How Chemical Regulations Can Boost Cradle-to-Cradle Thinking

How Chemical Regulations Can Boost Cradle-to-Cradle Thinking

Chemicals image CC-licensed by hans s/Flickr

 Chemical regulations can force companies to make safer choices, but they also lay the groundwork for major shifts in thinking about product materials and life cycles.

Although not intended to go hand-in-hand, European Union laws that ban and gather information on chemicals can lead companies into the realm of Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) thinking.

"We're looking at this (C2C) as the next step of being in compliance," William McDonough, co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), said during a webcast on regulations and C2C.

McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart developed the C2C philosophy, which espouses material health, reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social responsibility. Companies can have their goods certified as C2C products based on what goes into them, what can be done with them, and company operations.

Chemical regulations can act as a springboard to C2C, by getting companies to think about seeking safe materials and end-of-life options other than going to landfill.

Companies operating in the European Union need to abide by two major laws that cover products and chemicals: the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which bans lead, mercury, cadmium and other chemicals from electronics; and the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation, which requires companies to register what chemicals they are using and relay safety testing information.

Varian Medical Systems is one such company. Senior manager Snehashish Sarkar said that since gathering details on what's in all of the various equipment and parts they handle or might deal with, their engineers have been able to make better decisions, and stay in compliance with the law, during the design phase of products.

That not only means Varian will "continue to do business as usual," as Sarkar said, but will also avoid costs from making changes to products in later phases and also expedite the engineering and design processes.

Moving forward, Varian plans to invest more in researching material alternatives and gathering data on chemicals.

And there is one of the cornerstones of C2C thinking: Not just complying with laws and using less of bad chemicals, but choosing chemicals and materials that can have positive impacts.

Following C2C ideals, materials are safe for humans and the environment, and nothing is waste. Instead, everything is "food" for some other cycle. That calls for extensive knowledge about chemicals and research into alternatives, a path where regulations are leading companies.

"On top of (regulations) we can add this inspiration, this cost-effective strategy of hope for future generations of product manufacturers," McDonough said. "This is really about humans not just defining what they are doing...but having an intention to do well."

Chemicals image CC-licensed by hans s/Flickr