The circular economy – ‘closed loop’ or ‘cradle to cradle’

Posted by on Jan 8th, 2012 and filed under Economy, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

The term ‘circular economy’ covers a number of different ideas and beliefs, from ‘the closed loop’, ‘cradle to cradle’ or ‘design to disassemble’. Which ever definition is used, there are a number of ‘core principles’ in design that underpin the theory.

The circular economy is loosely defined as one which balances economic development with environmental and resources protection. It’s quite simple really. The idea is to design stuff with a view to recyclying when we have no further use for our things. It also concentrates on cutting out unnecessary use of energy by transport, packaging and regulation. The subject has attracted the interest of academics and environmental lawyers as it proposes new regulation, both in the USA and in China.

An important idea is to move from ownership of things, to rental. At the moment, we throw away our unwanted mobile phones, washing machines etc. If we rent them and they return to the manufacturer so he gets the parts back, it is in his interest to design things to dismantle, and hence reduce landfill.

The accepted working definition is that interlinked manufacturing and service sector businesses seek the enhancement of the economy and environment by collaborating in the management of environmental and resource issues. The theme of the concept is the exchange of materials where one facility’s waste, including energy, water, materials as well as information is another’s input. Working together, the business community seeks a collective benefit that is larger than the sum of the individual benefits.

The movement has gained particular traction in China, following a decree issued by Guiyang, the capital city of the Guizhou Province in 2004 and is aimed at dealing with the exponential growth experienced over the last decade, that is causing a rapid increase in materials and energy consumption and related environmental damage. A number of legislative, political, technical and financial measures are being put place, including a Cleaner Production Promotion law, to create a legal and financial framework for the ‘circular economy’.

In the UK, one of the leading proponents of the movement is the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, launched on 2nd September 2010 at The Science Museum in London.  Ellen called for people to ‘re-think, re-design and build a sustainable future’. The foundation is encouraging product design, initiatives in packaging, property development, education and re thinking business structures.

‘Cradle to Cradle’ or ‘Closed Loop’.

Walter Stahel, an architect, economist, and one of the founding fathers of industrial sustainability is credited with having coined the expression “cradle to cradle” in the late 1970s; even though Braungart and McDonough claimed to have invented it. Stahel intended to reverse the crude and wasteful linear industrial system the world has inherited from the industrial revolution, which depletes finite resources, creating toxic products that largely end up in landfills to poison the environment.  Stahel developed a “closed loop” approach to production and founded the Product Life Institute in Geneva with the main goals of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention. Kodak, DuPont, the BBC and Bosch are among its clients.

Cradle to cradle” as propounded by Braungart and McDonough in their book published on synthetic paper in 2002 means to go one step further; they want industry not only to close the loop by recycling, but to redesign the industrial processes altogether. Instead of concentrating on making the current system more efficient (less bad), we can redesign the system to be thoroughly good. Recycling and reuse is not a solution if the product or material is toxic in the first place, it will inevitably end up in the environment to poison us more slowly, but still surely. 

‘Cradle to cradle’ is a set of (evolving) design principles ,based largely on good intentions:

·     The technical cycle of manufacturing industry should mimic the biological cycle of metabolism and ecology,  though somewhat separate from it

·      Technical nutrients such as metals, plastics, and other non-compostable materials should circulate from user (consumer) to manufacturer, with as much renewable energy use as possible

·         Recycle and reuse all finite resources

·         Diversity is strength (buffers against external shocks)

·         Prices must tell the truth about externally costs

·         Systems thinking is key

·         It should serve equity, economy, and ecology.

Companies currently subscribing or aspiring to the cradle to cradle approach include Aveda and B&Q. 

Cradle to cradle” clearly works as a slogan that people can relate to and rally round. Ironically, McDonough and Braungart are asserting proprietary rights over the slogan so others can’t use it, and refusing to open up the database on toxic chemicals to the public as they had promised years ago, or to make the C2C (short for cradle to cradle) certification transparent. The Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM program is a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles. The program provides guidelines to help businesses implement the Cradle to Cradle framework, which focuses on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients.

Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, MBDC’s certification program takes a comprehensive approach to  evaluating the design of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories:

  •        Material Health,
  •        Material Reutilization,
  •      Renewable Energy Use,
  •      Water Stewardship,
  •      Social Responsibility

The website here sets out 4 levels of certification, from  Basic, through to Silver, Gold and Platinum, which requires products that are actively closing the loop, using 100% renewable electricity ( a very high bar to achieve), implementation of  measures to improve water conservation and also social responsibility certification.

McDonough and Braungart have also set up the ‘Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Instiute’ that includes a senior vice president from Walmart as an advisor. It lists 16 companies who support the foundation, most of which seem to be involved in the construction industry and offers a verification and certification service. Funding for the project seems to be unclear as the ‘donations’ page says

‘The Institute’s activities to soon be supported by a modest certification fee from product manufacturers. But for now, we rely on the generosity of donors who believe in the vision of a prosperous future for all and are willing to contribute to making it a reality. You can be one of those visionaries.

Caution should no doubt be exercised by those planning to use the new service. As one disenchanted supporter said of McDonough : “His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high .. licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.”

For any advice and assistance for issues like these please do call Jeremy on 0844 2722322 or submit a comment below. Jeremy will come back to you at the earliest convenience.

By: Jeremy Barnett

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