Michael Braungart: inspiring a Cradle to Cradle® mindset

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 9th June 2021, in Stories

IFCO had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Dr. Michael Braungart at a key milestone in the company’s history, at a time when our European line of Lift Lock reusable plastic containers (RPCs) were awarded Cradle to Cradle Certified® at the Silver level. IFCO’s European Lift Lock products are now the first and only fresh-food RPCs to meet this ambitious sustainability standard.

IFCO: The Cradle to Cradle® philosophy is often summed up in just three words: "waste equals food". It’s a provocative statement, and one that resonates strongly with the IFCO sense of purpose. Our goal is to eliminate food waste and material waste in the fresh supply chain. Professor Braungart, could you tell us what "waste equals food" means to you.

Professor Braungart: Actually, my original version was "food equals food." Why? In nature, everything is designed to be a nutrient or beneficial for something else. Nature doesn’t know any waste at all. We are the only species that makes waste.

But then I met my friend William McDonough and he didn’t understand my "food equals food" idea. So, I said OK, let’s think of this another way. How do we design things so that nothing becomes waste, that it all remains a type of food? And that’s how we came up with the Cradle to Cradle "waste equals food" philosophy. It’s a way of design so that everything becomes nutrients for something else.

"I’m very happy that IFCO is able to define its material streams and recover and recycle your own containers. You make sure that no contaminations happen during the recycling process, so that’s impressive"

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, Founder and scientific director of EPEA

How does it work in industry?

What that means in practice is that we use intelligent industrial design to create products that can be carefully disassembled or broken down into separate nutrients, either through biodegradation for our soil, or into new products via recycling. Anything that wears out or degrades during use needs to go back safely into the biosphere. We cannot allow any toxic substances to be released into nature. Just like in nature, the whole process needs to be beneficial. Everything that does not wear out or degrade belongs in the technosphere and should be reused again and again or recycled. Not downcycled into products that are of a poorer quality but recycled into products of a similar quality or even upcycled. That’s what I mean by "waste equals food". The waste is really a nutrient that can be returned to the start of the production process again and again. There is no waste in Cradle to Cradle. It’s not even about zero waste. It’s all about creating nutrition.

"I really like the IFCO reusable containers. They are designed with a purpose from the beginning, and this is why I really enjoy them. They are part of a good and healthy system"

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, Founder and scientific director of EPEA

As the first and only supplier of Cradle to Cradle Certified® Silver reusable containers, the entire IFCO team feels incredibly proud of this achievement. How do you view this milestone for the fresh supply chain?

When you are reusing and recycling material what you need to know and ensure is that all the material is safe and not in any way hazardous. And this is exactly what IFCO is doing. And this is why I’m a big fan of IFCO reusable containers. They are designed with a purpose from the beginning. The system is safe, healthy and not hazardous. What is impressive with IFCO is that you precisely define all the material streams. It’s a good and healthy system." You have this system of reusable plastic products from defined material inputs within a circular infrastructure. That is quite unique.

I’m very happy that IFCO is able to define its material streams and recover and recycle your own containers. You make sure that no contaminations happen during the recycling process, so that’s impressive.

Why is it important for companies to get their products Cradle to Cradle Certified?

If you want credibility, you need to have recognized certification to prove it. This is so important in the food supply chain. We need to make sure that food is not contaminated by any plasticizers, pigments or problematic ingredients. So that when you eat your vegetables, you’re not eating plastic at the same time.

This Cradle to Cradle certification confirms the beneficial use of plastic. There are good reasons for plastic, but only when it’s the healthy kind.

In general, what could the food industry be doing better?

There is so much that we could be doing. But our goals need to be the right kind. Considering that we need ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, I’d say that the whole agriculture system needs a complete shift right now. It’s not about becoming more efficient, but about being more effective. If you take a really close look at nature, you’ll see that it’s not efficient at all. But it is effective.

We should be working on effective methods to provide healthy nutrition in a way that respects the environment. Making things less bad is simply not good enough. It needs to be beneficial. So don’t try to optimize existing stuff that is already bad. When you make the wrong things perfect, you just make them perfectly wrong. First, define what’s the right thing and then you make it right.

You’re clearly very passionate about your work and you obviously don’t mind speaking your mind. When you were working as a Greenpeace activist, your ideas weren’t exactly mainstream. Did you ever imagine you would end up advising governments on how to transform their cities, and corporations on improving their designs and production processes?

When I was blocking pipes on a Greenpeace rubber boat, I was never thinking that I was morally better than anyone else. I’ve just always believed that if something is toxic or if it’s waste, then it’s wrong. I feel the same way today.

This is why I really like the IFCO reusable containers. They are designed with a purpose from the beginning, and this is why I really enjoy them. They are part of a good and healthy system.

"The idea behind Cradle to Cradle is to celebrate the human footprint, not to minimize it."

Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, Founder and scientific director of EPEA

You’ve been advocating for the Cradle to Cradle design concept since the 1990s – the same time, by the way, that IFCO launched its pooling system for reusable containers. Just like IFCO, you’re clearly in it for the long haul. What makes you optimistic?

Young people today. The next generation. I call them the selfie generation. They want to be proud of what they’re doing. They are more critical of wasteful or hazardous models. With them, you don’t get recognition for making things that are toxic.

We’re also living in a fast-changing environment. All the famous design schools on the planet are now teaching the Cradle to Cradle model. Designers are no longer just beautifiers. Today, they really define the whole business model and the whole supply chain. This is why it’s still such fun for me today — and why I believe that Cradle to Cradle is approaching like a friendly tsunami.

A final word of inspiration?

Essentially, the Cradle to Cradle approach is not about minimizing our ecological footprint, but about maximizing its effectiveness. The idea behind Cradle to Cradle is to celebrate the human footprint, not to minimize it. We should see Cradle to Cradle as an innovation opportunity. It’s not about making a moral or ethical choice. It’s really only about making the right kind of innovation. And it’s the quality of innovation that matters. It’s not about demonizing plastic but using the right plastic for the right purpose. And IFCO is the perfect example for that.

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