Can we change materials from being ‘less bad’ to ‘good’ for biosphere?

Chemist Michael Braungart suggests products could end their life as biological nutrients

This year, 2018, may yet go down in history as the year the world finally woke up to the environmental damage caused by plastic debris. While images of the garbage patches in our oceans and dead birds and fish with their bellies full of plastic shock us, educational programmes try to tackle the problem by drawing attention to the consequences of global consumption patterns.

The Environmental Protection Agency's competition, TheStory of Your Stuff for example, in which secondary school students create a story about the life cycle of everything from wellington boots to chewing gum is one indication. Or, consider the promotion of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – in particular Goal 12 – which focuses on sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Valerie Lewis, teacher and educator on the SDGs, uses info-graphics on the life cycle analyses of footballs and mobile phones to educate young people about the environmental impact of everyday products. Take a soccer ball for example. Made from oil-based plastics, plant-based glues, cotton and latex rubber, soccer balls are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. A mobile phone in contrast has several recyclable components – metals (recycled as car parts), plastics (recycled as garden benches) and batteries (used in new batteries).

“Nearly 300 grams of gold can be recovered from about one tonne of recycled mobile phones. These 300 grams of gold, when re-used, can save mining 110 tonnes of gold ore,” explains Lewis. Put more simply, one gram of gold can be retrieved from 43 mobile phones.


Global waste

However, German chemist Michael Braungart who is in Dublin on Thursday, June 21st, to speak at the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC) Re-Source 2018 conference, believes focusing on recycling alone won't solve the global build-up of waste.

“Most recycling is actually down-cycling because the quality of the materials are reduced over time. Plastics are mixed with different plastics and moulded into park benches or speed bumps. Aluminium cans, which contain aluminium, manganese alloy and magnesium in the walls and aluminium magnesium alloy in the harder top, are melted together resulting in a weaker and less useful product,” he explains.

Braungart also argues some products made from recycled materials, such as some clothing made from recycled plastic bottles, can contain many toxins never designed to lie next to human skin.

With American architect William McDonough, Braungart is co-author of Cradle to Cradle – remaking the way we make things and The Upcycle – Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance.

"Legislation that bans materials is a sign of design failure. We need to positively design the materials we use. This 'cradle to cradle' design approach is now taught in all design schools," Braungart tells The Irish Times from his Hamburg office before his visit here.

Step further

Yet, moving away from the regulatory and sustainable business approach of “saving the planet” to thinking about providing the earth with biological nutrients and the industrialised world with technical nutrients would seem even a step further that even the much-heralded circular economy [in which materials are brought back into the system at the end of their life rather than discarded].

"When you talk about saving the planet, you turn it into an ethical problem and I think you won't solve problems if they are seen as ethical . . . they have got to be based on [improving your] quality of life," says Braungart, who lectures in process engineering at the University of Luneburg in Germany and is scientific manager of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, a non-profit research centre which evaluates the environmental performance of the world's largest chemical companies.

He suggests this cradle-to-cradle approach to materials is a positive way of working with the environment rather than an approach which is always dealing with the negative consequences of processes and materials that damage the environment. This, he calls, “being good rather than less bad”.

Braungart’s Dublin talk will focus on choosing healthy materials for buildings so that they can have a positive impact on our lives. “You have to think of a building like a tree – which provides shade, habitat, food, energy and clean water. Healthy indoor air has to come before energy reduction in building design,” he says.

There are now more than 50 databases which can give companies substitutions for the materials and examine synergetic effects of materials when used together. Dutch carpet company Desso and Welsh office furniture company Orange Box are examples of companies which now use healthy materials in their production line.

Braungart argues most packaging – which he says makes up about 50 per cent of municipal solid waste streams – can be designed as biological nutrients. “There is no need for shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, yogurt, juice and ice cream cartons to last decades longer than what came inside them,” he says.

New approach

This cradle-to-cradle approach would require a new approach to packaging. McDonough and Braungart suggest such worry-free packaging could safely decompose or be gathered and used as fertiliser, bringing nutrients back into the soil. Similarly, shoe soles could degrade to enrich the environment. And soaps and other liquid cleaning products could be designed as biological nutrients so that when they wash down the drain, pass through a wetland and end up in a lake or river, they support the balance of the ecosystem.

Like some other researchers in chemical and environmental sciences, Braungart is not a fan of incineration as a way of disposing of waste. “Valuable chemicals such as copper and phosphate are lost when they are put into incinerators with municipal waste. A highly developed waste management industry is the biggest barrier to innovation,” he says. Instead, he believes products need to be designed with materials that can be returned to the biosphere as biological nutrients or to the “technosphere” as technical nutrients useful for industrial processes.

When it comes to these technical materials, Braungart and McDonough suggest a different manufacturing and business model in which high quality materials are used so that can be disassembled into their component parts after use. But, crucially, the business model involves leasing of products rather than sale so that the original companies can take back old models to reclaim the parts for re-use in new products. This so-called eco-leasing concept has already been embraced by some carpet companies and chemical solvent producers.

Braungart says leasing has a double benefit. It allows people to satisfy their hunger for new products while manufacturers want them to return their old products so that they can regain valuable “industrial nutrients”. In such a scenario, manufacturers would have responsibility for safely storing hazardous and non-hazardous materials for re-use. Now, that sounds like a brave new world.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment