“Cradle to Cradle often involves challenging the prevailing belief systems that have been ingrained in our practices.” Interview with Dr. Jan von der Lancken, EPEA GmbH

Oct 23, 2023

According to Jan von der Lancken from Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency, Cradle to Cradle is first and foremost a design framework. Their job is to help companies apply this framework effectively. How they achieve this, Mr von der Lancken explained exclusively for the Cradle-Alp project.

Please give us a brief introduction about yourself.

My name is Jan von der Lancken, and I’m a Ph.D. chemist. I studied chemistry and completed my Ph.D. in sustainable chemistry.

What is your current role at EPEA, and how long have you been with EPEA?

I joined EPEA in January 2020 as a project manager and then moved up to the lead position for the EPEA industry. EPEA has two sections: one focuses on the industry, and the other on real estate. I am the head of the industry section in Germany.

Regarding EPEA, can you give us a brief overview of the history of EPEA?

EPEA was founded in 1987 as the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency, which is what the acronym stands for. It was established by Michael Braungart, who is the co-inventor and co-creator of the Cradle to Cradle design framework, which he developed in collaboration with Bill McDonnell, a U.S. architect. We started in 1987 and progressively developed the Cradle-to-Cradle design framework. In 2010, we initiated our certification work. From 2010 onwards, Cradle to Cradle certification became available, and in 2019, we became part of Drees & Sommer.

Could you tell us about your location and the size of your team?

Internationally, we have around 80 team members, with most of them located in Germany. We have various offices, including Munich, Stuttgart, our headquarters, and offices in the Netherlands, Brussels, and Luxembourg. I am based in Hamburg. My team consists of approximately 35 people, and we focus on Cradle to Cradle product design.

What is the main business area and the areas of interest of EPEA?

At EPEA, we work with the Cradle to Cradle design framework, and we undertake projects where we aim to apply this framework effectively. These projects span various industries, including real estate, automotive, consumer goods, electronics, and textiles. It’s a holistic approach that can be adapted to numerous sectors.

We find it helpful to differentiate between the real estate and industry sectors. In the industry sector, we primarily look at products down to the molecular level. We help design healthy products that never end up as waste, but instead circulate as nutrients in either the technosphere or the biosphere. In the real estate secto buildings, involving modular design, design for disassembly on the building level, and circular systems for building products.

Looking into the future, what are the future prospects for the company’s development?
Sustainable product design is more relevant than ever. We constantly develop the Cradle to Cradle framework so that it remains the method for powering the Circular Economy. Currently we develop a set of Circularity Passports® from the building to the product level to support companies with performance indicators for Material Health, Circularity and Product Footprint. These passports are very well received and help track the transition towards the sustainable goals.

What is Cradle to Cradle in your own words?

Cradle to Cradle is, first and foremost, a design framework – the Cradle to Cradle design framework. It is rooted in a particular mindset, three fundamental principles, and a toolkit.

Could you please elaborate on the mindset behind Cradle to Cradle?

Certainly. This approach originates from the sustainability discourse, where the primary aim has always been to assess and minimize the environmental impact of our actions. Take, for instance, the notion of a carbon footprint, which we quantify and strive to reduce. However, the end goal of such methods is usually to achieve net zero impact. We, on the other hand, aspire to go beyond merely being less harmful and instead focus on being actively positive. This is a daring notion because it challenges us and our clients to think about how to be positive contributors while still producing products. It means leaving a positive footprint in our wake.

For instance, consider the issue of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a significant problem due to its role in climate change and related concerns. Instead of viewing it solely as a problem, we propose considering carbon dioxide as a resource for products. By capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using it to create useful products, like polymers, we can sell items that have a positive impact by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. If these products follow circular principles, we can even establish technical carbon sinks within the production process. This is the direction we are heading, although it’s not confined to this nutrient-based approach.

What are the principles of Cradle to Cradle?

There are three principles. First one is that nutrients remain nutrients. The first principle challenges the idea of waste. It encourages us to design everything as a nutrient for something else, so there is no waste. The concept of waste becomes obsolete. The goal is to create products with a clear plan for their post-use lifecycle. When introducing a product to the market, it’s crucial to consider where it will eventually end up and what can be done with its materials after its useful life. Second one is to use solar energy. The second principle focuses on sourcing energy from the sun, utilizing the current solar income for all processes. It underlines the importance of harnessing the energy the sun provides for various purposes. The last principle is to celebrate diversity: The third principle calls for celebrating diversity in our projects, encompassing conceptual, social, and ecological diversity. It emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We must seek diverse approaches and consider various viewpoints to find holistic solutions that will work effectively in the long term.

