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Promising the earth – or is the future really green

Promising the earth – or is the future really green
Photo: © CCB Magazin

Cradle to Cradle, the principle of composting all raw materials after use or using technology to put them back into circulation, has been considered a promising alternative to conventional production for years. But does it always make sense? A discussion.

Yes. Cradle to Cradle is the future. If we want to transform the economy and society, we must manage all resources in cycles - technologically and biologically

Text Nora Sophie Griefahn     andTim Janßen

Nora Sophie Griefahn and Tim Janßen from the C2C NGO, a Berlin-based organization that supports cradle-to-cradle processes in society. They are co-founders of the C2C Congress. Photo © C2C NGO

Species extinction, resource scarcity, climate change - We humans have caused a great deal of major damage. For decades, we have been employing the same strategy to combat this, trying to reduce our negative footprint. Yet in spite of more than 40 years of climate and environmental policy we are on the verge of reaching tipping points in the earth's climate system - or have long since passed them. At the same time, the world population is growing and increased numbers of people will need energy, goods and food in the future. On its own, the path we have been pursuing to date of reducing emissions and curbing consumption is therefore not a suitable strategy at the global level for countering the climate and resource crisis in the long term and securing a future worth living for coming generations. Because in our current linear system all this would mean is that resources run out a little more slowly and a little less CO2 is released into the atmosphere. But being less bad is not enough.

Instead, we humans must change the systems we ourselves have created in such a way that irreversible damage is not only avoided, but ideally natural systems are rebuilt. That's why we need cradle to cradle. This means that all products must be designed and developed for their specific use scenario in such a way that they can circulate in biological and technological cycles. Materials that inevitably enter the environment from abrasion or wear and tear when using a product should be biodegradable. Products that are not subject to wear and tear should be constructed in such a way that their materials can be separated by type, making them truly recyclable. Production should use only renewable energies from recyclable plants, and soil, water and air should be protected - or better still cleaned up and strengthened. And humane working conditions should be mandatory at every point in all value chains.

But let’s not misunderstand each other. We are not saying that C2C should be a call for unrestrained waste. It doesn’t mean throwing a biodegradable T-shirt away in the woods after only wearing it once. But whether someone needs two pairs of jeans or 20 is a cultural question. And if all the components of these jeans can circulate in cycles, then even the consumption of 20 pairs of jeans - as superfluous as it may seem to some - no longer poses a threat to our habitat. And C2C is applicable in all industries today. In some, such as textiles and construction, the approach has already reached large companies. In high-tech industries such as automotive or IT, on the other hand, there are only a few products that conform to C2C. But a circular C2C economy is possible, as shown by numerous products and business models that have already been developed using this approach. We now urgently need to set framework conditions and implement technologies and processes that promote this development. This is the only way to make tomorrow's world work.

No, the cradle-to-cradle concept promises things that it cannot deliver at many points. Many things cannot be put back into circulation at all. And it often doesn't make sense to do so

Text Axel Fischer 

Axel Fischer, chemist and press officer of INGEDE, an international research organization. Since 1989, INGEDE has acted as an advocacy group for companies in the paper industry to promote the use of recovered paper in the production of new graphic papers. Photo © private

The cradle to cradle (C2C) principle sounds promising. The concept may be a good approach for fashion items, televisions or bicycles, where items can be put back into circulation either biologically or using technology. This does not apply to paper and printing, where the concept often literally promises the green earth. The worst example for me is the C2C certification of stone foil. This is a mixture of rock flour and plastic to which the term "paper" does not even apply, because it does not contain a single fiber. It can't even be disposed of with construction waste, it can only be incinerated, there's nothing sustainable about it at all. And for other printed products, C2C may still be okay as an additional feature if a product otherwise complies with a proper environmental label such as the Blaue Engel eco-label or the EU Ecolabel. But C2C must not be an alibi for a lack of recyclability, which it is currently becoming. After all, what print shop buries its waste paper behind the house? Who composts their old books? In Europe, 72 percent of paper was recycled last year. This so-called recycling quota refers to the total consumption of paper, cardboard and carton. In Germany, the figure is as high as 78 percent. A print product has to qualify for this. It must be optimally recyclable, not compostable or edible.

Staying with the example of printed products, there are clear contradictions here. The paper cycle needs a healthy coexistence of new and recycled paper. But that's no reason to condemn recycling. At present, enough virgin fiber enters the cycle. What is much more important is that we need to collect more, recycle more and ensure that printed products also remain recyclable so that they can be made into white paper again. The C2C principle does not guarantee this. Printing inks should be "deinkable," that is, they should be able to be separated from the fibers and removed from the fiber soup during recycling. And this is precisely what many cradle to cradle certified printing inks are not. On the contrary, applications have been made to register a number of printing inks that are not deinkable and therefore not suitable for Blaue Engel print products for cradle to cradle so that they have at least some kind of environmental label. What this means is that the whole thing is of no benefit to the environment at all, quite the opposite. In my opinion, the whole procedure is too non-transparent and expensive, much more expensive than a real, i.e. ISO-compliant eco-label. Unlike the Blaue Engel, there is no public discussion of the criteria for C2C - it is a private, commercial label, a business model. Not to say greenwashing. Unfortunately, some market participants are currently jumping on this bandwagon, partly out of ignorance, partly out of desperation.

What’s it all about?
Cradle to Cradle, abbreviated to C2C and meaning "from the cradle to the cradle," was founded in the late 1990s by the German chemist Michael Braungart and the U.S. architect William McDonough. The goal is to make all materials recyclable, biologically or using technology. Products should either be designed in such a way that they can be broken down into separate groups of identical materials - here, we are talking about such things as electronic items, flooring or bicycles, for example the Econova flat-screen TV manufactured by Philips in 2010 and the 100 percent recyclable Senseo Viva Eco coffee machine, or products can be biologically recycled after use, for example compostable T-shirts like Trigema brand ones.

What is the actual situation?
There are no reliable figures on the percentage of all products in Germany that are biologically recyclable. What can be said is that despite high collection and recycling rates, the use of recyclable material in Germany is currently only eleven percent. Only around 10 percent of clothing waste, for example, is recycled. Also, according to a WWF study from 2021, plastic packaging in Germany is made of around 90 percent virgin plastic. More than half is incinerated after use. According to the study, however, more than 20 million metric tons of plastic could be saved by 2040 through new recycling processes - that would be equivalent to more than six times the annual consumption of plastic packaging in Germany. 68 million tons of greenhouse gases could be saved.

The concept is criticized for not moving away from increased consumption, but assumes that a high level of consumption can still be retained with endless cycles of circulation. It is also criticized for the possible unfeasibility of implementing it. A system based on C2C would involve the complete restructuring of industry. And it is not yet clear how we would move from capitalism, which requires endless growth, to a circular economy that consumes only what can be recycled. There is also the question of whether the process always makes sense. For more, read the discussion below.

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