Brave New Recycling Economy Movement Turns Trash to Treasure


By Michaela Schiessl

Every piece of garbage can be turned into raw material that can be used in future products. With his influential Cradle to Cradle movement, Germany’s Michael Braungart espouses a form of eco-hedonism that puts smart production before conservation.

Brad Pitt is undoubtedly his most celebrated fan, but chemist Michael Braungart prefers to conceal his pride with sarcasm. The American actor and environmental activist confesses that the book “Cradle to Cradle” is one of the three most important books of his life. And how does co-author Braungart respond? “Well, I’m not sure if Pitt has read more than three books yet.”

It’s a typical quip coming from Braungart, a professor based in Hamburg, Germany. To make a snappy remark, he can even forget about his revolution for a moment.

In reality, the 56-year-old is deeply flattered to hear the American star praising his life’s work. And he needs all the praise and support he can for what he has planned, which is nothing less than the environmental and industrial reorganization of the world.

In Braungart’s universe, every product is basically designed to either decompose without causing any harm or to be recycled without loss of quality. His vision is of a planet on which no garbage accumulates, because all waste becomes food.


“Our current world of products is totally primitive,” says Braungart. We produce things, often filled with pollutants, and we eventually throw them away. The toxins escape into the soil, air and water. In his view, our practices are completely underdeveloped — part of a dark, Neanderthal-like world. “A product that becomes waste is simply a bad product. Bad chemistry.”

Braungart wants to apply good chemistry, and make products without any pollutants, which either end up as compost or are returned into the technical cycle as a pure, unadulterated raw material. If this were achieved on a large scale, many things would change. Wastefulness would no longer be bad but would in fact be a virtue, and we would be living in a world filled with abundance instead of restrictions. Our world would mimic nature, in which, for example, the blossom on a cherry tree turns into fruit, humus or a new tree – an elixir of life in all three cases. This eco-hedonism is Braungart’s creed. “I want people to live extravagantly,” he says.

Austerity and sacrifice, the favorite disciplines of many environmentalists, are anathema to him. The German environmental movement? “A club of guilt managers deprived of enjoyment.” The proponents of sustainability? “They’re optimizing the wrong thing.”

To turn his theory into practice, Braungart has established a company, EPEA. His German clients include personal care products giant Beiersdorf and lingerie maker Triumph, mail order company Otto and cosmetics maker Aveda. Braungart advises Volkswagen, Unilever and BMW. With his help, HeidelbergCement developed a special cement that purifies the air once its been processed into concrete. And, in 2013, Puma introduced the first fully recyclable athletic clothing collection, which includes compostable shoes.

Sexy Niche Ideas

Still, he also has many critics. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, the 82-year-old father of the German Chemicals Act, a strict law passed in 1980 designed to protect people and the environment from the unwanted effects of chemicals, questions whether Braungart’s idea can be implemented on a mass scale. He is unimpressed by individual developments like a compostable upholstery material. “I can feel very good on Braungart’s edible seat covers for the Airbus A380 jumbo jet, but I’m still waiting for a proposal to design the remaining 99 percent of the aircraft,” he says critically.

“Braungart’s ideas are sexy, but he operates in niches,” says Gerd Rosenkranz, who served until recently as the spokesman of German Environmental Aid (DUH). Michael Müller, who advises a German parliamentary committee as an expert on sustainability, is downright angry. He feels that Braungaurt doesn’t care about underlying political considerations and, as such, is “not legitimate.” How, he asks, can this brave new recycling economy be implemented if customers are not required by law to return materials?

Müller also notes that it takes considerable effort to push through the kind of new legislation that would be necessary. “There is enormous political and especially economic resistance, because an economy based on wastefulness is very profitable,” says Müller. “It isn’t as though we lack technological solutions. But as long as the common good does not take precedence over private interests in public policy, no system will work.” Besides, he adds, with many products in Braungart’s universe, it is unclear whether and how they will find their way back from the customer to the manufacturer’s recycling operation.

