Circular Economy is a Business Model for the Printing Industry

German Cradle to Cradle pioneer Michael Braungart calls for a rethink – away from efficiency-driven growth and towards an effective ecology of waste. He is convinced: If we optimize only the existing, we optimize the wrong! We tried to find out what the right thing should be in a conversation with him – and asked him why the printing and packaging industry is so timidly jumping on the topic.

Can western consumer society be converted to a circular economy?

Michael Braungart: We don't consume most things, we just use them. Consumption means usage. We consume food, we consume shoe soles, brake pads, car tires. These things can be designed to flow back into the biological system. Things that are only used, like a computer, a washing machine, stay in the technosphere. So there is no more waste, everything becomes a nutrient within the technosphere. 

Do you think that doing without is a way to save the environment, or do you need a completely new way of thinking? 

Renunciation only stabilizes the existing, because it makes the existing a little less wrong, so to speak. But if I do the wrong thing perfectly, then it's only perfectly wrong. It's about effectiveness, not efficiency.

There are efforts in the European Union towards a circular economy. In your view, is this going in the right direction?

The current EU regulation originally goes back to Cradle to Cradle, which was then rehashed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the European parliamentarians. Unfortunately, they got stuck at 80 percent. After all, the EU regulation distinguishes between biosphere and technosphere. Copper is toxic in the biosphere, but can be used endlessly in the technosphere. But the circular economy is only the beginning, because it is only linear thinking in circles, and at some point I get stuck with the existing materials. Unfortunately, progress and the innovative materials associated with it do not come to light in this way. 

Is Cradle to Cradle only something for idealists?

The Austrian printing entrepreneur Ernst Gugler, for example, is certainly an idealist, but also a good businessman. He has understood that the same printed products can be produced much more cheaply abroad. That's why he tried to find unique selling points for his company. 50 years ago, a printed product in Germany contained around 90 toxic substances, which ruled out composting or thermal recycling without filters. Over the course of time, people only optimized what was wrong by avoiding and reducing it. Today, a normal printed product in Europe still contains 50 toxic substances. Ernst Gugler recognized this and was the first in the world to develop printed products with us that are actually compostable.

So the circular economy is also a business model?

Something that is only supported by morals and is not economical will not last long. Logical innovations create papers that find themselves in biological cycles. Paper is a wear product because it changes fiber length over time. It can be recycled about six or seven times, then the fiber length is too short. Therefore, paper must be made in such a way that it can be returned to the biosphere without any problems. Saving, doing without, avoiding, that's just guilt management. A cherry tree in spring does not save either, it does not reduce, it does not avoid. But all that this cherry tree does is useful for the other living beings. That's what we have to achieve.

Is the current discussion spurring support for Cradle to Cradle?

Every self-respecting design school is now doing Cradle to Cradle. The designers, who before were practically just prettifiers, are now real designers who incorporate the idea of Cradle to Cradle into the products from the very beginning. For young people, recognition in the social network is more important than money. They don't need more morals, they need a slightly exaggerated sense of self-worth. We've always told them how great and wonderful they are, and now they believe it. For them, Cradle to Cradle is their concept of choice, because we just don't make people feel bad. After all, the whole sustainability debate makes the customer the enemy. If you don't buy it, it's even better. But then the manufacturer never earns the money to realign his business.

What is it about the printing and packaging industry that makes it so timid to jump on the topic? 

Companies sometimes fight over amounts in the cent range when it comes to print jobs. They're so bled dry, they don't have the strength to go another way. If you're drowning, you don't think about whether your swimming trunks fit properly. In addition, there is a strong tendency to persist in the industry. This is where public procurement would also have to come in and steer purchasing. People still think that the circular economy is a moral issue instead of understanding that it is the only real innovation opportunity for the West. 

In the packaging sector, after all, it will be hard to completely bypass plastics. Is plastic bad per se, and what do you think of bioplastics? 

There are good reasons for plastics, because they are lighter, because they are shatterproof, etc. – but certainly not for the plastics we are using now. The 1.5 degree target will not save the world. It will only mean that the world will collapse two generations later. We have to make it so that in 2100 there is again the level in the atmosphere that there was in 1900. In ten years, we will only be using plastics that are derived from the carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. In addition, when plastics are released into the environment, they must be biodegradable. 

What do you think of digital watermarks to improve the recycling of plastics? 

You have to ask yourself the questions: what is the right plastic? For example, I developed an ice cream package: when it's frozen, it's a film, and at room temperature, it's a liquid. You can throw away the foil, it degrades within two hours, and it contains seeds from rare flowers, so by throwing it away I'm supporting biodiversity. Existing plastics were never designed to be recycled, so we shouldn't optimize recycling either. We need to ask ourselves the question: what does the right plastic look like? There are, of course, a whole range of bioplastics that make sense. Plastics that enter the environment must be suitable for biological systems. 

You want to shift the current mood in society toward quality. How do you intend to achieve that?

If I deny people existence, they become rapacious and hostile. They can't help themselves and say, "Before you take it, I'd rather take it myself." The point is to create a culture of generosity, which should lead us to a much more modest lifestyle. And not because anyone is telling us to, but because we're happy to see others doing well too. 

A Cradle to Cradle pioneer
Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart is founder and scientific director of EPEA, an international environmental research and consulting institute headquartered in Hamburg, Germany. He is co-founder and scientific director of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA), co-founder and scientific director of Hamburger Umweltinstitut e.V. (HUI) and director of Braungart Consulting in Hamburg. Braungart is engaged in research and consulting for eco-effective products – i.e., products and production processes in a cycle that are useful for people and nature.

Michael Braungart: "Logical innovations create papers that are found in biological cycles."