Material Matters: A Conversation with Dr. Michael Braungart on Material Shortages and Designing a New Material World
Recent events around the world expose the heightened uncertainties of a growing demand for materials that are both precious and in limited supply.
With China exporting as much as 96 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, the country’s drastic reduction in exports sent ripples around the world. Simultaneously, governments such as the United States continue to subsidize biomass for energy, causing domestic shortages and the need to import biomass from other countries.
These trends are particularly disconcerting when viewed in the context of increased use of incineration to create fuel. The practice of incinerating waste for energy, though efficient in the short term, exacerbates the issue of materials shortages. When burning waste for fuel, many valuable and recoverable materials are lost through the smokestack that could otherwise be re-used within new product life cycles.
As governments respond to these materials shortages and imbalances by promoting conventional materials supply strategies such as increased domestic drilling, stockpiling and diversification of supply sources, there is an urgent need to call into question the basic assumption of nature’s limitless supply and to deliver innovative approaches to materials management.
In this conversation with Maren Maier of Pratt and Allan Chochinov, Editor-in-Chief of Core77.com, Dr. Michael Braungart, along with the EPEA research team encourages designers to more fully understand material flows and learn how to capture material assets at every part of the life cycle. Design can pioneer the next revolution in business, but it will need to reframe old assumptions and shape desire to the contours of a real and living world.
CATALYST: How can designers shape desire for a new materiality based on the real limits of our real world?
Dr. Braungart: Well, first, the business community does not have enough respect for designers. They are currently at the bottom of the management food chain. Marketing tells them what to do. That doesn’t make any sense.
Designers hold a key to the future, but designers need to understand their role differently and learn to have more self-esteem, ambition and responsibility. For example, why are designers designing desire for toys made of materials that contain dozens of chemicals? Why are designers designing desire for electronics that use our increasingly limited supply of rare minerals?
CATALYST: The role of design does seem to be shifting in business though. There is a perception here in the United States that designers have more of a seat at the table now and are being recognized for their strategic abilities. What is your feeling about this? How do relationships between designers, scientists, business managers and even regulators need to be redefined?
“Everybody is a designer, because design is the first signal of human intention.”
Dr. Braungart: We are beginning to understand that everybody is a designer, because design is the first signal of human intention. The question is: What is the role of the design professional and what are the responsibilities of that role? I believe that design needs to intend, at the beginning, to be good instead of less bad. If design does not do that, we will need more and more legislation just to limit the amount of poison we put in the air or in the water. But legislation is really a sign of design failure.
Designers must consider the consequences of their choice of materials. This is not complex. As scientists, we can alert them to the consequences. We can tell them what happens when certain materials go into the environment. I see myself as the ‘material boy,’ as Madonna would say, for designers. They simply need to say, “I want to use that material, what is the consequence of that?”
CATALYST: Designers often think they are in the artifact business, but as you say, they are in the consequence business. It is said that 90 percent of a product’s consequence is determined in the first 10 percent of the design process. How can designers apprentice themselves to change their way of thinking?
Dr. Braungart: Designers must learn to expand their interests and responsibility beyond just aesthetics. I see it slowly happening. For example, in Japan, the designer truly understands the link between total quality and total beauty. It’s not beautiful if it is connected to child labor. It’s not beautiful if it poisons the oceans. It’s not beautiful if it perpetuates conflicts over precious resources. It’s not about only the right materials. There is also a social component. Clearly, there is an opportunity for designers to become pivotal players in the industrial transformation, adding immense strategic value.
CATALYST: Regarding strategy, can you talk about the designer’s opportunity in the context of current rare minerals shortages and trade disputes with China? Governments in Europe and the United States mainly highlight traditional solutions such as opening up domestic mining, finding new ways of extraction, stockpiling, etc. You rarely hear about design for recycling or innovative approaches to materials management. How could the designer in this case add strategic value?
“Designers must learn to expand their interests and responsibility beyond just aesthetics. I see it slowly happening.”
Dr. Braungart: It’s amazing that people think these are viable long-term solutions. These elements are not endless and we certainly don’t have enough meteorites landing on Earth to increase the availability of some strategic materials. What it tells us is people need a new understanding about materials. With the exception of two or three elements, there are other areas that can be mined for rare earth metals outside of China but it hasn’t been done because it has always been cheaper to get the metals from China. And that is a big strategic mistake. We need strategies to recover the materials differently or new strategies to design different products.
And it is changing. For example, we have worked with Phillips to jointly design a new TV set that doesn’t contain any rare elements. We designed them out.
CATALYST: I was just reading about Pixel Q’s new screen debuting at CES. Another example is Mary Lou Jepsen, who designed the One Laptop Per Child screen, which is incredibly energy saving.
Dr. Braungart: That’s right. These are all examples that show how we can and need to put more quality criteria in the design at the beginning. Design can’t be just about recycling. It needs to be about upcycling, because we need to use the intelligence of products for a new purpose. This can only be done through a comprehensive strategy around biological and technical nutrient flows.
