The true meaning of Cradle to Cradle® for IFCO

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 24th August 2021, in Stories

The Cradle to Cradle® framework inspires industrial solutions that design for zero waste. Our mission at IFCO is therefore in complete alignment with this mindset. We continuously strive for a more resource-efficient use of materials, energy and water through our unique pooling and food-safe sanitizing services. The centerpiece is our unrivaled capacity to recover and fully recycle our Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) within our own closed loop as part of our circular economy business model. Here, we explore the true meaning of Cradle to Cradle for IFCO.

Designing products that respect the environment

"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," highlights Professor Michael Braungart, the co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy, in a recent interview. "And this is exactly what IFCO is doing."

Cradle to Cradle is shorthand for a concept that appears simple on the surface but is actually quite complex to implement. It is based on the fundamental belief that products and industrial processes can be designed to have a positive impact on the environment, rather than a negative one.

Both co-founders of the Cradle to Cradle design framework, chemist Michael Braungart and el arquitecto William McDonough,, firmly believe that today’s environmental concerns should be seen as a challenge to businesses to develop products that do no harm — neither to humans, nor to the planet — throughout their entire life cycle. It’s a vision that Michael Pooley, CEO at IFCO, shares.

"Sustainable packaging design looks at the material, but also at the entire production, usage, recollection, reconditioning and renewal processes," explains Pooley. "Our view is that packaging should never be an afterthought. It is an integral component within the fresh grocery supply chain."

As a result, the Cradle to Cradle philosophy completely aligns with the commercial and environmental convictions at IFCO. "And this is why I’m a big fan of IFCO reusable containers," notes Braungart. "They are designed with a purpose from the beginning. The system is safe, healthy and not hazardous."

What is the meaning of Cradle to Cradle?

Inspired by nature, the purpose of Cradle to Cradle design is to get more value out of the resources that are used for manufacturing products and providing services. And to keep the value and quality of those resources in use as long as possible, if not infinitely.

In the eyes of the founders, products do not progress along a linear route, from raw materials to waste. Instead, they remain in a cyclical process. The emphasis is on safe and sustainable production, use, reuse, recovery, and recycling of products.

Essentially, the Cradle to Cradle concept promotes intelligent industrial design to ensure that everything can become a nutrient for something else. Waste streams are viewed as raw material, not material for landfills.

The waste can be one of two things: either a compostable element for the natural biosphere, or a technical element recovered for the technosphere. In fact, the philosophy is best summed up in these three words from Braungart: "waste equals food".

At IFCO, our RPCs are recovered for the technosphere. At end of service life, they are 100% recycled into new crates. Most importantly, the old crates are food for new RPCs of the exact same high quality as the originals.

A philosophy that inspires sustainable and purposeful design

The true meaning of the Cradle to Cradle philosophy stands out for its enthusiasm for impactful results through purposeful design. And also the fact that it led to the world’s most advanced standard for designing and manufacturing sustainable products, the independent Cradle to Cradle Certified® Products Program.

It is the premium benchmark for sustainability around the world and across all industrial sectors. In addition, it provides a reputable eco-certification that is renowned for its transparency. Moreover, this certification program provides a clear framework that promotes future-oriented solutions. The whole Cradle to Cradle philosophy is forward-looking in its nature — and is therefore the very opposite of the usual doom and gloom scenarios that accompany many environmental movements. It calls for innovative solutions rather than restrictions or limitations.

So how exactly does the Cradle to Cradle mindset align with IFCO sustainability goals and our circular economy business model?

IFCO RPCs achieved Cradle to Cradle Certified® Silver

To be awarded the prestigious Cradle to Cradle certification, IFCO underwent a rigorous and detailed testing regime. The IFCO RPCs themselves, the material composition and the production and recycling processes for our reusable containers were put under the microscope.

Numerous health aspects were scrutinized. The impact of our model on human and environmental health during the stages of production, use, reuse and recycling were investigated by EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency), the accredited assessment body for the Cradle to Cradle Certified certification.

It is this multifaceted deep analysis and third-party quality assurance that sets the Cradle to Cradle movement apart from other environmental certifications. It covers five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy and Carbon Management, Water Stewardship, and Social Fairness.

The entire IFCO European line of Lift Lock RPCs — optimized for fruit and vegetables, meat and baked goods — were awarded Cradle to Cradle Certified® at the Silver level. This means they are now the first and only fresh-food RPCs with this status. In Material Reutilization, IFCO Lift Lock RPCs were awarded Gold.

How did IFCO earn this prestigious achievement?

Safety and sustainability are at the heart of the IFCO circular business model. At the core of the IFCO approach is a focus on durability, reparability, and true recyclability.

Our unique pooling system of durable reusable containers are designed to reduce the environmental impact of the global fresh grocery supply chain. By designing for an extended lifetime, our reusable packaging solutions have a more positive impact on the environment. As such, we show the best understanding for the true meaning of the Cradle to Cradle mindset.

Protecting health and safety

IFCO RPCs are designed, manufactured, pooled and recycled to strict health, safety and environmental standards. The key to success is our ability to precisely define the material streams in the production process. Reflecting on IFCO’s processes, Braungart confirms: "You make sure that no contaminations happen during the recycling process, so that’s impressive."

Engineering for 100% recyclability

By repairing and recycling our RPCs, we maintain their value in the future. If our RPCs cannot be repaired, the entire crate material is 100% recycled and reused to create new IFCO crates within our own closed loop. Again, our knowledge of our material streams ensures that our RPCs can be fully and safely recovered and recycled.

Creating the infrastructure for recycling

The sophisticated IFCO SmartCycle™ infrastructure for recovering our RPCs from users and recycling them into high quality new products ensured that the European Lift Lock RPCs achieved the Gold level in the Material Reutilization category. This category looks at the extent that products contain recycled content and how they are recycled after use. To achieve Gold in this category is a huge achievement.

Respecting the environment

When measuring overall environmental impact, a life-cycle assessment reveals that using IFCO RPCs instead of single-use packaging cuts water consumption by 80 %, reduces solid waste by 86 % and reduces CO2 emissions by up to 60 %.

How to optimize for future generations

A central aspect of the Cradle to Cradle certification is a requirement to commit to improving circularity within the manufacturing and use of the Cradle to Cradle Certified products. This is something that IFCO already embraces and welcomes. In the past, we have measured the impact of our reusable packaging solutions on the environment through independent life-cycle assessments, in addition to the more recent Cradle to Cradle certification program.

We innovate to continuously improve our processes and products from an environmental perspective. It is how IFCO strives to address the most important challenges of our time — reducing waste and achieving net-zero emissions in the future.

Our own operations will be carbon neutral by 2030, and we have made a firm commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2035. We achieve this with best-in-class service centers, best practice in corporate governance and an inclusive working environment.

Our overriding goal is to improve our own products and services so that we help make the entire fresh grocery supply chain sustainable.

A common vision for a sustainable value chain

From a supply chain perspective, IFCO RPCs are designed to provide the best and optimized experience for everyone involved in the fresh grocery sector. Our RPCs ensure ease of use and superior product protection at every step of the fresh grocery supply chain, irrespective of the fresh produce or the type of journey undertaken. IFCO and the people behind Cradle to Cradle clearly share a common vision. We strive for systems that keep materials safely in use and in circulation — and out of the natural environment. At IFCO, we invest in the future. It’s a responsibility we carry with pride.

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