As we described in Minimizing A Product’s ‘Cradle To Grave’ Environmental Impact, businesses have been under pressure to be more efficient in making and distributing their products and to make recycling easier.
And we also mentioned that the whole concept of a product’s “life cycle”, from the extraction of raw materials to its eventual disposal, inevitably leads to a lot of waste.
Cradle to Cradle
A couple of industrial designers laid out a more aspirational approach in ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things‘, an influential book published in 2002.
The “cradle to cradle” objective encourages product designers to think of products that would not end up as “waste” but rather as nutrients for other products. Think of it as a North Star — an ideal long-term objective that needs to inspire designers to think in a different way.
In the above-mentioned book, the authors study ways to ‘close the loop’, which means all the materials of a product, once its useful life is over, can be recycled or returned to the Earth without having to go into a landfill.
In today’s words, the products need to be part of the ‘circularity economy’.
In their words, they call for companies to work on designing:
products that, when their useful life is over, do not become useless waste but can be tossed onto the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or, alternately, that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials for new products
Focusing on recycling
What we call “recycling” is usually done as a second thought. In many cases, the company that designed and made the product in the first place didn’t intend for a way to recycle it.
In fact, it is often what the authors call “downcycling”, as the quality of the material goes down in each cycle. They give a number of examples, including this one:
when some plastics are melted and combined, the polymers in the plastic—the chains that make it strong and flexible—shorten. Since the material properties of this recycled plastic are altered (its elasticity, clarity, and tensile strength are diminished), chemical or mineral additives may be added to attain the desired performance quality. As a result, downcycled plastic may have more additives than “virgin” plastic.
In other words, not only the material’s properties are altered, but also the extra substances may make it more dangerous to human health. And, in some cases, the amount of energy spent to “give a second life” to the product is far greater than that of making a product straight from virgin materials.
Why does recycling so often make so little sense? Because of a lack of intelligent design. Most companies plan for efficient manufacturing and distribution of their products, but don’t give any thought to the ways their products could still be useful once they reach ‘end of life’.
Some companies who are famous for creating more ‘circular’ products
Here are a few companies that have done a great job making their products more ‘circular’ and bearing the Cradle to Cradle ethos in mind.
Let’s look at what Apple, famous for putting a lot of thought into the design of its products, has been working on.
They have achieved true recycling for some parts of their computers:
we’ve engineered our own 100% recycled aluminum alloy that can be recycled indefinitely while maintaining performance and durability. It has allowed us to transition to using 100% recycled aluminum in the enclosures of many devices
They also developed a robot that disassembles up to 200 iPhones an hour and allows the recycling of many valuable materials.
Can all product designers do the same?
Of course, you may not have the deep knowledge of materials & processes, the teams of engineers, the worldwide distribution network, and the financial resources of Apple. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
G-STAR RAW Denim
The Dutch denim label prides itself on being very sustainable, unlike many fashion apparel brands. Indeed, they are Cradle to Cradle certified for their sustainable denim fabric that uses organic cotton with dyes that include no harmful chemicals and with a minimum of water used:
we introduced a denim fabric with the world’s first regenerative indigo dyeing concept. This means that the waste from the indigo dyeing process is designed to become a fertilizer for the agricultural industry, underscoring our emphasis on circularity.
Many footwear and apparel companies are starting to think about sustainability and a cradle to cradle cycle for products. German brand Adidas are no different and, in Germany at least, they have an innovative initiative – the Ultraboost DNA Loop sneaker model.
These sneakers provide the usual Ultraboost comfort, but they’re made from a single material: TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). Instead of being glued together they are bonded with high temperature instead and, when worn and ready for disposal, they’re returned to Adidas in a provided bag where they’re ground down and the TPU is reused to make…you guessed it, more sneakers!
A SNEAKER THAT YOU CANNOT KEEP, BUT A STORY YOU CAN SHARE WITH THOUSANDS. MADE TO BE REMADE… OVER AND OVER AGAIN. HELP END PLASTIC WASTE.
