Renewable Matter # 18 / September-October

Houses like Trees, Cities like Forests

Interview with Michael Braungart

by Silvia Zamboni, interview with Michael Braungart

We cannot settle for climate neutrality, we must become climate positive. Also, we have to learn to do some good to the planet, following the example of trees.

 

 

In 1987, Michael Braungart – a chemistry graduate – founded EPEA, the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency based in Hamburg, of which he is currently CEO. For over twenty years his name and that of the US William McDonough have been linked to the innovative “Cradle to Cradle” design concept. Their latest book The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance has been translated into German Die intelligente Verschwendung. The Upcycle: Auf dem Weg in eine neue Ueberfluss-gesellschaft. Is it purely thought provoking or can there be, in theory and practice, such a thing as smart waste?

“The concept underpinning ‘intelligente Verschwendung’ (smart waste) is that the amount of energy inputs we have is 20,000 times higher than our needs, which is why we can employ materials and energy generously. Provided, though, that whatever we produce is conceived as beneficial to us rather than merely reducing negative impacts and that is meant for post-consumer reuse of materials, instead of becoming waste. Once such conditions are met, in the end nothing goes to waste. Such approach is an invitation to celebrate life, our role as human beings and our footprint, as opposed to feeling a burden for the planet. In such respect, the title is partly provocative towards the cultural approach of German people, primarily orientated to reducing pressure on Earth. Anyhow, we are talking about smart waste rather than stupid waste. Nothing like what can be seen on your motorways: it is striking to see how Italians think it is funny to throw waste out of their cars in order to keep them clean inside. The problem is that such materials and goods are not designed to be disposed of in the streets without causing harm.”

 

Unfortunately you are not the first foreigner to point out such bad habit in Italy. But let’s now expand on your second statement according to which today indoor pollution is higher than the outdoor because of particulates and other pollutants that are released, for instance, by wall-to-wall carpeting, wallpaper and laser printers.

“These are materials and goods that were not designed to be used indoors. Moreover, in order to achieve their thermal insulation, today sealed buildings are constructed, which contribute to a higher concentration of indoor pollutants: a typical example of wrong things perversely made to perfection. In Germany, 40% of houses are mouldy; as a result childhood asthma is soaring. Not to mention the damage from exposition to particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons released into the air, for example, from rugs and carpets. How can it be that exposing a mattress just bought from IKEA to fresh air for 24 hours eliminates all problems that it can generate? On the market, though, there are innovative ‘Cradle to Cradle’ products, such as a bed that we designed with a Dutch firm, the first conceived to be used in a closed environment without any health hazard.”

 

Cradle to Cradle

The industrial revolution of “Cradle to Cradle”-certified products is going rather well in many sectors: there are thousands of products on the market with such trademark. Five are the factors assessed in the certification process: impact on health of the employed materials, making a distinction between those belonging to the biological and technological cycle; possibility of securing post-consumer recycling of materials going back to the original cycle; use of renewable energies in the production process and zeroing of CO2 emissions; responsible use of water as an inalienable resource for mankind; respect of subjects and natural systems involved in the planning, use, post-consumer management and reuse of products. 

In the construction sector – which rules the roost – there are facades and interior cladding that at the end of their life can go back to the manufacturer who will be able to make other products out of them; clay bricks with a high thermal inertia potential. Instead of the conventional rock wool there are other insulating materials manufactured with harmless organic non-flammable materials.

In the textile sector, there is a biodegradable fabric, for instance, suitable to tailor sturdy work clothes that after 50 washes are collected by the manufacturer and recycled as humus. There is a wide choice also for personal hygiene and hair products and for home detergents and cleaning products.

And there is more. In the printing industry, there are vegetable oil-based colours, biosolvents and fabric dyes obtained from extracts of olive tree leaves, which can be used for the treatment of rawhide. There is also a guitar manufactured according to the famous Fender model, but with C2C-certified materials.

There are five levels of progressive excellence according to the certification: basic, bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Up until now only one product was awarded full marks, platinum: some external and internal cladding made with regenerated tree bark.

www.cradletocradle.com

 

 

 

In order to solve indoor pollution problems you suggest overturning the concept of passive house (energy-passive house) into house like a tree and from sealed buildings to healthy buildings. What does it mean in practice?

“First of all we need to change our starting mindset and consider humans as an opportunity for the planet. This is a completely different and crucial approach, because religions, Islam included, see in humans the evil that only God can redeem. Consequently, at best, we can only hope to do a little less harm. However, there are too many of us on Earth, therefore containing the damage is not enough. Why, instead, do we not construct buildings that, by contrast, support our own existence? Buildings with the positive characteristics of trees, i.e. able to cleanse the air by removing particulates and other pollutants, to filter water and be also beneficial to other living species.”

