Michael Braungart, environmental chemist: Focus on Leadership

Interview by Kemp Harr

Noted German chemist Michael Braungart founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency and Hamberger Environmental Institute in Hamburg and cofounded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Virginia with colleague William McDonough. In his spare time he teaches through professorships at universities in both Germany and the Netherlands.

The middle child of five, Braungart grew up in Tuttlingen, Germany, a town just north of the Swiss border that his parents chose for its schools. At 16 he fell in love, not with chemistry, but with his chemistry teacher. Although his crush was never realized, it did kindle an interest in what would become his life’s work. By his late teens he was comparing mental disorders in children who had lead concentration in their blood. Later, he became interested in the origin of the chemicals found in mothers’ breast milk, which led him to study the environment and the chemicals being absorbed by the human body. 

Early in his career Braungart blended science and protest, developing the chemistry department for Hamburg Greenpeace. He swam in the Atlantic to stop ships from dumping toxic waste, blocked pipes of the paper and pulp industry, and chained himself to smokestacks following chemical spills at large German factories. He developed a way for the paper industry to bleach pulp without toxic chlorine and revolutionized cooling systems with a technique for refrigeration that eliminated harmful CFCs. 

Braungart is perhaps best known for his collaboration with William McDonough on the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, published in 2002. The goal of the cradle to cradle concept is to develop closed systems whereby everything that humans create eventually goes back into the system as beneficial material for what he terms either the technosphere or biosphere. 

Q: Why did you name your organization EPEA?
 It was named as a protest during the Reagan administration against the EPA. Unlike the EPA, the purpose of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency was to get things done, not just talk about things. We had been protesting enough. I had been working with Greenpeace for seven years, and I thought we really need to make a change, otherwise we’re like resistance fighters, and nothing changes.

Q: What is intelligent, aesthetic and eco-effective design?
 No other species makes waste. If you make waste, you’re unintelligent. Originally what we did was called intelligent design, but then we had all these intelligent designers in the United States and there were all these creationists, and so we needed to change the name. 

A product that is not healthy for people is not aesthetic; it’s not beautiful. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about effectiveness. It’s first about saying, what is the right thing? And then you can optimize it and to make it efficient, but efficiency is just one strategy. Nature uses abundance as a strategy, not efficiency. A cherry tree in spring is completely inefficient but very effective. To summarize, if design is not intelligent, aesthetic and effective, then it’s not a good design. 

Q: How do flooring products fit into that definition?
 Bill McDonough and I taught people in the U.S. how to think about flooring systems differently. You don’t really want to have some vinyl or some carpet or whatever, you just want to have a certain acoustics, aesthetics, a certain touch and feel, perhaps insulation as well. So it’s a service product. 

Let’s not make a passive house, but a building like a tree. It’s a structure that supports life and does not leave toxins. The indoor air quality in a building is typically about three to eight times worse than outside urban air. We first need to say, not how can we seal the building to make it more energy efficient, but what is a healthy building and how can we make the air in a building cleaner than outside air? And this leads to a lot of innovations. This is how we generate carpets that are not just less stinky, but actively clean the air—because a tree is not just non-toxic, it also cleans the air. 

Q: Which flooring is the least environmentally damaging?
 It’s not enough to be less damaging to the environment. Think about persistent flooring systems that are actively beneficial for us, not just less toxic. It makes sense to make flooring systems that actively clean the air, for example, because they are big surfaces. We lose up to five years of our lives by inhaling fine dust, and we lose about three years of lifespan from noise, because it is a constant stress factor. We can design a carpet that actively absorbs sound and fine dust, not just by accident. 

The innovation is just beginning. The next generation of carpets will be promicrobial carpets, not antimicrobial ones. Microbes are our best friends on this planet, so instead of killing them, now we can make carpets that actively take care of the healthy equilibrium of microorganisms around us. We could control moisture in buildings with the flooring system, and this is key because we need to get water out of buildings when we seal them to save energy. 