If the end can become the beginning, we can help keep products in play and waste out of landfill.
Steelcase’s Ara office chair is Europe’s first C2C accredited office chair. The chair uses 42% recycled content and is 98% recyclable. It also holds Intertek’s ‘Clean Air Product’ certification, too.
Steelcase is committed to improving product sustainability, transparency and optimization from design and material selection through end of use to promote circularity and reduce waste.
Steelcase offers one of the strongest extended warranties in the industry and designs, manufactures, and sells products that are built to last.
Steelcase is building a collaborative ecosystem of partners and dealers to support sustainable asset interception through reuse, donations and recycling to extend the useful life of these assets, with landfill as the last option.
Through a renewed focus on responsible materials management, we are minimizing total waste impacts through scrap reduction and prevention in our own operations. We are focusing on reducing single use plastics and increasing recycled content in all packaging.
Thousand Fell are a really interesting apparel brand that focuses mainly on footwear and are probably most famous for their 100% recyclable sneakers made from bio leather and recycled yoga mats!
Our bioleather fabric is coated in natural quartz so that your sneakers can withstand stains and water — while your toes are resting comfortably on a recycled yoga mat insole.
We’ve completely rethought what can and should be used to make shoes, creating vegan sneakers out of corn waste, coconut husk, and recycled bottles — that look and feel better than leather
As well as sustainable materials, they’re praised for their closed-loop approach to recycling, too:
Landfills are officially canceled. We’ve created the first fully recyclable sneaker. When you’re done with your pair, you can send them back on us and we’ll pay you $20 to recycle.
The flatpack giant has an arguably mixed environmental record, but recently they have been making strides towards providing a more circular economy by opening a second-hand store in Sweden that only sells recycled and reused products from its range.
Can one single store like this make any difference to its impact, though?
IKEA has a target to be circular – which includes using renewable or recycled material only, and helping customers prolong the life of their products – by 2030.
It aims to reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than its value chain emits – from the production of raw materials through to customers’ use and disposal – by the same year.
With lofty targets like these, it may be that this pilot store becomes commonplace in future, as it’s fair to say that a lot of used IKEA furniture can be resold and reused by new customers rather than being disposed of.
It is also worth mentioning that many of the large stores now have a second-hand area inside their warehouses, where returned products are sold at a discount.
Read more about IKEA’s circular economy goals here.
This German clothing manufacturer has created a range of fully compostable workwear.
The uvex suXXeed greencycle planet collection is produced using renewable energy and with a commitment to high social standards. Finished items of clothing are packaged in paper bags made from recycled wood fibres and are then transported to customers using the shortest possible routes, having been produced in Europe.
However, the holistic approach that uvex has taken with this collection goes further still, and is wholly aligned with the Cradle to Cradle principle: all greencycle products are truly “designed to be recycled”. In practice, this means that this line of workwear is completely compostable – from the yarn and the dye to the buttons. 100 percent of uvex’s environmentally friendly clothing can therefore be returned to the ecosystem once it has been discarded.
Their story also demonstrates some of the other features of C2C as well as being reusable or biodegradable, namely the use of renewable energy in production, reduction of carbon footprint, and commitment to high social standards.
With today’s trend leaning towards sustainability it makes sense to consider designing products with a cradle to cradle objective in order for them to have a reduced environmental impact and new life after their normal use.
This can win you new business from customers who are interested in purchasing from more sustainable brands and benefiting the environment at the same time.
You can learn even more about C2C and other eco certifications in this post: 15 Key Eco Certifications For Green Manufacturers.
The next step is to understand how to obtain a cradle to cradle certification for your new product, and that’s what we’re going to explore in the next post…
We at Sofeast are not lawyers. What we wrote above is based only on our understanding of the regulatory requirements. We do not present this information as a basis for you to make decisions, and we do not accept any liability if you do so. Please consult a lawyer before taking action.