Cradle-to-Cradle: the next industrial revolution and Miscanthus Giganteus
Giant Miscanthus Giganteus is the ideal crop for the emerging Cradle to Cradle economy, with a wide range of uses in biocomposites, land remediation and renewable energy.
The phrase Cradle-to-Cradle was invented in 1970 by Swiss Walter R. Stahel, who heads the Product-Life Institute. This concept, was also elaborated by German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, in their book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’.
The concept of industry and manufacture that is followed currently, is that of a one way flow, known as the ‘cradle to grave' cycle. It relies on excessive use of fossil fuels and strong chemicals. Production is centralised, and follows universal designs ignoring natural and cultural diversity, resulting in the production of enormous amounts of waste. Braungart and McDonough argue that it is not over- consumption that produces this waste, but the design of manufacture of these products. In the cradle-to-grave approach, a company maybe taking responsibility for the disposal of the goods it creates, at the end of its use, but does not use the components again. This is what creates waste.
Conventional sustainability aims merely at minimising harm to the environment by eco-efficient use of energy and materials. Though this approach is better than doing nothing it, it does not solve the problem. Even the 4Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle and regulate, amount to only ‘downcycling' material.
The idea behind the Cradle-to-Cradle concept
In the concept, Cradle-to-Cradle the fact that we need to create improved products (and use them) is acceptable. It is not necessary to use the same computer or car for 25 years, if the production system is based on nature's way of functioning.
In nature, there is no waste. The waste produced by one organism is food or raw material for another. All material on earth, or in any particular ecosystem is cycled and recycled in a closed loop.
Cradle-to-Cradle advocates production design based on this principle of nature. It is a business model based on intelligent design, that is eco-effective and waste-free, since all components are recycled as ‘biological' or ‘technical' nutrients.
As a philosophy it does not ‘demonise manufacturing processes' (1). The aim is to create a circular economy. The main source of energy is solar, the materials used are safe and healthy that can be recycled; so no toxic waste is produced and a production process, that in addition purifies air, land and water. It considers not just commerce and environment but also social concerns. The whole circle of manufacturing, and commercial activities, followed by product-life extension by remanufacturing, all occur within a regional economy. This results in the creation of local jobs and income.
How the model works
The Cradle-to-cradle production process ensures that the products are designed for disassembly, so that the component parts can be separated and used again to make the same product or a product of higher value.
This model recognizes two types of materials flow. One that involves the ‘biological' natural nutrients, which are used, for example to make biodegradable packages that are designed, so that after use they can be composted, and reused as manure, or returned to the environment where they rejoin the vast natural cycle again. The second flow pertains to ‘technical' nutrients. These maybe be mineral resources or ‘high-tech synthetics' which also move in a closed loop of ‘production, recovery and remanufacturing' (2).
It is the responsibility of producers and manufacturers to adopt this design. It can produce the next industrial revolution – of a sustainable kind.
Besides products that are consumed, there can be products of service, where the producer retains ownership of the materials used. At the end of its use, products are collected by the producer and the different components are disassembled and made into new products. While the initial capital is higher, subsequently, the cost is less as new components do not have to be produced continuously.
The Cradle-to-Cradle design process has five steps according to Braungart and McDonough.
1. Producing without using toxic chemicals like PVC, Cadmium, Lead or Chlorine. Initially the search is for alternatives that do not require a change in production process.
2. Following informed choice. Check the source of the components to make sure that there are no contaminants (chemical) and verify the social conditions in which they are produced.
3. Research all possible components that could be used. Compare them in life-cycle anaylses, to find out the production process (including social conditions), and waste that could be generated after its use. Harm ingredients or components are rejected, and the good ones selected for use in the production process.
4. The product is designed using the good components. It is necessary to recognise that the components are not just parts of the final product, but that each has its own cycle. This cycle, and their flow through it has to be traced for each component according to whether they are ‘biological' or ‘technical' nutrients.
5. Explore addition benefits to nature (air, soil, water, biodiversity) that could accrue from the use of the production design.
Materials that are toxic, or which cannot be reprocessed easily are substituted by alternatives. In cases where even this is not possible, maybe alternative services or a completely new technique may have to be considered.
The Cradle-to-Cradle idea is not just a theory. It is a model that is suitable for use across different industries. It has been widely applied in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific. In 2002, China agreed to adopt the idea to develop its industries and has been developing a village that is powered only by renewable energy.
Since, some components used in the production process may not be sustainable, and currently have no alternatives, a product's sustainability according to the Cradle-to-Cradle criteria is evaluated and graded; certification at different grades of basic, silver, gold and platinum indicate how eco-effective the production design is. In this way the short-comings of a process are identified, and can be addressed in the future, as and when new technology or components become available.
Circular economy can be ecological, by reducing the amount of raw materials that are used in the production process, and thereby eliminating waste. It can be socially beneficial, when the production process reduces use of energy, and uses manpower, thereby generating jobs and reducing poverty.
Circular economy can also be competitive, and work without subsidies, provided subsidies for polluting resources like fossil fuels, coal and chemical fertilisers are stopped. According to Walter Stahel, in 2013, subsidies for these polluting resources amounted to 56 billion Euros in EU, and worldwide to almost half a trillion US$ per year (3).
AgriKinetics' commitment to the Circular-economy
Agrikinetics' business is concerned with biological nutrients' flow. Farm produce, needs to be produced organically, without using polluting fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers and protect natural resources like air, water, soil and biodiversity. Once the products -food, wood or fibres- are consumed, in villages or cities, they have to be recycled through composting.
By choosing to grow Miscanthus x giganteus, AgriKinetics ensures carbon-neutral organic cultivation. Moreover, the plant has been known to improve the quality of water by reducing nitrate concentrations. As a C4 plant it is very efficient in fixing carbon dioxide, making it the favourite as a bioenergy crop. Miscanthus even recycles nutrients, by translocating nutrients to its underground tissue during autumn, to be used by the crop that sprouts next year from its rhizomes, in classical Cradle-to-Cradle fashion!
When used for phytoremediation of land that is contaminated by heavy metals or brackish, it improves the quality of soil, stops spread of pollutants-so cleans air and water too, and provides habitat for wildlife. It can be used as a raw material for Biocomposites, Nanocellulose and Aerogel, which in turn have several uses, that are biodegradable.
Since it can be grown domestically in UK and EU, it generates local jobs and revenues, and reduces long distance transport of raw materials that is polluting.
Using the Cradle-to-Cradle model it is possible to enjoy abundance without guilt, or spoiling nature.