The objections are considerable, but Braungart dismisses them impatiently. He sees his critics as naysayers and worriers, trapped by political constraints. He probably needs this sort of single-mindedness to maintain his enthusiasm for decades, and to remain focused.

Arousing Curiosity

Braungart, with his absent-minded professor’s haircut and metal-rimmed glasses, is a lively and anarchic alternative to the worry-ridden apologists for austerity, but also to old-school chemists. When he gives speeches, as he did to a conference of small business owners in February, he speaks extemporaneously, walks back and forth like a standup comedian, and makes his points as if they had just popped into his head.

“You want less bad? Just hit your child twice a week instead of five?”

“Breastfeeding is great. It detoxifies the mother.”

“(The German state of) North Rhine-Westphalia wants to become climate-neutral. How stupid is that? Have you ever seen a climate-neutral tree?”

Barbie dolls are chemical weapons, and Louis Vuitton bags are a clear case of hazardous waste. Braungart’s unorthodox performance arouses people’s curiosity. Germany’s most successful female entrepreneur, Susanne Klatten, is sitting in the audience. Klatten, a major shareholder in BMW, invests primarily in sustainable, future-oriented technologies. The Bavarian carmaker has also used Braungart’s concept of a recycling economy in its new electric car.

The concept of endlessly repeating material cycles was devised in a New York skyscraper in 1991, when Braungart met American architect and designer William McDonough at a roof deck party. The two men spoke excitedly about the lunacy behind the idea of creating bad products in order to gradually improve them. How much better would it be to manufacture good products and recycle them, they speculated? The idea had been born.

Returning Materials to the Cycle

So that raw materials are truly returned to the cycle, they reasoned, goods should be leased instead of purchased, with producers being required to take them back. In this way, a TV set containing thousands of toxic chemicals would no longer end up in a landfill. Instead of a window, a consumer would buy 20 years of looking through a window, and instead of an office a company would buy seven years of sitting.

The logic is that if manufacturers eventually receive their materials back, it’s worth their while to use high-quality materials. Companies would essentially turn into reservoirs of raw materials.

“Cradle to Cradle,” the first book co-authored by Braungart and McDonough, was published in 2002, and it quickly gained supporters. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became the governor of California soon afterwards, declared his sunshine state to be a C2C project region. Film stars like Meryl Streep, Cameron Diaz and Susan Sarandon promoted the concept. Director Steven Spielberg is a C2C fan. After Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt teamed up with McDonough to have 90 houses designed in accordance with C2C criteria built in New Orleans.

McDonough planted sedum on the 100,000-square-meter roof at automaker Ford’s Rouge River plant. The green roof cleans rainwater and saved Ford the cost of a $50-million wastewater treatment plant. But a concept car based on corn and soy was discarded because it was too expensive.

The eco-visionaries didn’t print their manifesto on paper, but on a polymer from which the ink can be washed, allowing the ink and the book to be recycled. The sequel, “The Next Industrial Revolution,” which included real-life examples, came out in 2008, followed by the third installment, “The Upcycle,” in April 2013.


Germany Slow in Adopting C2C

In Denmark, about 30 large companies have already committed themselves to the C2C principle. Fourteen islands in the North Sea have joined together to form a C2C network. Nike produces C2C sneakers, and Herman Miller’s classic Aeron desk chair is almost completely recyclable. The idea has even taken hold in China, where Goodbaby, the world’s largest manufacturer of strollers and child seats (Maxi-Cosi), sells a special collection with cradle-to-cradle certification.

But nowhere is there more hype about C2C than in the Netherlands. Braungart advises the Dutch government, and since 2010 the country’s entire public purchasing program has been based on sustainability criteria. An area at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is being developed under C2C criteria. The 2012 Floriade international garden show was based entirely on the C2C motto, with the main building, restaurants and sanitary installations generating their own energy. Cutlery, plates and even toilet paper were C2C.