I first became interested in flooring systems because of phthalates. I found them in breast milk samples. My research revealed that the biggest source of phthalates in the environment was flooring. But the further I looked, the more respect I gained for the flooring industry. Take, for instance, Tarkett’s CEO, Michel Giannuzzi. He is a real industrial leader, a person who really wants to make a difference. His basic concept is to have a company like an actual NGO. Tarkett is not government, and Shaw is not government, but they behave like NGOs. Shaw, for example, has been replacing dangerous materials for more than a decade in the flooring systems, even before Tarkett started to do so. Without any legislation, they just want to be proud of what they’re doing. 

Q: Are there instances where waste-to-energy is a better solution than a cradle-to-cradle approach because of the amount of carbon/energy required to convert a product back into a usable state? 
 There’s not a magic answer, but there are different options. I think everyone should agree that carpets should not go into landfills, under any circumstances. Secondly, the question is what do you do with future carpets? Future carpets need to be designed to go into biological or technical systems from the beginning. Take, for example, nylon 6 carpet. It makes sense to get nylon 6 back into nylon 6 basically forever. It’s really as useful from the energy perspective as from a material management perspective. It takes 13 steps from the oil to the monomer caprolactam but it only takes one polymerization step. If 99.9% of nylon goes back into the monomer, we quantitatively get it back and the energy that we need we can recover, because when you heat it up to a certain temperature, the depolymerization process takes place by itself. This is why I wholeheartedly support companies like Aquafil in Italy. Giulio Bonazzi is really a great hero. He really does the right thing and does it in the right way as well. But when you combine nylon 6 with bitumen, which is done in Europe, or you combine it with backings that you cannot separate, the story is a different one. 

What Shaw does with polyolefin backing makes a lot of sense. You can reuse the material nearly endlessly for that. There’s another option as well. DSM, a Dutch chemical company, recently developed Allinco, which can basically repair the chain links of a plastic, so that you can get permanent chain links in the recycling process as well. This is a brilliant innovation because it allows us to use polymers basically forever.

For existing carpets, to burn nylon or PVC is not really an elegant solution. You get a lot of nitrous oxide when you burn nylon from the nitrogen in it, and you get a lot of hydrochloric acid and corrosion when you burn PVC. 

PET carpet might be the best option to burn but only if the pigments used were selected for their lack of toxicity. If you take Green 7, for example, which is commonly used in carpets and contains carbon and chlorine, the energy required to scrub the emissions would negate any waste-to-energy benefit.

Q: What aspects of a circular economy concept do you agree or disagree with? 
 Circular economy is basically just linear thinking in cycles, but when you have the wrong solution, you better not make it circular. Also, circular economy means that you are stagnating in a lot of things. We really need to reinvent things instead of just making them circular. If you make the wrong things perfect, then they are just perfectly wrong. 

Tires, for example, will last maybe twice as long as 30 years ago. The chemicals are still the same, they just added some additives, which resulted in less abrasion. But now particulates are much smaller. Before, the rubber hit the road and it stayed there. Now, about 20% of the people in Munich along the highways are experiencing serious damage to their respiratory system from tire dust and brake pad dust. At GM, Ford or Volkswagen, they say these brake pads are free of asbestos, but the replacement is antimony sulfide, a much stronger toxin. So to replace one stupid thing with another doesn’t help us. 

Q: With LVT growing so fast, PVC flooring is in high demand. What are your thoughts on PVC? 
 I support the transitional use of PVC in certain industries, including flooring industries, under the precondition that it uses the right chemicals, the right pigments, the right glues and the right additives.

As you know, a high percentage of products are not pure PVC. I cannot support any flooring with phthalates. I published a paper in 1984 about the risk of endocrine disruption from phthalates. I looked at these plasticizers, and I could see a high significance of effects on our hormone system, potentially leading to infertility issues. Phthalates finally got banned about five years ago in a lot of civilized countries, first in children’s toys and then for other things as well, but not in the United States. 

