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Feature: Holistic remedy

In the early 1980s, Michael Braungart was a Greenpeace scientist working on a rather unorthodox campaign to clean up the paper industry. As expected, the paper bigwigs were not impressed, especially when their waste and water pipes were blocked. Twenty years later, all of the targeted companies have adopted Braungart's proposed technology.

Understanding his pedigree is important when you consider his current views on waste minimisation, recycling and sustainable development. Because for those struggling with producer responsibility and eco-designs, Braungart's views do not make comfortable reading.

Put simply, there is no place for sustainable design and producer responsibility within Braungart's 'cradle-to-cradle' holistic approach.

There is, he says, no point in using fewer bad materials that are toxic to the Earth. Instead, he advocates that companies should focus on using only 'good' materials.

"Instead of looking at how natural systems are waste, we should see that everything becomes a nutrient," he says. Looking at everything in terms of nutrients is the central theme to Braungart's radical approach.

"It makes sense not just to minimise waste but to make sure that beneficial forces come out of it," he says. The theory is that when products come to the end of life, science should enable them to be reused or put back into the life cycle without being wasteful. At all.

If this sounds fanciful and impractical, Braungart has examples to prove his theory. "We developed ice cream packaging for a company in India and China that was not just biodegradable, but it was only solid when frozen. It turned to liquid in a few hours. The liquid contained nutrients and seeds of rare plants, so when thrown away it was beneficial to the environment."

More convincing (and practical) is his work with carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries, where his model enabled the company to use only products that could be broken down and used again. He has also worked with furniture maker Herman Miller on the creation of the ergonomic Mirra office chair which is made of completely reusable components.

Michael Braungart is a professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg and founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency
in Hamburg.

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