If you create waste,
Professor Dr Michael Braungart
Few figures are as polarising as Michael Braungart. The controversial chemistry professor is the originator of a completely new form of economic activity and production; in cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design, there is no such thing as waste—only nutrients, categorised by Braungart as biological or technical. Materials thus become the nutrients for new products. But cradle-to-cradle is far from synonymous with the circular economy. The latter is only a first step on the way to a whole new mindset. Braungart’s ultimate goal is to confront climate change with new techniques and technologies. Instead of radical restrictions, he calls for intelligent products that can be leased as services. And what about all the CO2 that may end up in the atmosphere during this process? We need to develop the technology to recover it and use it to create new products. Bad plastic becomes good plastic.
Braungart comes from a well-educated middle-class background. Both his brothers are literary scholars. Confessing that history, German and philosophy are his family’s strengths, Braungart describes how he decided to turn his back on them. I realised that all that history and philosophy isn’t worth a thing if the planet vanishes. And chemicals that accumulate in breast milk are stupid chemicals, pilloried by Braungart as chemical harassment.
After an initial tidal wave of hype, C2C fell out of view for a long while. In recent years, however, companies have rediscovered the concept as a cause to support. What—apart, that is, from the ever clearer, ever more imminent climate crisis—has changed?
Professor Dr Michael Braungart’s ideas are finally gaining traction.
Many companies are only now beginning to address the idea of a circular economy. What’s your view on this tardy recognition?
New business models are appearing at long last. Ownership has been a religion for so long, but the coming generation is now seeking something to be proud of. If you create waste, you’re just stupid. Previous generations have regarded the environment as an issue of ethics, but ethics have always gone out of the window as soon as a crisis came along. Today’s generation sees the environment as an issue of innovation, which is why it has taken so long to get here.
You’ve always been ahead of your time, but now the zeitgeist has finally caught up with you. Or is it sheer necessity?
Naturally, prices for raw materials have soared and pressure to take action over the greenhouse effect has escalated. But back in 1994, Michael Otto and I and various others presented a washing machine designed on a usage-based model—selling the machine’s performance—as a way of encouraging manufacturers to use the best plastics available, not the cheapest. That was 27 years ago. Last year, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, pointed to precisely that example to demonstrate the future of the circular economy.