Hot Seat: Dr. Jan Christoph von der Lancken

Last updated on: 26 Oct, 2023

As part of our Interreg Alpine Space project Cradle-ALP, Dr Jan Christoph von der Lancken, Head of Industry at EPEA, gave us an in-depth interview on what Cradle to Cradle means not only in theory but also in practice. In our Hot Seat excerpt you will get an insight into the challenges and opportunities of Cradle to Cradle for the chemical industry. You can also read more about sustainable product design, circular business models and Cradle to Cradle certification in the long version.

 Dear Mr. von der Lancken, 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.

Whereas the conventional sustainability discourse typically aims at minimizing the environmental impact of our actions, Cradle to Cradle, on the other hand, aspires to go beyond merely being less harmful and instead focuses on being actively positive.

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 to minimize, 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. It means leaving a positive footprint with our products.

This is supported by three principles:

  1. 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 what can be done with its materials after its useful life.
  2. 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 renewable energy sources.
  3. 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.

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. 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 threshold.

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 all the pillars, people, the planet, and profits. 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.

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.

Our approach aims at obtaining full disclosure of product composition and ensuring that high-quality products circulate within effective systems. 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. A company producing washing machines, however, may only have limited knowledge about the exact chemical composition, which is generally unimportant for their technical performance.

One advantage of working with the chemical industry is their deep knowledge of their products, an in-depth understanding of their molecules, including how they interact and their role within the product. 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.

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? We evaluate their material qualities, ecological qualities but also social qualities. 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. In essence, Cradle to Cradle is product optimization towards a positive goal.

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.

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, 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. We even refer to it as a “use cycle” because materials have a life cycle where they provide a service to us and after that, we still have the material value, which we need to utilize beyond this use cycle.

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 value chain.

Dr Jan von der Lancken joined EPEA GmbH – Part of Drees & Sommer in 2020 and has been Head of EPEA Industry since 2022, where he and his team support companies in implementing the Cradle to Cradle design principle in product design. Recently, EPEA Industry and toy manufacturer Schleich provided insights into their cooperation on how they apply the Cradle to Cradle design principle to the figures of the traditional company. The chemist received his Ph.D. in Sustainable Chemistry from Leuphana University Lüneburg, where Cradle to Cradle pioneer Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart also teaches.

The Interreg Alpine Space project Cradle-ALP is a cooperation of clusters, universities, business associations and institutions from six European countries in which Chemie-Cluster Bayern has been participating since November 2022. Our common vision is to raise awareness of cradle-to-cradle approaches, circular product design and circular economy and to transform industry towards a bio-based circular economy with the help of transfortamtion roadmaps. The focus here is particularly on the plastics, packaging, chemical, wood/furniture and textile industries.