Giving plastic bottles a second life is a “little strange”, according to professor Dr Michael Braungart, because there is “no life in a plastic bottle” in the first place.
Speaking with The Fifth Estate from the Sustainable Business Network’s Circular Economy Summit last week, the chief executive of Europe’s Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) GmbH and co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) approach says when compared to Europe, there is a “different quality” to the work New Zealand firms are doing on the circular economy and C2C.
Some of this work problematic, he says, such as the use of a toxic product like fly ash in bricks, and then calling them“circular economy” products.
The same holds for re-manufacturing used plastic bottles into surfboards, he says.
“There [appears to be] no plan to actually use healthy materials,” Braungart says.
The circular economy is often just “linear thinking in cycles”.
However, he says that businesses in NZ are “taking the first step” towards “making an economy designed for human health”.
There is a need to define the terms cradle to cradle and circular economy, he says.
It is not just about durability, nor is it about using the same stuff for the same purpose again.
Part of it is designing for longer lifetimes, he says, and defining how materials are used.
However, there are presentlyno business models along those lines.
Recycled surfboards are a start
The need to address waste by reducing it and improving the quality of products could point a way forward.
“We could use the environmental debate as an innovation engine,” Braungart says.
We need to ask, “what do people really want to buy?”
He argues that it is the service a product provides, not the product itself, that people actually want.
“Why buy a robot when you actually need welding points?”
The growing issue of solar panel waste in Australia is the result of people wanting to harvest photons – energy – but they end up “stuck with waste” as a result.
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“Less bad” products are not good enough
Braungart also cautions against the quest for perfection.
“Why should you optimise the wrong things when you perfect things?”
The whole school of sustainability thought dedicated to minimising environmental damage is also not beyond reproach.
“Minimising damage is not protecting the environment,” he says.
“…we need to make good
He offers paper as an example. It is possible to manufacture paper that is 100 per cent compostable. However, an IKEA catalogue 30 years ago contained 90 hazardous chemicals unsuitable for composting. Now they contain 50 – so are still unsuitable for composting.
There is an “innovation opportunity” there, Braungart says. “Paper is always worth something.”
The world needs beneficial products
The real leadership in C2C is coming from the companies making products and using materials that are “beneficial” for the environment.
Although “responsible” resource use is presented as an ethical category, Braungart says that genuine C2C is “not about an ethical category”.
It is about having an economy that is “only selling what people ask for” – in other words, selling photons, not panels.
“Why not sell harvesting photons for 30 years? We need new services, and new business models.”
Genuine C2C challenges the conventional thinking about products and business models. It says “you don’t need a window, you need looking out insurance and insulation”, Braungart says.
“We have made ownership a religion – but you don’t need to own a phone [for example], you need the service it provides.”
He suggests the whole modus operandi of business needs to shift.
“Companies are socialising for risk and damage, and privatising for profit. This is not appropriate.”
A lack of legislation is holding Australia back
An absence of legislation to drive more beneficial approaches is an issue for Australia, he says.
In Belgium, by contrast, legislation is driving the transformation of agriculture. Building materials giant, Wienbergerat, is helping turn “deserts left from mining” into “paradises”.
Cement companies are changing tack to leave behind a “beneficial footprint” when mining ceases, Braungart says.
There is a “certain paradox” at work.
“As long as we see impact as a negative thing, we miss the chance to be beneficial.”
“We need to learn to be good for other species. We need to learn to support other species.”
The negative narrative needs to shift
The negative narratives in abundance globally are not helping. The spectre of overpopulation causes people to feel fear, Braungart explains. When people feel fear, they become greedy and they become angry.
But when people feel safe and accepted, they become generous.
“Let’s celebrate life – instead of the Coca Cola can.”
If we can celebrate the life there is on this planet, then “we don’t need to collect things”.
The environmental discussion needs to “celebrate humans as an opportunity, not a burden.”
Humans also need to learn to “enter the food chain at a much lower level.”
Do that and we could “easily feed 20 billion people”.
Humans are the “only species that make waste,” Braungart says. “It’s crazy.”
The potential of young people is huge
He says the younger generation should not underestimated, as they believe “you are stupid” if you are making waste.
“Cradle to cradle will become more successful [due to those younger generations] because they don’t want to be idiots. The selfie generation is quite useful.”
Braungart’s EPEA and thinkstep have signed a formal partnership agreement to stimulate C2C and circular economy growth in Europe and in Australia and New Zealand. Braungart and thinkstep ANZ chief executive Barbara Nebel signed the regional partnership agreement last month.
“By combining and advancing Cradle to Cradle as a material design concept with Life Cycle Assessment for impact assessment we are in a unique position to offer our clients a complimentary set of services,” Nebel told The Fifth Estate.
She says the combined expertise of the two organisations will enable the C2C concept to be scaled using software solutions, and to be combined with quantitative assessments that incorporate circularity, resource efficiency, resource effectivity and “future-proof material compliance”.
“Through the collaboration the Cradle to Cradle concept will be more accessible for organisations in Australia and New Zealand by a local contact,” Nebel says.