What tools are available within the Cradle to Cradle framework?

We utilize various tools, such as workshops, circularity passports, or the Cradle to Cradle Certified® scheme to implement the Cradle to Cradle approach. These tools incorporate quantification, but our overarching focus remains on creating a positive footprint. The mindset, advocating for a positive impact, is the driving force behind everything we do.

When we consider the current and future economy, what role does Cradle to Cradle play in both the present and the years to come?

Everybody is talking about more sustainable, more circular, more CO2-friendly products. With Cradle to Cradle, we have a framework and a method at our disposal to create a roadmap towards these goals.

Moreover, we’re experiencing a trend in legislation. Recent EU regulations, such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), are all shifting in a direction that strongly favors Cradle to Cradle principles. This represents a significant transformation. Many individuals are inspired by the Cradle to Cradle mindset, even if they don’t explicitly label it as such. We’re pleased to see that there’s substantial progress in the right direction.

In your view, is there a difference between Cradle to Cradle and what is known as a circular economy?

There is indeed a significant distinction, and this is a common misconception about Cradle to Cradle. It’s often mistaken as simply a synonym for the Circular Economy. However, as I mentioned earlier, Cradle to Cradle encompasses much more. It revolves around a mindset that focuses on leaving a positive footprint. We always operate with what’s known as the triple bottom line, which encompasses people, planet, and profit. This concept is well-recognized in sustainability discussions. What is typically done is setting a minimum threshold, which represents the minimum levels to achieve in each of these pillars: people, planet, and profit. But it doesn’t necessarily go beyond that.

Cradle to Cradle takes a different approach; it follows a maximization agenda. It asks how we can be positive in the first place and then seeks ways to maximize this positive impact on people, the planet, and profits. While the profit aspect is not ignored, in contrast to the Circular Economy, which primarily concentrates on the economic dimension, we also emphasize equity, meaning social fairness, and ecology. These aspects are often overlooked in Circular Economy discussions. To clarify, we are not against the Circular Economy; quite the opposite, we are working towards a Circular Economy that is powered by Cradle to Cradle principles.

What are the challenges and obstacles for the transition towards a circular economy in general, or for the implementation of Cradle to Cradle?

Making the shift to Cradle to Cradle often involves challenging the prevailing belief systems that have been ingrained in our practices. We have become accustomed to linear production systems, and suddenly, Cradle to Cradle questions the entire paradigm. Working within these linear systems for an extended period, it’s a profound departure when we initiate a project in this framework.

Our approach involves a deep understanding of products at their core. We have a substantial team of chemists at EPEA, and our objective is to understand the chemical composition of products. This can be highly challenging, as it requires delving into the supply chain to determine the composition of a product. Let’s consider a washing machine as an example: We seek to understand the materials that make up the case, the display, the glass, and all the components within the washing machine.

What we focus on primarily are material flows. This, in and of itself, is not a novel or unique concept. However, what sets us apart is our rigorous quantitative approach. We consistently ask quantitative questions to understand the dynamics of these material flows.

We start by asking what the purpose of each material is within a product. What role is it intended to play for the customer and the environment? Importantly, our objective is always to tie this analysis back to the positive impact story that we aim to convey.
With every product in use and every material in circulation, we delve into questions regarding their quality attributes. We evaluate their material qualities, ecological qualities but also social qualities. Ultimately, we connect these attributes to molecules. After all, at the core of the circulation process, it’s the molecules that are moving.
We draw inspiration from nature, what we refer to as the biosphere, and adapt these principles to the technosphere, or the human-made world. In the case of technical products that aren’t consumed during their useful life, we strive to find quantitative attributes for material flows even after a product’s use period has ended.

As one of the main institutions promoting Cradle To Cradle, how does EPEA actively promote Cradle To Cradle approaches?

It all begins with the projects we undertake, the clients we collaborate with, and the products we scrutinize. These projects are the catalysts for the subsequent developments. Clients approach us, seeking support for product development. Because in essence, Cradle To Cradle is product optimization towards a positive goal.
As a project progresses, clients often become willing to share their commitment with the public. This is typically the most common way we promote our work—through the projects we undertake with our clients. We also share some of these stories on our social media and website.

