During the 1970s, Swiss architect and industrial analyst Walter Stahel coined the expression “cradle to cradle” while developing a closed-loop approach to production processing. Further in 2002, German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, who was also regarded as the “father of the circular economy,” wrote the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” that introduced and detail their Cradle to Cradle design model, while also discouraging downcycling by encouraging the production of goods in consideration of the benefits and applications of upcycling.
Understanding the Principles of Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle or C2C is a design approach to production and consumption based on biomimicry or processes found in nature that considers resources and materials as “nutrients” circulating indefinitely within the economy in a feedback-rich closed-loop. It also sees wastes as everlasting resources that could be reintroduced back into the economy.
Nevertheless, it is fundamentally a criticism of the popular corporate phrase “cradle to grave,” which describes traditional production and consumption models within a linear economy characterized by the life cycle of a product beginning as a raw material extracted from nature and ending as waste materials in landfills.
Braungart and McDonough laid down key tenets for integrating the C2C approach within the economy. First is the elimination of the concept of waste. Industries should produce materials that could be reused perpetually. Societies should also deploy systems aimed at collecting and recovering the value of these materials following their use.
Second is the need to maximize renewable energy. The use of renewable energy sources to include wind power and solar power, including concentrated solar power and photovoltaic technologies, promote the use of perpetual inputs for energy production.
Furthermore, in their model, Braungart and McDonough also explained that materials produced and used for industrial and commercial purposes fall into either one of the two categories: biological nutrients and technical nutrients.
Take note of the following:
• Biological Nutrients: These are organic materials that can be readily and safely disposed of in a particular natural environment without negative environmental impact, thus providing nutrients to life forms. Note that the disposal of organic materials is dependent on the characteristic particular area. Some of these materials might be harmful to a particular natural environment.
• Technical Nutrients: These are non-toxic synthetic materials that could be used continuously without losing their integrity and quality. Hence, instead of being downcycled into materials with lesser value until they become wastes, they can be used over and over again, thereby remaining within closed-loop industrial cycles. They have no negative impacts on the natural environment.
The principle of Cradle to Cradle is considerably straightforward: promote and maintain the high-quality use and circulation of biological nutrients and technical nutrients to protect and enrich ecosystems while enabling economic productivity.
Applications and Examples of Cradle to Cradle Approach
Take note that the application of the Cradle to Cradle approach is not limited to manufacturing and industrial design. Banking on the regenerative design principle introduced by landscape design professor John T. Lyle, it can also be applied to the design of urban environments, construction of buildings and public infrastructures, as well as social and economic systems.
Within the realms of economics, the approach is one of the core principles of a circular economic system. As a backgrounder, a circular economy is a proposed economic system that aims to reduce or eliminate the production of wastes through the continual use of finite resources, particularly based on material recycling, recovery, and regeneration.
In addition, the design and deployment of a circular business model is a specific microeconomic application of this approach. A circular business equips an organization with a competitive advantage through the design and implementation of processes that promote the sustainability and longevity of production inputs and outputs.
More than just a corporate social responsibility, a circular business model maximizes the utilization and extraction of value from raw materials and the end-user products by ensuring all materials used and byproducts created are reusable.
Braungart and McDonough defined certification criteria for products that meet the principles of C2C. However, in 2012, the proprietary certification process has been turned over from the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and promoting innovation for the circular economy.
The following are the certification criteria:
• Material Health: The chemical composition of these products should meet the established definition of biological and/or technical materials. Hence, they should have little to zero negative impacts on the environment.
• Material Utilization: In addition, these products, as well as their material components, should also be readily recoverable and recyclable using established or existing recovery and recycling methods, technologies, and processes.
• Energy Used: At least 50 percent of the energy input used in the production of these products should come from renewable sources. The energy input requirement encompasses subassemblies and all other parts of the production process.
• Usage of Water: Companies should also use water in a sustainable manner. As a production input, this water should come from sustainable sources. Their disposal and discharge quality should have little to no impact on the environment.
