Professor Michael Braungart, scientific director of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, on recycling, the need for ecological rethinking in industry, and his vision of the ideal car.
Mr. Braungart, since 1982 you played a key role in the creation of Greenpeace’s chemical division. What then led you to Cradle to Cradle?
Michael Braungart : Not only in the 1980s there were a number of environmental disasters, such as the big fire at the Swiss chemical company Sandoz, when extinguishing water washed at least 20 tons of poison into the Rhine River. Dead fish in the red river showed right at our doorstep that our form of economics is not sustainable. The concept of cradle-to-cradle design, that is, “from cradle to cradle,” is based on the idea of using raw materials over and over again with the same quality.
What would you say is the biggest success in your work today?
Michael Braungart : Thanks to the environmental debate, a lot has changed in the last few decades. Rethinking is also happening in the automotive industry. But eco-efficient thinking alone doesn’t give us solutions to raw material shortages and waste problems. You have to look carefully at every material you use and watch the overall balance. Many automakers use about 200 different types of plastic in their cars. They end up in the shredder or are incinerated. We must keep high-quality products from being recycled.
The auto industry often argues with lightweight design and safety innovations to justify the use of new materials …
Michael Braungart : Many innovations are unsustainable. Take, for example, the lauded carbon fiber. For this extremely expensive lightweight material, there is still no proven concept for reusing fiber. It’s like an airplane taking off for which there is no runway. Or, for example, steel: A modern car consists of more than 40 different grades of steel. Most of them are melted down again during processing, but all of the precious metals are lost in the process. In addition, the copper content in the resulting steel melt is too high, so fresh steel has to be continuously fed into the circuit.