PVC can be recycled about seven times—then what do you do next? Right now there is no way to deal with it without using a lot of energy. If pure PVC were to be used as a technical nutrient so it doesn’t end up in landfills or in combustion processes, I would accept its use for carpets and window frames—because compared to wooden frames, PVC in windows makes sense—and I would use it in pipes and other long lasting building materials as well, where it can last for hundreds of years if recycled properly. This constitutes about 80% of current PVC uses, but 20%, like underbody coatings for cars or blister packaging for pharmaceuticals, needs to be eliminated. 

PVC also needs to disappear out of a lot of short-term applications where it’s contaminating recycling processes. PVC has the same density as PET, so the shrink wraps around PET bottles and outer wraps for paper and children’s toys made out of PVC are contaminating the whole material flow.

Q: Does the USGBC LEED model fall short when it comes to minimizing the impact of buildings on the environment?
 First I want to honor and celebrate these pioneers, a group of architects and engineers who more than 20 years ago came together saying that we want to see better buildings without any government incentive or support. Any criticism needs to be seen in a historical context because at that time energy was the biggest issue. This is no longer the case, so LEED is no longer enough. 

Indoor air quality is not covered by any building certificate, which is amazing because in the U.S. asthma is by far the most relevant children’s disease. In a lot of cases asthma is connected to mold, because when people seal the buildings to save energy, they don’t get the moisture out of the building. A new building in Chicago got Platinum certified, but it used Styrofoam installation with a flame retardant that has a global ban on production because it’s so toxic. So we need to add more points to LEED. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges with creating transparency in product manufacturing?
 I would say, why don’t you make things from the beginning that you can burn in your fireplace, that you can compost, or that the producer takes back? If manufacturers would do so, you wouldn’t need transparency because it’s a yes/no decision. 

As a company, we are planning by 2030 to have 100% renewable materials, to support biodiversity with what we are doing, to take back all our materials, and so on. When we make flooring systems, we use 11,000 different chemicals that we’ve identified. It doesn’t help you to make them all transparent. It only makes a lot of reporting companies rich. Sustainability reporting in the U.S. is a business of about $10 billion. In Europe it’s about $7 billion. And without any better product, you’re just reporting better. I would rather see better products.

Q: What are the most environmentally damaging activities in the building materials sector?
 The first thing is definitely flame retardant. It’s the worst of the worst—fluorocarbons and Teflon. And silicones are amazingly dangerous, as well as being endocrine disruptors. Most critical is air quality, definitely, because even outside urban air is so much better than indoor air quality. 

The most environmentally damaging things are the adhesives. For people, it is fine dust and noise. I’ve been analyzing mother’s milk for 28 years. I routinely find about 2,300 to 2,500 different chemicals in human milk. If the industry would say, “We won’t use stuff that accumulates in your milk, whether it’s dangerous or not,” that would generate an endless number of innovations from my young students and give them a positive goal, to eliminate contamination of human milk and to eliminate contaminants of indoor air. 

Q: As an environmental leader, what actions do you do as an individual or have you stopped doing that you believe others should follow?
 What really matters is indoor air quality. I do not stay in hotels where I cannot open the window. With all the renovation the indoor air is contaminated. People think it’s fresh, but you have emissions in there, which really are a health problem. In China there are buildings now where they keep women out of the buildings half a year because of the indoor air pollution. Make sure that you can open windows. It’s most critical.

Q: Who have been your mentors in your development as an environmental expert?
 Ray Anderson definitely pioneered a lot of things, and Jim Hackett was one of my greatest heroes. He started in 1994 with changing Steelcase, transforming the whole company. He stayed in power for more than 20 years. Mostly industrial leaders are great examples from whom I could learn a lot. Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken in the U.S. are great thinkers and great minds. Nobody knows the truth. We can only learn from different aspects.

Q: Which is more effective in getting people to change, protesting or collaborating?
 There was a time for protest; to generate awareness it was necessary. I never said I am the good environmentalist, and you are the terrible industry person. This always gave me a perspective to talk to other people. I just said, wait a minute, this is a terrible design from a quality perspective, not from an ethical one. 

We now need to act; otherwise we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, because the speed of destruction globally is amazing. Now it’s time to work together to come up with real innovations. The company that creates carpets that clean the air, it’s as profitable as Apple. It really can make the industry amazingly profitable.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Tarkett