Right now, for example, we are working on glues in a new design paradigm. These glues can be eaten up by enzymes, so that after five years you can put your glues in an enzyme bath and it falls apart because the enzymes eat the glues. Then the components can be used for other things. We are also working with a Japanese company on glues that shrink when you heat them up. You can define at what temperature the product will fall apart. This is an important innovation. We no longer need to have children in China with a hammer taking out some of the toxic or rare materials. This is an example of good design thinking from the beginning.
CATALYST: How would you suggest designers begin to approach biological and technical nutrient flows into their design strategies?
Dr. Braungart: First and foremost, remember that recovery of manufactured materials is preferable to destruction. By turning waste into food and feeding two fundamental industrial metabolisms — the organic or technical — companies can continually and effectively re-use materials in closed loop systems.
If this is to be successful, however, the entire system must work together, from manufacturing to incineration. In some cases, for instance, incineration cannot be avoided. It is important to modify the conventional approach to incineration and create precise definitions for the types of materials that can best be used for burning. Incineration can be considered from a Cradle to Cradleviewpoint only if clean-burning man-made materials or biomass are combusted after a defined use “cascade,” with high value energy generation and production of beneficial ashes.
CATALYST:Can you elaborate on the concept of a cascade?
Dr. Braungart: A cascade describes the consecutive use of materials in products of lesser and lesser properties until at the end, the process results in destruction or re-production of the material. At the end of that cascade the nutrients in biological materials are returned to the soil to support biodiversity and continued soil productivity. Throughout the cascade, products are designed for the biological cycle, including energy recovery and CO2 storage and are free of harmful contaminants. In the end, the remaining incinerated materials are clean-burning and produce beneficial ashes.
“Within three years we could create paper that flows into natural biological cycles, leaving only a positive impact on the environment.”
If we take this approach with paper production, for instance, within three years we could create paper that flows into natural biological cycles, leaving only a positive impact on the environment. Not only is this an eco-effective use of materials flows, it creates economic value. For example, the pulp and paper industry did a study showing the paper cascade produces up to ten times more economic benefits than burning virgin biomass.
As you can see, designers have an immense responsibility to create a material stream that allows for recovery of materials and an intelligent use of incineration.
CATALYST: In your work with companies such as Philips, what have been some of the challenges of integrating these Cradle to Cradle concepts into company strategies? What are of some of the roadblocks you have faced?
Dr. Braungart: The key obstacle in companies has been the conversation around eco-efficiency. People have been optimizing the wrong things. Many of the current issues with shortages result in part from a decades-long strategy of outsourcing. Outsourcing has become such a religion that governments have nearly forgotten the value of materials to their strategic interests, and “just in time” inventory has become “just out of materials.” The Cradle to Cradle framework shows how companies can solve their strategic materials issues by promoting eco-effective materials management design strategies in-house.
To do so, we need to redefine sustainability so that it defines what it means to make good design rather than design that is less bad. The whole sustainability conversation around ‘footprints’ is a challenge as well, because the message to the customer is, “You can minimize your footprint even more if you don’t buy my product,” which is hardly economically viable.
CATALYST: So in some ways, we have created a misguided message about sustainability. Do you believe our relationship with nature is focused too heavily on conservation and limitation?
Dr. Braungart: The first thing we must do is celebrate the human footprint. We can learn from nature, but it’s a partnership, not a romantic relationship. We can learn from the Dutch who never romanticize nature. If you talk about Mother Nature, they would frown because most of the country is below sea-level and the next flood could take them. The key is to learn not to romanticize nature. We are romanticizing nature because we have been torturing it so much. A human footprint need not damage either the environment or human health. Good design can create positive flows.
CATALYST: From country to country, there seems to be cultural influences at work as well. How does culture play a role in designing within the Cradle to Cradle framework, particularly here in America?
Dr. Braungart: Definitely the social and cultural aspects are far more exciting than the technical and material aspects. In some ways, the technical and material aspects are only mining the social and cultural deficits. Take Americans: because the culture has so many taboos around sexuality, it makes sex far more relevant. It permeates the language. Think of ‘joy sticks’ for video games, or ‘virgin’ raw materials as just a few examples.
Also Americans have about five times more “one way” products than we do in Europe, because they can’t use something that has been used or touched or tainted by somebody else. So in a lot of ways, the cultural undertones don’t really allow recycling.
“Community design is key and that is why the designer must play a much more important role. That is why we need new strategies that work within cultures.”
Community design is key and that is why the designer must play a much more important role. That is why we need new strategies that work within cultures.
CATALYST: There are lots of stories about neighbors complaining about their neighbors hanging out laundry to dry because they don’t want to look at drying lines, or communities complaining about windmill farms ruining their views. So in many ways, it is not just regulatory limitations keeping people from being reasonable. It really is also cultural and behavioral. Enzio Mancini once said, “you can’t offer somebody the same but less. You have to offer them different.”
Dr. Braungart: That is quite correct. That is why Cradle to Cradle is not about telling people how they should be. We like how they are. In Cradle to Cradle, there is no should, have and must. We want to support people how they are. If the culture in the United States is based on these subliminal sexual taboos, it’s ok. We don’t want to tell them how they should be. We have to celebrate diversity. It’s not one size fits all anymore.
