries are thrown away or lost.

Finally, there is a P list, of positive materials. These are the ones that fulfill the criterion "Waste is food" and can be reused or recycled without loss of quality.

The fourth step is to activate the P list, that is, use it in manufacturing.

Finally, the last step is to "reinvent everything." As McDonough and Braungart suggest, don't design a better car; design a "nutrivehicle." A nutrivehicle doesn't use a catalytic converter to reduce NOx emissions; it stores NOx for use as fertilizer. Or go one step further, and design a new transportation infrastructure.


Examples of eco-effectiveness


Braungart told the story of Rohner Textil AG, a Swiss fabric company, to show how thinking in terms of eco-effectiveness can not only help human health and the environment, but also turn profits and preserve jobs. Rohner was facing a financial crisis, caused by the classification of their production trimmings as hazardous waste. This was the same material that was shipped to customers and which customers wore next to their skins. However, it was so toxic that the Swiss authorities insisted it be disposed of as hazardous waste, at a high cost. Rohner's management faced a choice of closing the factory and going to Malaysia or making less toxic products. Spurred on in part by Lufthansa's search for a more environmentally friendly fabric for airplane seat covers, the company re-engineered its product line, and now makes its fabrics of edible materials. The water, which runs through the facility, is cleaner when it leaves the facility than when it entered.

McDonough and Braungart put their thoughts into action when they designed their book. Cradle-to-cradle is made out of polypropylene. You can get it wet with no degradation in quality. Braungart says a high degree of recycling (not downcycling, to less valuable uses) is possible; it is even possible to take out the inks and use them again as inks. The plastic can be reused in new books up to ninety times. This is in contrast to paper, which is not designed for recycling. It is usually downcycled, for example, from office paper to toilet paper. Braungart says that recycled toilet paper contains halogenated hydrocarbons, and asks whether we want to be rubbing sensitive parts of our anatomy with that?

Braungart also passed around a bottle of shampoo, which he said was made with nine chemicals instead of the usual twenty-two. Many chemicals are normally used in shampoos to compensate for the harmful effects of other chemicals--one dries your skin, so moisturizer added, but that irritates skin, so something added to take care of that, and so on. The shampoo Braungart passed around is made of pharmaceutical grade chemicals, which cost six times as much as industrial grade chemicals for shampoo, but the shampoo is cheaper to produce. The reason is that its production avoids the worker protection expense that comes with working with toxic chemicals.


Braungart summed up his design philosophy by saying, "Don't just change small things, reinvent everything!"




*Referring to the exhortation to squeeze four times as many goods and services out of a given amount of resource consumption, publicized in Factor Four, by Ernst von Weizsäcker et al., London: Earthscan, 19


© 2003, International Ecological Engineering Society, Wolhusen, Switzerland