However, the most impactful and compelling promotion occurs when we can directly link our efforts to specific products. These are the stories that resonate the most and have the greatest influence.

EPEA is collaborating with Schleich to transition the traditional toy company into a Cradle to Cradle company. Can you provide practical insights into this cooperation?

A couple of years ago, SCHLEICH approached us to collaborate on sustainable materials and the development of their sustainability strategy. During our discussions, we explored various avenues, including material analysis, circular systems, and the overarching Cradle To Cradle approach. Their enthusiasm for this endeavor remains high, and it’s truly a pleasure to work with them. Schleich’s toys have a strong reputation, particularly across Europe, with many people still keeping Schleich toys in their drawers, often across generations. These products are widely regarded as durable and of high quality, and that reputation is well-deserved.

Our approach when we joined this collaboration was to preserve these positive attributes of their products while integrating Cradle To Cradle principles. We placed a strong emphasis on establishing circular systems and optimizing materials for enhanced circularity. Many of our ongoing discussions with them revolve around the question of how to set up effective circular systems for the materials they use.

Can you outline the general process that a company needs to follow in order to obtain Cradle to Cradle certification?

Certainly, it’s important to clarify that Cradle to Cradle certification is just one aspect of the services we offer. To illustrate, let me return to the Schleich example. With Schleich, our approach began with innovation workshops and product optimization, all within the Cradle To Cradle design framework. Certification only became a consideration after a certain period. What’s truly important is that the company commits to the Cradle to Cradle mindset. We conducted training sessions and interactive workshops involving various stakeholders within Schleich, including discussions with marketing and technical directors. That aspect of the work was particularly inspiring. Certification can certainly be part of such projects, but it’s not the primary focus.

Regarding the process for companies to attain certification, it usually commences with workshops where we gain a deep understanding of the client and their products. Often, they present us with a range of products, and together with the client, we identify a suitable starting point. Some products are more complex due to intricate supply chains, composition, or historical factors. Others may offer more room for optimization, with greater flexibility in production processes and product composition.
Once we identify a product to focus on, we delve into its complete composition. We reach out to tier one suppliers to gather information about what goes into the product, down to the molecular level. This includes understanding all the chemicals used in the product. Simultaneously, we explore how to make the product more circular. This entails evaluating whether it’s designed for disassembly, whether all components can be accessed, and whether there are clear material streams that contribute to efficient after-use and recyclability. For the production process, we inquire about environmental aspects such as water usage, its quality, renewable energy use, and emissions.

Furthermore, a significant part of the assessment revolves around social fairness. We examine how the applicant company treats its workers and extend this scrutiny to the supply chain, ensuring fair treatment throughout.

Once we’ve gathered all this information, we compile it into a comprehensive report. This report is then reviewed by the Cradle To Cradle Product Innovation Institute, the certification authority responsible for assessment. Following their analysis of the report, they conduct an audit. Once they are content with the responses provided by us and the client, they issue the certificate.

In general, there are four different levels of certification to attain: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum certification.

Can you provide a brief but detailed overview of the different grades of certification? What does it signify to achieve a gold or platinum certification?

In general, the higher the certification level, the closer a company gets to achieving a positive footprint. Let’s delve into some examples from various pillars of certification to illustrate what gold or platinum certification entails.

For the energy pillar, a platinum certification entails having more than 100% renewable energy in your production. This means, for instance, having solar panels on your roof that generate more energy than your production requires, enabling you to supply excess energy to the surrounding community. Achieving this is significant because it demonstrates a positive impact, producing more energy than is necessary for your own production.

In the context of material health, a platinum certification indicates that a company knows the complete composition of its products down to every molecule. Moreover, every molecule in the product must receive a favorable rating based on toxicity and exposure. A platinum certification implies that you have a top-notch product that not only does no harm but also contributes positively to material health.

Each level builds on the requirements of the previous one, adding more rigorous standards as you advance. When it comes to product circularity, for example, a Bronze certification entails the establishment of circularity strategies. As you progress to platinum, all these strategies need to be fully implemented. This means using specified amount of recycled content, ensuring recyclability through appropriate systems.  The same sequential structure applies for all the other categories.

Are there any sectors where Cradle To Cradle principles are already compulsory or mandated?

