waste equals food

Cradle-to-cradle design (C2C) is a biomimetic approach to the design of systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes in which materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and synthetic  materials.

Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste free. The model in its broadest sense is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many different aspects of human civilization such as urban environments, buildings, economics, and social systems.

The term ‘C2C Certification’ is a protected term of the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) consultants. It is a proprietary system of certification. The phrase ‘cradle to cradle’ itself was coined by Swiss architect Walter R. Stahel in the 1970s, and the current model is based on a system of ‘lifecycle development’ initiated by German chemist Michael Braungart and colleagues at the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in the 1990s and explored through the publication ‘A Technical Framework for Life-Cycle Assessment.’ In partnership with Braungart, American architect William McDonough released the publication ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ in 2002, which is an effective manifesto for cradle to cradle design that gives specific details of how to achieve the model. The model has been implemented by a number of companies, organizations, and governments around the world, predominantly in the European Union, China, and the United States. Cradle to cradle has also been the subject matter of many documentary films, including ‘Waste=Food.’

In the cradle-to-cradle model, all materials used in industrial or commercial processes—such as metals, fibers, dyes—are seen to fall into one of two categories: ‘technical’ or ‘biological’ nutrients. Technical nutrients are strictly limited to non-toxic, non-harmful synthetic materials that have no negative effects on the natural environment; they can be used in continuous cycles as the same product without losing their integrity or quality. In this manner these materials can be used over and over again instead of being ‘downcycled’ into lesser products, ultimately becoming waste. Biological Nutrients are organic materials that, once used, can be disposed of in any natural environment and decompose into the soil, providing food for small life forms without affecting the natural environment. This is dependent on the ecology of the region; for example, organic material from one country or landmass may be harmful to the ecology of another country or landmass.

The certification criteria in MBDC’s C2C certification process are: ‘Material health,’ which involves identifying the chemical composition of the materials that make up the product. Particularly hazardous materials (e.g. heavy metals, pigments, halogen compounds, etc.) have to be reported whatever the concentration, and other materials reported where they exceed 100 parts per million. For wood, the forest source is required. The risk for each material is assessed against criteria and eventually ranked on a scale with green being materials of low risk, yellow being those with moderate risk but are acceptable to continue to use, and red for materials that have high risk and need to be phased out. Grey for materials with incomplete data. The method uses the term ‘risk’ in the sense of hazard (as opposed to consequence and likelihood).

The next assessment is of ‘material reutilization’ which is about recovery and recycling at the end of product life. The third assessment is of energy required for production, which for the highest level of certification needs to be based on at least 50% renewable energy for all parts and subassemblies. Fourth is water, particularly usage and discharge quality. The fifth area is ‘social responsibility’ which refers to fair labor practices. The certification is available at several levels: basic, silver, gold, platinum, with more stringent requirements at each.

Currently, many human beings come into contact or consume, directly or indirectly, many harmful materials and chemicals daily. In addition, countless other forms of plant and animal life are also exposed. C2C seeks to remove dangerous technical nutrients (synthetic materials such as mutagenic materials, heavy metals, and other dangerous chemicals) from current life cycles. If the materials we come into contact with and are exposed to on a daily basis are not toxic and do not have long term health effects, then the health of the overall system can be better maintained. For example, a fabric factory can eliminate all harmful technical nutrients by carefully reconsidering what chemicals they use in their dyes to achieve the colors they need and attempt to do so with fewer base chemicals.

The use of a C2C model often lowers the financial cost of systems. For example, in the redesign of the Ford River Rouge Complex, the planting of Sedum vegetation on assembly plant roofs retains and cleanses rain water. It also moderates the internal temperature of the building in order to save energy. The roof is part of an $18 million rainwater treatment system designed to clean 20 billion gallons of rainwater annually. This saved Ford $50 million that would otherwise have been spent on mechanical treatment facilities. If products are designed according to C2C design principles, they can be manufactured and sold for less than alternative designs. They eliminate the need for waste disposal such as landfills.

The question of how to deal with the countless existing technical nutrients (synthetic materials) that cannot be recycled or reintroduced to the natural environment is dealt with in C2C design. The materials that can be reused and retain their quality can be used within the technical nutrient cycles while other materials are far more difficult to deal with, such as plastics in the Pacific Ocean.

One effective example is a shoe that is designed and mass produced using the C2C model. The sole might be made of ‘biological nutrients’ while the upper parts might be made of ‘technical nutrients.’The shoe is mass produced at a manufacturing plant that utilizes its waste material by putting it back into the cycle; an example of this is using off-cuts from the rubber soles to make more soles instead of merely disposing of them (this is dependent on the technical materials not losing their quality as they are reused). Once the shoes have been manufactured, they are distributed to retail outlets where the customer buys the shoe at a fraction of the price they would normally pay for a shoe of comparable aspects; the customer is only paying for the use of the materials in the shoe for the period of time that they will be using the shoe. When they outgrow the shoe or it is damaged, they return it to the manufacturer. When the manufacturer separates the sole from the upper parts (separating the technical and biological nutrients), the biological nutrients are returned to the natural environment while the technical nutrients are used to create the sole of another shoe.

Another example of C2C design is a disposable cup, bottle, or wrapper made entirely out of biological materials. When the user is finished with the item, it can be disposed of and returned to the natural environment; the cost of disposal of waste such as landfill and recycling is eliminated. The user could also potentially return the item for a refund so it can be used again. Ford’s Model U is a design concept of a car, made completely from cradle-to-cradle materials. It also uses hydrogen propulsion.

Criticism has been advanced on the fact that McDonough and Braungart keep C2C consultancy and certification in their inner circle. The authors argue that this lack of competition prevents the model from fulfilling its potential. They plead for a public-private partnership overseeing the C2C concept, thus enabling competition and growth of practical applications and services. Also, Experts in the field of environment protection have questioned the practicability of the concept. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, head of the German Wuppertal Institute called his assertion, that the ‘old’ environmental movement had hindered innovation with its pessimist approach ‘pseudo-psychological humbug.’ ‘I can feel very nice on Michael’s seat covers in the airplane. Nevertheless I am still waiting for a detailed proposal for a design of the other 99.99 percent of the Airbus 380 after his principles.’ Schmidt-Bleek believes it to be completely out of the question that the concept can be realized on a bigger scale.

Moreover, several Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) practitioners, eco-design engineers and recycling experts tell their doubts about the technical implementation of the Cradle-to-Cradle concept. Indeed, some claims (from some C2C representatives) pretend that C2C-certified products can be either compostable, or indefinitely recyclable with minimal quality losses. According to several experts, this assertion should be re-discussed, especially because recycling conditions are much more complicated than what is defined and marketed by the C2C certification. In addition to this recycling issue, the fact that transportation criteria are not part of the certification’s demand is also a potential source of discussions.

Some claim that C2C certification may not be entirely sufficient in all eco-design approaches. Quantitative methodologies (LCAs) and more adapted tools (regarding the product type which is considered) could be used in tandem. It is safe to say that every production step or resource-transformation step needs a certain amount of energy. Even the highest Cradle to cradle certification requires only 50 % of energy for production to come from solar sources. The C2C concept foresees an own certification of its analysis and therefore is in contradiction to international ISO standards 14040 and 14044 for Life Cycle Assessment whereas an independent and critical review is needed in order to obtain comparative and resilient results. The C2C concept ignores the use phase of a product. For many goods e.g in transport, the use phase has is the most influence on the environmental footprint. E.g. the more lightweight a car or a plane the less fuel it consumes and consequently the less impact it has. Braungart fully ignores the use the phase.


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