Stef Kranendijk, a former senior executive at consumer products maker Procter & Gamble, discovered Braungart at one of his appearances several years ago. In 2007, he had bought Desso, a Dutch company that makes carpets and flooring for athletic facilities. Braungart’s presentation inspired him, and he began to wonder whether the company could be rebuilt according to C2C criteria.

The process began with the search for nontoxic materials and recyclable yarns. The company increased its consumption of green energy to 50 percent of total energy consumption. Then Desso found a nontoxic adhesive that can be removed. Since then, the company has been taking back its products and recycling them. Even better, Desso’s developers created the Airmaster, a carpet that uses special bacteria to purify the air and absorb fine dust. The green company also makes the artificial turf in sports arenas like Wembley Stadium in London, as well as much of the carpeting used on cruise ships. “Desso has seen a 20-percent increase in revenues,” says Kranendijk, who is very tall.

High Initial Costs Deter Companies

Nevertheless, many business owners are deterred by high initial costs. Others like the principle but object to Braungart’s obstinacy. Why is he so strictly opposed to saving additional resources? Others suspect that he merely wants to line his pockets with his certification monopoly. Responding to such speculation, Braungart and McDonough quickly established a non-profit certification office.

One charge already seems to have been rebutted: that C2C is only feasible in products with simple designs. Maersk, the Danish shipping, oil and natural gas multinational, built the world’s largest container ship primarily on the basis of Braungart’s principles. The ship is 400 meters (1,312 feet) long, 59 meters wide and 73 meters tall, and Maersk built it because it made sense.

Some 98 percent of a ship consists of steel of varying quality, which is bonded to other materials. When the ship is scrapped, the different types of steel are combined with all cables and plastic parts and recycled. The resulting product is of lower quality.

When building the new ship, Maersk installed the parts in such a way that they can be precisely catalogued and easily separated. “The scrapping yards pay us 10 percent more if we know the quality of various materials,” says Jacob Sterling, head of the Maersk environmental division. At a time when steel is becoming scarce, the ship serves as a valuable stockpile of raw material during its operation.

Germans Overcome Reservations

The fact that German industry still struggles with Braungart’s concept, despite such success stories, is the result of a “romanticizing view of nature,” Braungart believes. The typically German chronic “management of guilt” is also at fault. “We’re pretty good at optimizing the wrong thing,” says Braungart. Besides, he adds, German companies make a lot of money exporting waste incineration plants to the rest of the world.

For years, Braungart’s career was constrained by someone very close to him: his wife.

Monika Griefahn, a former Green Party environment minister in the northern state of Lower Saxony, often faced accusations of giving preference to her husband and his work. She once tried to appoint him to an expert commission, and then she supported his involvement in Expo Hannover, the 2000 World Fair. When it almost cost his wife her job, Braungart lowered his profile in Germany. He has only been on the offensive again since she withdrew from politics in 2012.

In the spring, representatives of the construction and real estate sector attended the first Cradle to Cradle Forum at Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. The list of attendees shows how much business leaders have overcome their reservations. Audi and BMW were there, as were Carl Zeiss, Siemens, Bosch, Lindner, Knauf Gips and brake maker Knorr Bremse.

Christiane Benner, a board member with the IG Metall metalworkers’ union, sees C2C as a great opportunity for the German economy. Instead of trying to compete with low-wage countries, she argues, Germany should turn itself into the innovative leader of environmental reconstruction. To introduce Braungart’s idea to her engineers, she made C2C the main topic at an annual meeting two years ago.

But that was where the union official got to know the other, indomitable Braungart. When a few engineers pointed out that sacrifice is also part of change, the chemist became indignant. “Do you homework first, before you start babbling about the limits of growth,” he snapped at his audience.

That’s just the way he is, this professor from Hamburg. For a good insult, he’s even willing to abandon his revolution for a moment.


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