PARIS — Can we one day live in a world where there's zero trash?
A German chemist named Michael Braungart believes it is possible. He encourages companies to put a complete end to waste in The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, a book he co-wrote with U.S. architect and designer William McDonough.
“The trash can means failure,” says Braungart. "We need to design not to waste.”
In order to reach this goal, Braungart believes a worldwide bank of raw materials needs to be created. "Nature works in cycles of biological metabolism. Let's imitate nature with technical metabolism," he says. "Manufacturers need to know the resources they have at their disposal, to know where to find them and when they can harvest them to be used as nutrients for other products. This collaborative system will allow industries to monitor and plan the reuse of all materials in circulation around the world.”
Braungart is trying to convince an audience beyond intellectuals and environmentalists the value of his argument. A former Greenpeace activist, Braungart came up with the concept of a “circular economy” with McDonough and introduced it in the bestseller Cradle to Cradle. The circular economy is one that does not produce waste and pollution: Biological nutrients are designed to reenter the biosphere safely while technical nutrients are designed to circulate at high quality in the production system without entering the biosphere.
"This is what I call â€˜upcycle,' the capability to anticipate the lifecycle of all the components of a product so as to organize their recovery and reuse before they're discarded,” says Braungart.
But less than 300 companies made the manufacturing changes that a circular economy needs, namely turning the content of our trash bags into a deposit of raw materials.
There's a valid reason for why the system is not catching on. The investment necessary to incorporate manufacturing industries into this virtuous circle is huge. More than 600 billion euros is needed for Europe only, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates.
Bearstech "upcycled" offices in Paris — Photo: Wiithaa Facebook page
Braungart fears he won't live to see the benefits of a new consumer era that favors a positive ecological footprint. But a handful of designers have taken on the challenge.
"Waste is what's left when there's no more imagination,” says Brieuc Saffré, co-founder of Wiithaa, a firm that helps companies to organize their product flow to reduce waste.
Take their client Wako Plastic, a Japanese company. Wiithaa helped the plastics company find a new application for remaining septic tank filters — as support for walls and roofs. The agency also found that reeds — large quantities of which lie in the factory's surroundings — can be used to produce a bioplastic needed for the creation of jigsaw mats for children, which are then leased to nursery schools. When these mats are overused or damaged, they are sent back to the Wako factory, and thus they are endlessly recycled.
Wako, of course, needed to reorganize significantly in order to make these changes. "It's a complicated process," Saffré says. "Many companies who consult us eventually decide not to take the step."
Although rare, companies that believe in the circular economy do exist. Sita, a recycling and resource management company, and Veka Recyclage recently collaborated to develop a collection system for end-of-life industrial PVC at waste sorting centers to create recyclable material. Their goal? To make 3,000 tons of useable material.
In 2013, Sita worked in the same way with German plastic company Rehau to set up a collection and recycling system for window-frame scraps. They built a circular supply channel that converted 3,000 tons of waste plastic to new products.
There's no shortage of waste to regenerate. The construction industry creates more than 255 million tons of waste every year in France alone, most of which is PVC from windows, roller blinds, garden fences, and the like, which has be recycled as per European regulation.
Regulation is also forcing the automobile industry to rethink its approach. A joint venture between Renault and Re-Source Industries involves recycling 10 million end-of-life vehicles after they're dismantled across 400 centers in Europe. Now 43% of tires they receive are recycled. So is all the metal they get.
Researchers say they are constantly finding new ways to reuse scores of different types of materials. The upcycle movement apparently has only just gotten started.