I wouldn’t say that Cradle To Cradle is mandatory or required in any sector. However, it has gained considerable popularity in certain sectors, with building products being a prime example. Having Cradle To Cradle certified building products can be advantageous when pursuing green building certificates from organizations like DGNB, LEED, or BREEAM. In these cases, Cradle To Cradle principles contribute to the overall score for building certification. But aside from this, it’s not mandatory in any broad sense.

Do Cradle To Cradle principles apply differently to various sectors? Can you summarize what Cradle To Cradle means in the context of the chemical and polymer industry?

In essence, Cradle To Cradle means the same for the chemical and polymer industry as it does for other sectors. What I appreciate as a chemist is that Cradle To Cradle offers a versatile approach that can be applied across many different industries. The specific challenges, however, vary between industries. Some may face supply chain issues, others energy supply challenges, and still others may grapple with circularity-related problems. So, while the challenges may differ, the fundamental approach remains similar.

Our core goals include obtaining full disclosure of product composition and ensuring that high-quality products circulate within effective systems. This normative approach emphasizes qualitative attributes applied to each and every molecule.

One advantage of working with the chemical industry is their deep knowledge of their products. For instance, in the case of a company producing washing machines, they may have limited knowledge about the exact chemical composition, which is generally unimportant for technical performance. However, chemical companies have an in-depth understanding of their molecules, including how they interact and their role within the product.

This depth of knowledge makes discussions with chemical companies particularly fruitful. They have the capability to modify their product recipes, such as polymer compounds, and understand which additives can enhance circularity, which may reduce it, and how different additives influence properties like flame retardancy. Engaging with chemical companies on these topics can be incredibly fascinating because an additive which is good for one aspect may be bad for another. It often involves balancing trade-offs between these interconnected properties.

It seems that the circumstances of the chemical industry are particularly favorable for implementing Cradle To Cradle compared to other industries.

Yes, I would say so. What we need to do is connect chemical companies with brands that are willing to use their products. This creates a push-pull effect. When chemical companies offer Cradle To Cradle products or polymers, we need to identify the appropriate applications. In our discussions with chemical companies, they should prepare their products for specific purposes, what we refer to as “fitness for purpose.”
Defining a clear purpose is essential. When considering a product, it’s vital to determine its intended destination. Do we want it to biodegrade? Should it be part of its own take-back system, or is it meant to be recycled by municipal systems? All these scenarios have implications for the product’s performance.

However, chemical companies, when selling intermediate products, have limited influence over the final scenario. A client could purchase a product not designed for biodegradation, yet it may ultimately end up in the biosphere as a final destination. Hence, it’s important for chemical companies to provide information about a product’s intended scenario. This aspect is particularly interesting when dealing with chemical properties, as they play a pivotal role further down the supply chain.

So, to establish a proper circular economy, you have to consider all aspects or areas of the product’s life cycle.

Absolutely! We even refer to it as a “use cycle” because materials have a life cycle where they provide a service to us. However, they are not simply discarded after use. For example, consider your washing detergent; it’s used and then gone, entering the water treatment process. On the other hand, the laptop we’re using right now is not consumed by the service it provides. It has its use cycle, and after that, we still have the material value, which we need to utilize beyond this use cycle.

What are the success criteria for circular and sustainable business models?

Well, first of all, the company’s willingness to change its current business model is crucial, which can be quite challenging. The linear model has been in place for a long time, generating significant profits. It’s understandable that companies might be hesitant to transition to a circular economy, especially when there are still many ongoing developments in the field of circular business models.

For companies that have been operating linear business models for an extended period, making an abrupt shift towards a circular business model is not easy. So, in collaboration with the client, we need to determine where the actual benefits lie in adopting a circular business model. These benefits should not only encompass ecological and social aspects but also economic ones.

Whatever changes a company makes should have a positive economic impact. If companies stop making profits with circular products, something is amiss. Our aim is to increase profits while also enhancing the social and ecological qualities of the product, aligning with the triple bottom line.

When adopting circular business models, it transforms everything, from how you design your product to the materials you use. Taking the example of a washing machine, knowing that it will be returned after a defined use period, let’s say 10 years, allows you to choose entirely different materials. With the product you sell today, you are already sourcing materials for 10 years from now. You have insight into what will be returned 10 years from now in terms of materials, which allows you to set up your production facilities to accommodate whatever is left over at the end of the use phase.

The interview was conducted by Georg Weig from Chemie-Cluster Bayern GmbH.