 

“Buildings like trees, cities like forests:” that’s the theme you tackled at last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture. This is certainly a very poetic vision, but how can it be turned into practice?

“It is actually very simple. Suffice it to look at how a tree functions, how it supports the life of 200 different living species, how it cleanses the soil, how it depollutes the air, how it changes colours according to seasons, how it reproduces and supports its own existence. These are all things that a conventional building cannot do; so, compared to a tree, it is far more primitive. This is why I urge people to take trees as an example. The right question we should ask ourselves is how we can generate within buildings clean and healthy air for those who live or work in them. The answer to this question is linked to quality technological innovation. Why not exploit 100 square metres of flooring in a flat by covering it with a carpet able not only not to give off bad smell but also to clean up the air? This is the kind of innovation we need. There are paints that are not antimicrobial but rather pro-microbial thanks to active microorganism in them able to clean the air by eating up pollutants: a kind of performance that only up to twenty years ago or so seemed science fiction. And precisely thanks to quality technological innovation, which does not imply extra costs, the profits of manufacturers are 20-30% higher to the standard ones in the sector. The same happens with companies producing insulation materials for buildings based on organic substances: they earn more.”

 

Any examples?

“As to wall-to-wall carpeting I am thinking of Desso, a company producing modular carpets with such characteristics. Then there is a firm in Switzerland that is already winning its spurs in particular in the field of airplane seats thanks to the use of materials contributing to improve the quality of indoor air, notoriously rather poor in the cabins. Such products are the exact opposite to traditional sofas stuffed with synthetic foams and upholstered with fabrics so full of toxic substances that they end up in incinerators. We are now used to producers informing us that their products are ‘free from’ specific toxic substances, but this is not enough: we need to know the quality and healthiness of all components of a product. As a student, I took apart a TV set for fun: I thus singled out over 4,000 chemical components. The question is: are we interested in having some thousands of different chemical components or do we more simply just want to watch TV? The answer to this question takes us from the concept of ownership to that of service and use of a good, as it happens with more innovative products. Still within the construction sector, today there are facades whose use is sold rather than their ownership, a solution that lowers the costs of access to such goods for end users. After all, we do not need to own the façade, we merely use it. It is a totally different approach.”

 

Are there buildings already made like trees and neighbourhoods, if not cities, planned and developed like forests? And can the experience of the one million trees planted in New York between 2011 and 2015 be considered an initiative going in the right direction? 

“The most advanced examples amongst those accomplished is that of the city of Venlo in the Netherlands, where the quality of the indoor air of buildings is excellent and facades are made with air-cleaning materials. Then there is the 20/20 Haarlemmermeer Business Park, near Amsterdam, where I worked with William McDonough: it is a unique settlement in the world, inspired to guarantee people’s wellbeing, combining ecodesign with ‘Cradle to Cradle’ (C2C)-certified innovative products. Moreover, in the Swedish town of Ronneby, together with a pool of local architects I contributed to transform a vast decommissioned industrial area in a neighbourhood conceived according to C2C criteria, where everything, from nursery schools upwards, is thought and planned in terms of positivity, wellbeing, not of damage containment, or ‘less bad.’ As to the New York experience, it certainly had the effect of creating community pride and the satisfaction of embellish the city. But in terms of improvement of the environmental quality the impact is negligible.”

 

You suggest not demonizing human carbon footprint and to embrace the concept of positive human carbon footprint. In practice, what do such passage and the replacement of the neutral carbon to that of positive carbon approach entail?

“Carbon neutral is a rather absurd concept: only if we do not exist can we be carbon neutral. Let’s take again trees as our example: they are not carbon neutral, but carbon positive; they are not climate neutral, but climate positive. Why don’t we try and do some good to the environment and climate by extracting carbon from the atmosphere? Instead today the opposite happens: huge fertile lands are used for biofuel cultivation. And every year we consume outrageous quantities of soil, which instead is an excellent carbon sink. The mere regeneration of soil has beneficial effects; the mere storage of carbon into the soil is carbon positive. Thanks to the enormous quantity of energy inputs at our disposal, we could act positively to capture the CO2 present in the atmosphere and with the help of solar energy we could turn it into methanol, to be employed as fuel. And since CO2 would undergo a transformation process, it would not be released into the atmosphere. Such is the meaning of carbon positive: permanently reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. In other words, we must do the right thing, not the ‘least wrong’ thing, and feel in a partnership with the natural world and not guilty.”

 

Why do you deem wrong the “Zero Waste” approach, a well-established must within the conventional notion of the circular economy?