• Social Responsibility: Furthermore, companies should operate and approach stakeholder relationships based on the principles of social responsibility. They should respect diversity and follow fair labor practices.
Several products that have either earned a C2C Certification or followed a similar design and production principle have been introduced in the market. Consider BioFoam as an example. Unlike expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam, which are made from polymers derived from fossil fuels, this patented biodegradable foam is made from vegetable materials. When discarded and disposed of, is material constituents become biological nutrients that can safely decompose while enriching the soil.
Ecovative Design LLC, a biomaterials limited liability company based in New York, has also developed and utilized a technology for utilizing mycelium produced by mushrooms and other fungi to produce organic compostable materials that can be processed and transformed into construction materials, thermal insulation panels, and protective packaging.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cradle to Cradle Approach
Considering the principles, applications, and examples mentioned above, the overall advantage of the Cradle to Cradle approach centers on its suitability to support sustainable development, as well as the implementation of a circular economy.
Below are the more specific advantages or benefits:
• Environmental Conservation: The approach takes into consideration the need to minimize or eliminate the negative impacts of industrial and commercial activities in the environment by ensuring that materials and products produced and consumed in the society can continuously be used, thus lessening or eradicating waste production.
• Long-Term Economic Growth: Because of the specific focus on environmental conservation, another advantage of the Cradle to Cradle approach is the promotion of sustainable development that benefits the current generation without compromising the future needs of the next generation.
• Business Models and Analytical Tools: The approach can also be used in designing models for designing, deploying, and analyzing the value chain of a specific business organization, its corporate social responsibility program, or its production or manufacturing processes, among others.
• Expandable Applications: Remember that this approach is not limited only to production and industrial design. Because it is also an example of a whole systems concept, it can be integrated with other whole systems approaches used in urban planning, engineering and architecture, and social and economic systems.
Of course, despite the aforementioned, the real-world advantages are yet to be seen. The benefits listed above remain hypothetical. It is also worth mentioning that critics have highlighted the disadvantages of the Cradle to Cradle approach because of issues with practicality and feasibility.
The following are the specific issues and disadvantages:
• Constraints in Recycling: Current processes and practices in waste assortment and recycling remain inefficient because of the simplest fact that discarded products need to be disassembled or reprocessed to extract their individual components or deconstruct their material constituents.
• Issues About Costs: Similar to recycling constraints, another disadvantage of the Cradle to Cradle approach is the cost implication. Extracting specific components such as rare-earth metals is uneconomical. The inclusion of specific processes and standards within the production phase might also be cost-inefficient for manufacturers.
• Limitations in Products: Taking into consideration the need to utilize either or both biological and technical nutrients in the introduction and production of new products might be too limiting and inflexible. There are certain products made from raw materials that do not readily fall under either of the two categories.
• Supply Chain Dependence: Another disadvantage of the approach is that it is too dependent on a seemingly infallible supply chain. Supply disruptions can disrupt the entire C2C framework of a particular manufacturer, thus resulting in production delays or a complete inability to produce a particular product.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Bakker, C. A., Wever, R., Teoh, Ch., and De Clercq, S. 2010. “Designing Cradle to Cradle Products: A Reality Check.” International Journal of Sustainable Engineering. 3(2): 2-8. DOI: 1080/19397030903395166
- European Academies’ Science Advisory Council. 2015. Circular Economy: A Commentary from the Perspectives of the Natural and Social Sciences. European Academies’ Science Advisory Council. Available via PDF
- Geissdoerfer, M., Pieroni, M. P. P., Pigosso, D. C. A., and Soufani, K. 2020. “Circular Business Models: A Review.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 277: 123741. DOI: 1016/j.jclepro.2020.123741
- Lyle, J. T. 1996. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development and Design for Human Ecosystems. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0-471-17843-9
- McDonough, W. A. and Braungart, M. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. ISBN: 0-86547-587-3