CATALYST: Your philosophy is both inspirational and aspirational, and clearly implementation requires incremental steps. I’m curious about your plans for Cradle to Cradle certification in the United States, particularly in light of the new non-profit Green Products Innovation Institute (GPII) you recently founded in California?
Dr. Braungart: Please make sure there is no misunderstanding, certification is the opposite of Cradle to Cradle. Certification says, “I feel bad and have to come back every two years to find out if you still feel bad.” But in a fear society, like in the UK, in Germany, in the United States, it needs it — it’s a transitional chain. The only way certification can be replaced is by being transparent about what you are doing and by making sure that the ones making profit take the risk as well.
“Please make sure there is no misunderstanding, certification is the opposite of Cradle to Cradle. Certification says, “I feel bad and have to come back every two years to find out if you still feel bad.” But in a fear society, like in the UK, in Germany, in the United States, it needs it.”
If a business owns 4,360 chemicals it is not ok to advertise only the benefit and socialize the risk. The business needs to make transparent what it is doing. It needs to say that: if it gets consumed, it is designed for biological nutrients. The business has the responsibility and the liability for it as well. But if it’s a technical nutrient, the business needs to make sure it stays in the technosphere and it doesn’t need to certify anything.
CATALYST: And yet you need to explore certification, because it is the most important tactic in this culture.
Dr. Braungart: Yes, but you can only certify the past. You cannot certify the future. And I am talking about the future. I can certify control, but I cannot certify support. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get enough young, talented designers to lead the charge and to engage people in other disciplines and begin a positive dialogue. If you think about it, there are few ways to control people to do less bad, but there are millions of ways for design to support people being good. What I have learned is that people are only greedy out of fear. They are always friendly and generous when they feel accepted and supported.
CATALYST: Surely, this is something we all desire. And designers certainly have the ability to shape design strategies around those positive goals.
Dr. Braungart: Yes. It is just a question of time, and it is a question of the vitality of the system. We need to make sure we have a new kind of industry in place. We only have about ten to fifteen years, because the system has already started destroying itself. We need a revolutionary change and the only way this will happen is with people like you, which is why I am so thankful to talk to you. We need designers to understand, have fun with the idea of designing around positive goals and communicate those goals.
For The supplemental article on Beneficial Incineration, please go here.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Organizations can take these steps toward more effective materials management processes.
1. Design with manufactured materials that can be recovered for upcycling.
2. If incineration cannot be avoided, use it effectively. First consider rapid oxidation burning options where nutrient recovery can be more effective.
3. Design with materials that are clean burning (i.e., without harmful emissions).
4. Use materials destined for eventual incineration first in a cascade. Combustion is the last step of the cascade prior to reuse of ash.
5. Separate certain resources, such as metals and elements like phosphorous, prior to incineration.
6. Only consider combustion of biomass if it is effectively renewed in balanced nutrient cycles, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and other elements required for life processes.
7. Remember that ashes can be completely suitable for reuse.
8. Consider flexible scalability of products to prevent unnecessary demand-side growth of incineration.
About the Contributors:
Dr. Michael Braungart is a chemist and co-founder of Cradle to Cradle® Design and MBDC McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Virginia. His research in materials sciences has pioneered a new paradigm that focuses on redesigning eco-effective products and systems to support a positive ecological footprint in the next industrial revolution.
Dr. Braungart is also the scientific director of Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA) Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, of Hamburg, Germany, founded in 1987. He holds a professorship at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT) at Erasmus University of Rotterdam in collaboration with the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and is professor of Process Engineering and director of the interdisciplinary materials flow management masters program at Universität Lüneburg in Germany. Additionally, he is co-founder of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, established in 1989. He continues to lecture at universities and consult with companies and organizations around the world.
Allan Chochinov is a partner of Core77, a New York-based design network serving a global community of designers and design enthusiasts. He is the editor-in-chief of Core77.com, the widely read design website, Coroflot.com design job and portfolio site, and DesignDirectory.com design firm database. Allan lectures around the world and at professional conferences including IDSA, AIGA and IxDA, has been a guest critic at various design schools in including Yale University, NYU, University of Minnesota, RIT, and RMIT. He has moderated and led workshops and symposia at the Aspen Design Conference, the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio, Compost Modern, and Winterhouse, and is a frequent design competition juror.
Prior to Core77, his work in product design focused on the medical and diagnostic fields, as well as on consumer products and workplace systems. (Projects included work for Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, Federal Express, Kodak, A.C. Nielsen, Oral-B, Crunch Fitness and others.) He has been named on numerous design and utility patents and has received awards from I.D. Magazine, Communication Arts, The Art Directors Club and The One Club. He serves on the boards of the Designers Accord, Design Ignites Change, and DesigNYC.
In 2012, he will launch a new graduate design MFA program in Products of Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, focusing on the purposeful, systemic role of artifacts and design offerings in multidisciplinary contexts.
Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA Interational), Co-Authors Authors
Douglas Mulhall, Rachel Platin, Sonja Rickert-Kruglov, Tanja Scheelhaase, Christoph Semisch, Christian Sinn, Yael Steinberg.