Cradle to Cradle Provides a Material Framework for a Circular Economy
By Maren Maier
Issue 7 Spring 2011
Cradle to Cradle, a concept introduced by Bill McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart over a decade ago, boldly invited the business community to rethink the way we make things. A decade later, Dr. Michael Braungart and his Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) continue their work by urging policy-makers to rethink what we do with our waste.
Cradle to Cradle is founded on the idea of positive-value material management. Rather than sending products to landfills and incinerators, it advocates a system where material content from obsolete products re-enters the production cycle. Businesses design products whose components and materials can be easily disassembled and recycled at the end of the product’s life. (For more information about Cradle to Cradle, check out our interview with Dr. Braungart in Catalyst Issue 7).
Aside from the obvious gains in resource efficiency and pollution reduction, Cradle to Cradle also moves us closer to a circular economy. Technical materials can circulate at high quality through numerous production cycles while biological materials can safely return to the biosphere, effectively nudging global production and trade away from the traditional industrial model. Its adoption, however, rests in the hands of policy-makers.
Luckily, many countries today face a watershed moment in materials management. European Union (EU) legislators are pressuring the U.K. as well as France to transition away from landfills or face sanctions. Emerging countries such as India and China seek ways to tackle an escalating garbage problem. These governments face two pathways: recover materials or incinerate them.
Unfortunately, mixed waste incineration is gaining the upper hand. Despite the mounting evidence against it (See CATALYST Articles Transitioning from Waste Incineration to Beneficial Materials, and Transitioning from ‘Waste to Energy’ to an Integrated Strategy for Materials Management), municipalities continue to accelerate incineration projects for “energy recovery,” where trash is burned to create electricity. In 2013, mixed waste incinerator projects were approved for Copenhagen, Denmark, the U.K. and China, all with surprising support from EU countries.
In many industries the direction is clear; businesses recognize the financial sense and security of recovering materials for industrial and agricultural re-use. Regrettably, this recent rise of mixed waste incineration is derailing materials innovation. New incinerators will result in a misallocation of capital and operating costs for decades to come, and misinformed governments represent the most threatening barrier to system-wide change.
Cradle to Cradle urges the world’s political leaders to steer the ships of state away from broad-scale mixed waste incineration to materials use and recovery. In doing so, it challenges governments to shift focus from short-term crisis response to strategically driven solutions necessary for a sustainable future.
As world leaders gather this month for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting on “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics, and Business,” they could perhaps use a dose of Cradle to Cradle’s material advice.