“Minimizing the damage of the quantity of waste we produce is not useful for the active and positive protection of the environment: at best it helps cut our energy bills. Where is the sense in defining sustainability, as we read in the Brundtland report, as the path to meet the needs of present generations without compromising the fulfilment of the needs of future generations? How sad! Our aim should be the wellbeing of other humans, children, young people, who want to be taken seriously today. Far from not seeing their needs compromised tomorrow! ‘Zero Waste’ is a perspective that is the exact opposite of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ because it is an approach characterized by negativity and implies keeping on reasoning in terms of waste. If I told you, ‘Don’t think about pink crocodiles,’ in your mind an image of a pink crocodile would immediately form. Bricks containing toxic ashes from recycling are manufactured and we talk about the circular economy (and nevertheless they are considered a circular economy output)! The ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach eliminates the very concept of waste: only humans produce waste, no other living species do, because in nature everything is turned into useful nutrients for the life of other species. If a product is harmful for health or after its use it becomes waste and/or cannot be taken apart to recover the various components, it means that originally there was an innovation and quality deficit: it has nothing to do with ethics and responsibility towards the environment. Similarly, we must not experience by definition the role of consumers feeling eternally guilty, but we should rather consider ourselves as drivers of change: a washing machine that lasts thirty years is a nightmare, because it prevents technological innovation from reaching the market. More generally, once again it’s all about culture. In Germany, in Italy, people feel guilty for the damage perpetrated against Mother Nature, like a baby that regrets being naughty with his/her mum that is always so good to him/her; we wonder whether what we do is ethically correct or not. In Holland, on the other hand, where half of the country is below sea level and the risk of flooding is tangible, the cultural approach to nature is not that romantic. Nature can act as our teacher, not as a mother.”

 

Are there any levers that can push more than others in the C2C direction?

“The most important one is public procurement which every year is worth billions of euro in the Countries’ balance sheets: it is crucial that public purchases favour C2C products, so we need to work seriously in order to define guidelines for public procurements so that they can go in this direction. Such lever can also help support local economy. The second fundamental factor is taking seriously the market economy and support the opportunity offered by digitalization. There is no use in getting a product’s LCA as if it had to last forever. Instead, we must define the period of usability of a good, going for example from the sale of a washing machine, to the sale of a certain number of wash cycles. This is the key for learning and innovating. As I already mentioned, washing machines lasting 30 years prevent technological innovation from reaching the market.”

 

Don’t you think that today we are actually faced with the problem of goods planned to last for a very short time because of the so-called planned obsolescence?

“The problem would be solved, as I said, if we moved from purchasing for example a washing machine to buying a certain number of wash cycles, let’s say 3,000. This type of new-generation appliance will have a meter that will start at 5,000 points: a 90° wash will be worth 3 points, a 30°, only 1. In this way people will be encouraged to wash at lower temperatures in order to save points and people will make sure they do a full load, since they pay according to the number of cycles washed (pay-per-wash). At this stage, planned obsolescence will no longer be relevant, because the washing machine must last for the 3,000 wash cycles that I bought. Moreover, extending corporate social responsibility prevents companies from privatizing profits while externalizing losses. Why, for instance, should we be concerned about end-of-life disposal of Chinese solar panels? If anything this is a problem that must concern manufacturers who know the materials they were made with.”

 

What do you teach in the course “Cradle to Cradle for Innovation and Quality” you are running at the School of Management at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam? Is it the only existing chair in the academia world?

“I chose to teach in this institute because it is one of the top public Business Schools in Europe. In my course I try to focus on the cost-effectiveness of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ industrial model. At the moment, it is the only existing academic chair, but the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ design concept is also included in many waste management curricula.”

 

By way of conclusion, the C2C vision can risk, with good reason, raising the bar of the challenge to the linear economy?

“A word of caution: this is not an abstract vision to be filed away in a drawer for the next twenty years, but the opposite of the traditional philosophy of the ‘less bad.’ As far as the extent of the challenge, change requires time. But we can do it. My office is in an old building, in Hamburg’s historical centre, where in 1762 for the first time human rights were proclaimed in Germany. Between such declaration and the achievement in 1919 of the right of vote for women, over 150 years elapsed in Germany. The Internet precursor was born in 1969, long before the current digital revolution. It took solar technology 60 years to reach mass markets. The ‘Cradle to Cradle’ model turned 25 and yet there are a number of products with such trademark. Personally I am very optimistic: as soon as people understand that ‘less bad’ does not mean ‘good’ but only ‘less worse,’ they can only go down the road of C2C.” 

 

 

E. Bompan, “Upcycle and the Atomic Bomb. Interview with William McDonough,” Renewable Matter n. 6-7, October-December 2015; www.renewablematter.eu/art/125/Upcycle_and_the_Atomic_Bomb

M. Moro, “Lest We Forget Beauty. Interview with Stefano Boeri,” Renewable Matter n. 15, March-April 2017; www.renewablematter.eu/art/300/Lest_We_Forget_Beauty

Park 2020, www.park2020.com/en