Michael Braungart : Do Good, Not Less Bad

By Bhavani Prakash

In the realms of industrial design and closed-loop manufacturing systems, the international bestseller, “Cradle to Cradle, Reinventing The Way We Make Things” is a revolutionary and avant-garde work by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Braungart is the Founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, Germany.

Meeting Michael Braungart in person, during his recent visit to Singapore was quite an experience. His hard hitting punchlines came with such wit and astute observation that it is nearly impossible to take offence. The most radical of his ideas when analysed, are seemingly so, only because they stem from common sense – something companies and people often forget, being stuck in the old paradigm that “waste” is a necessary by-product of economic activity and one does better by merely reducing it.

Braungart is a chemist by profession and a founding member of Germany’s Green Party. Currently a Professor teaching Process Engineering at the University of Lüneburg in Suderburg, Germany, he is passionate in his worldview that most problems of the world such as pollution, toxicity and waste are all design issues.

I shared a ride with him recently as he headed for the National Environment Agency (NEA) building for his next talk. He had just finished giving one at the Asia Sustainable Packaging Summit 2010.

“So there is no work for the likes of me then?”  I smiled when catching a few minutes by his side. “We’re all about behaviour change,” I explained.   Braungart replied in his strong, amiable German accent, “Saving the planet makes it sound so much like an ethical issue.  And you can’t solve problems if you make it an ethical issue.  I’d frame it as “let’s not be stupid” rather than “let’s be ethical.”  Look at the “quality” of everything we do, design things the right way – that is more likely to lead to solutions. ”

I pondered over this, as I listened to Michael Braungart’s (MB) thought provoking ideas over the course of his presentation:

Zero Waste

Michael Braungart

MB: The very idea of Zero Waste means you’re still thinking about waste. When you say there’s no pink elephant in the room, you’re still thinking about a pink elephant. The language we continue to use is Zero Waste, Zero footprint, Zero carbon emissions. We say we have to reduce, avoid, minimise – these are all the language of “guilt.”   In Cradle to Cradle, waste is seen as food, as a nutrient that goes back into the biosphere (to natural systems) or to the technosphere (to be disassembled and reused in a new products and technical processes).

Companies reducing their emissions or raw materials usage

MB: We love to keep ourselves busy, by optimising the wrong things – by making the wrong things perfect. We have to do the right things first.

If you look at Fiji Water, they make all kinds of claims. “Sustainability. Reduced packaging. Water for Fiji. Investing in Fiji’s Future. Global Giving. Carbon Negative.”  How can water that’s as good as what you get from the tap, that’s packaged in petroleum and shipped all over the world make any sense?  A country like Netherlands can withstand a sea rise of 2m, but Fiji will submerge if the sea level rises by only 0.5m. Maybe this is a good way of returning all the water taken from the island!

Doing “less bad” is like saying I beat my child only 3 times instead of 5.  When I got the Green Chemistry Award in 2003 from President George Bush, I told him, “Look, you don’t have to go to Iraq to use chemical weapons. All you have to do is to give American children Mattel toys.”

Children’s toys have 60 to 700 problematic chemicals which are never meant for children. They are only meant to be cheap. We have made it a culture to make profit and not respect children.


MB: Making wrong things perfect only makes things perfectly wrong! This is what eco-efficiency does. Two thirds of the world’s carbon is in top soil. We lose 4000-6000 times more topsoil than we rebuild. A rainforest has 7000 tonnes per hectare of topsoil. But so much is being cut down and replaced by palm oil plantations which only carry 60 tonnes of topsoil per hectare of palm. Biodiesel made this way and sent to Europe, doesn’t add up and we think we are “being less bad.”  Sometimes it just makes things worse.

The EU banned asbestos from brake pads in cars. What did companies like Ford and Volkswagen do instead?  They used antimony sulphide which is an even stronger carcinogen. There are about 4,500 chemicals in a television set.  How does it help to ban one chemical and replace it with a more toxic one?


