Michael Braungart: Designing Eco-Effective Solutions

Michael Braungart, a professor at Germany’s University of Lüneburg, is co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Northpoint Press) with green architect William McDonough. He was a founding member of Germany’s Green Party in the late 1970s and later directed Greenpeace’s chemistry department. In 1987, with the help of his Greenpeace connections, he founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA).

Michael Braungart

Together, Braungart and McDonough wrote the Hannover Principles in 1991, a set of guidelines for sustainable design created for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover, Germany. In 1995, McDonough and Braungart teamed up again to found McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which promotes “eco-effective” solutions, and works with corporations, universities, governmental agencies and cities.

In one of MBDC’s most famous projects, it helped DesignTex produce a compostable chair fabric safe enough to eat.

Cradle to Cradle, published in 2002, has raised awareness of lifecycle design around the world. In keeping with the firm’s philosophy, the book is made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers, is completely recyclable, waterproof and durable.

E Magazine: What is Cradle-to-Cradle design, and how does it differ from recycling?
Braungart: Cradle-to-Cradle design means that, instead of minimizing damage, we create positively. Instead of waking up in the morning and apologizing for being human, we ask how can we be beneficial for other species.

It’s really sad how many people believe that humans are innately flawed.
Yeah, it’s amazing. But when you think that way, you end up trying to be less bad. But less bad is not good. There are far too many people on this planet to just be less bad. What is downcycling?Downcycling is what happens when things are not designed for recycling. For example, the print chemicals for making paper were never designed for recycling, so when the paper is recycled the quality is deteriorated.

So many things have already been designed and manufactured without their next use in mind. Are they doomed to become waste?
We need to see that our waste management systems just perpetuate waste. So we talk about eliminating the very concept of it, and about “waste supermarkets,” where you could buy and sell used materials. One hundred fifty categories of materials can then be reused by people in a context of making sure that these materials don’t end up in a landfill or in an incinerator. We will have to accept a certain low level of contamination and health risk from recycled materials. Otherwise, we cannot make a transition, and everything ends up in incinerators, contaminates the air and all the nutrients are gone.

What does it mean for form to follow evolution?
Look at a tree, how amazing it is. It has the potential, not just to replicate or to change color for the seasons, but to make complex sugars, to generate habitat, to make soil. It follows the intelligence of thousands and thousands of years of evolution. We need to make sure that we combine human creativity, design, intelligence and culture with the evolutionary design which has been developed for us for thousands and thousands of years.

What is a product of service, and how does that tie in with Cradle-to-Cradle design?
In my analysis of what goes into a TV set, I identified 4,360 different chemicals. Do you really want to own this chemical waste, or do you just want to watch TV? In this context, a TV set, a washing machine or a car are just service products.

Shaw Carpets, the largest player in the field, is thoroughly green.© MBDC

You criticize efficiency, in part because it doesn’t respect diversity.
First of all, efficiency is ugly. If I invited you for dinner, would it be acceptable to serve a nutrient pill and a glass of water?

What are some examples of companies that are successfully incorporating Cradle-to-Cradle design?
One is Shaw Carpets, the largest player in the field. It has a real commitment from Robert E. Shaw, and it has people who really understand that this is beneficial for the company. There are other companies—office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, definitely. There is also a company here in Germany, Marabu, which makes chemicals to be printed on glass or plastic.

What can people do as individuals in their everyday lives to promote the use of Cradle-to-Cradle design?
Whenever I buy anything, I ask if I can bring it back. If just five percent of customers in the U.S. would do that, it would change the whole agenda.