Countering the plastic flood: With intelligent products

Interview with Michael Braungart

2022-12-05 Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart is considered a pioneer for materials, products and technologies of the future. The founder of the "Cradle to Cradle" design concept was awarded the German Sustainability Prize on 2 December. Braungart has been teaching at Leuphana University Lüneburg since 1994. In doing so, he confronts comprehensive challenges such as the plastic flood.

"All materials that enter the environment must be healthy, otherwise the microplastic problem will become more and more drastic." ©Matthias Oertel
"All materials that enter the environment must be healthy, otherwise the microplastic problem will become more and more drastic."
The Faculty of Sustainability congratulates you on the German Sustainability Award! As a pioneer of "Cradle to Cradle", you are making important contributions to the circular economy. Can you explain what your approach is and how it is meant to contribute to sustainable development?
Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) sees all materials as nutrients for biological and technological cycles. Products that wear out, e.g. shoe soles, are designed to degrade in a biocompatible way. All other products, e.g. washing machines and televisions, are designed so that their materials can be endlessly reused in the same quality.
Cradle-to-Cradle does not want less waste, but abolishes the concept of waste altogether. It is not about being less harmful, but useful - also for future generations. The calorie consumption of ants is equivalent to that of 30 billion people, yet they are an asset to ecosystems. This shows: We are not too many people on the planet, just not good enough yet!
C2C thus pursues the fundamental idea of understanding people as an opportunity for the planet and not as a burden. When people feel valued, they act generously and kindly. We then create a sustainable way of life, not because it is prescribed for us, but because we are happy that others are doing well too.
Plastic floods the oceans, the air, the soil and living beings. What is your perspective on this problem?
The problem is that we are using the wrong plastics. To improve their properties, i.e. to make them transparent, elastic or fireproof, various chemicals are added to them that endanger our health. Many materials were never made for physical contact and environmental exposure. But we cannot prevent these. Since the green dot started in 1990, not a single harmful plastic, e.g. PVC, not a single toxic pigment has disappeared from the market. Instead, the amount of packaging has doubled. If we continue to contaminate our world with microplastics and pollutants, we will soon not be able to use it at all.
Where does the problem arise?
Already in the product design! The Unification Treaty of 1990 states that the sero-system of the GDR is to be adopted. For economic reasons, only polypropylene was used for packaging. For ecological reasons, we should now do the same: use a single type of plastic that is suitable for packaging and subsequent recycling. After all, recycling is only worthwhile with single-variety materials.
In one discounter, I identified 52 different types of plastic in the private labels alone. It is not worth separating them all. Instead, the materials are mixed. This reduces their quality.
Traditional sustainability promotes the optimisation of what already exists. In its name, weight is saved and recycling is increased. But recycling products that were never created for recycling creates landfills elsewhere: Afterwards, their materials are at best suitable for use as park benches or flower pots. The next use is practically impossible. This makes the wrong thing perfect and therefore perfectly wrong!
How can we solve the problem?
Currently, manufacturers profit from the sale of their products, while the general public bears the costs for their disposal. It would be necessary to stick to the polluter pays principle so that producers remain responsible for disposal. If the business model is changed, the same office chair can be produced with two types of plastic instead of twenty, because the producer only rents out the use. Because he gets them back after defined periods of use, he uses high-quality materials. Products thus become services, raw material banks. A BMW contains about 180 different types of plastic; a C2C car is possible with less than 15. In the case of the latter, it is worthwhile to recover the materials. This requires a design with which they remain separable. Reversible adhesive joints, for example, are now available for this purpose.
And all materials that end up in the environment must be healthy, otherwise the microplastic problem will become more and more drastic. Products like nappies can be perfectly biodegradable. We tried that in Israel and planted 130 trees thanks to a baby - so the child was climate positive. We asked: What would be right? Is the step in the right direction suitable to arrive? It's not about efficiency, but effectiveness.
If that is clear, why is production still wrong?
The real problem is that sustainability in companies is still seen as part of the marketing department instead of the innovation department. We have already missed the connection to the world leaders in many technologies. But after 40 years of doomsday discussion, we are motivated to produce intelligent products. This is not a marketing task, however, but the only innovation opportunity left for Europe. Because in the end, healthy living conditions matter everywhere in the world.
What do you think of the European Union's bans on single-use plastic?
Unfortunately, so far this is just tokenism, similar to climate protection. Banning products does not solve a problem if their alternatives are not good. If the EU really wanted to contribute to an improvement, it would have to stipulate that in ten years' time, plastic will only be extracted from carbon in the atmosphere. This can be frozen out, adsorbed or washed out directly at production plants. That would also motivate young people to join in.
Instead, the EU is in danger of developing ecologism. Just as socialism was never social, a system is now emerging that only pretends to be ecological. In Hamburg, there is a copper smelter that produces many times the amount of European domestic waste. Meanwhile, copper is recycled less than ever. And it is becoming scarce! When I was a child, one tonne of copper ore contained 35 kilogrammes of the valuable metal we need for e-cars, for example. Today it's only one to two kilograms. So we don't just need to integrate plastics into a circular economy.
After all, the EU's Circular Economy Initiative contains more than 80% of the "cradle-to-cradle" approach. This is mainly due to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has purposefully introduced this into legislation. Now it is up to the companies to seize this innovation opportunity!
Thank you very much!