MB: Positively define what is the right thing to do and design from the beginning what is meant to go into the biosphere and technosphere. This is eco-effectiveness. Use waste as food. Use current solar income.

13,000 tons of copper every year, worth about $45 million, are lost in Germany in incineration, a valuable metal with reserves left for only 50 years. We have to design systems in a way that we can capture nutrients and bring them back into the system.

Look at this plate(picture on the left) made from recycled polymers that can be recycled endlessly. It doesn’t have the BPA or chemicals that we have to worry about.

Take a washing machine for instance, we should be selling the number of wash cycles instead of selling the machine. If a customer buys 3000 cycles for instance, and pays according to the settings, such as more for hot water, then you don’t have to worry about changing consumer behaviour. The washing machine is designed for disassembly so that after its life is over, it goes back to the company which can recover the components to assemble a new machine.

Designing products as a service closes the material loop, as manufacturers will take back the products, and will put in quality materials instead of cheaper ones, because they know it is going to come back to them.

Cradle to Cradle in real life

MB: We work with many companies to redesign their processes.

In Bionorica Neumarkt building, the use of glass is leased for 25 years and will be returned to SCHUCO to make new glass. The building’s roof has solar panels producing energy for its use and the surplus is fed into the local electricity grid.

In general, urban indoor air quality is 3-8 times worse than outdoor air, because of the offgassing of chemicals from indoor fittings. DESSO leases the use of the carpet, which has fibres that actually improve air quality, instead of offgassing VOCs and other toxic compounds. The building makes use of plant-based air filters and high performing insulating materials that also improve the air inside the building.

The human footprint

MB: We make the human footprint sound as if its really bad for the planet, that we are bad, that’s it’s better to be less bad because we have this guilt about all the negative things we do. It’s like telling a child, it’s better you were not born.

As long as humans are considered bad, zero footprint is a good goal. But why can’t we be 100% good? Let’s celebrate our existence on this planet, by making it restorative.

The biomass of ants is 4 times more than that of humans, so we are not too many. We’re just stupid because we’re the only species which doesn’t act according to natural cycles. Ants don’t make “zero waste.” They make nutrients that are good and can be reprocessed.

Why try to merely “minimise” the impact? If our biggest goal is just to be “sustainable” it means we’re trying to do the minimum. If you say your relationship with your wife is “sustainable” I would feel very sorry for you.

We can make our existence to have a beneficial impact like that of a tree, which gives back oxygen to the air, and recycles nutrients, gives shade and shelter to many species. We need to have a positive agenda.

On the following day of the Asia Sustainable Packaging Summit, I asked Joachim Quoden of Packaging Recovery Organisation or PRO EUROPE, whether Europe is anywhere near achieving Cradle to Cradle in manufacturing. As Managing Director of PRO EUROPE, Quoden oversees producer responsibility with respect to packaging, and packaging waste recovery and recycling schemes in 33 countries (32 in Europe and Ontario, Canada).  The EU is ahead of the rest of the world, when it comes to implementing producer responsibility.  But even Quoden admitted the concepts discussed by Braungart were new, and that Cradle-to-Cradle is an idea only for the coming decade.

How do we convince governments to think long term and support legislations that enhance producer responsibility to take back products and components at the end-of-life stage? How do we get manufacturers to shift their paradigm to redesign products for disassembly right at the very beginning, instead of trying to improve things cosmetically at the end? How do we encourage consumers to start demanding change from producers and government towards a restorative, positive agenda?

As I see it, the likes of us still have a heck of a lot of work to do as we attempt to move towards the ideal cradle-to-cradle world.

Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Janet Unruh: Recycle Everything: Why We Must – How We Can

TED :  William McDonough: The Wisdom of Designing Cradle-to-Cradle


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Posted by on Oct 28 2010. Filed under Green Design/Architecture, Recycling/Waste Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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