12/12/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Circular Economy and Material Health

Soon, over half of the world's population will live in cities, driven in part by the emergence of a billion new consumers in emerging economies. Clearly, this offers new business opportunities.

Indeed, the management consultants, McKinsey estimate that by 2030, 5 billion people (60 percent of the world's population) will live in cities, compared with 3.6 billion today. In another study, they forecasted that just 600 cities would drive as much as 65 percent of global growth, equivalent to $30 trillion from 2010 to 2025.

So, we may be on the brink of a new wave of economic development; but there is a dilemma as the planet cannot sustain growth on this scale, certainly not when based on the current 'take, make and waste' linear model. As some have argued, we might need five earths to support everyone.

Already, the current economic model leads to major environmental problems such as air pollution or the degradation of forests and rivers as well as the depletion of many of the planet's finite resources. So, how can we grasp the economic opportunity that seems to be in front of us without harming human health or the environment? Cradle to Cradle, the green industrial concept founded by William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart may offer some possible answers: They write in their latest book, The Upcycle:

"Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn't even need to think in terms of waste, contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure."

In cities, reducing carbon emissions is one obvious way to improve things. As the McKinsey report points out, 70 percent of global greenhouse emissions are produced by them, largely from transport systems and buildings.

However, the issue of healthy materials in the context of the built environment also matters a great deal. After all, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Can we be sure that everything we buy is free of toxins? What about the problem of fine dust indoors that can lead to asthma and other respiratory diseases as well as heart conditions?

The World Health Organization, for example, has estimated that more than 2 million people die every year from breathing in small dust particles present in the indoor and outdoor air. In China, indoor air pollution has reportedly contributed to a 40 percent increase in incidences of asthma over the past five years. More recently, a report in the medical journal The Lancet demonstrated a strong association between exposure to air pollution and cases of heart failure or death from heart failure. In Europe, a recent report based on Flemish data linked air pollution caused by diesel fumes to low birth weight in babies. In the Netherlands, a recent survey of 1,000 schools in the Benelux region showed that as many as 43 percent of respondents were concerned about the ill effects of poor ventilation including problems of draft and damp.

The C2C Material Health ABC-X rating system ensures that the chemical ingredients in products are defined as positive (either optimal/green or tolerable/yellow). Any ingredients that are classified as red (high risk) or grey (unable to define) should be phased out and replaced.
In this light, it is encouraging that recently the US Green Building Council voted to include Cradle to Cradle certification in the latest version of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, V4), a standard for measuring a building's sustainability.

However fast we move toward closed-loop systems, concepts like C2C remind us that we must make sure we design in healthy materials at all stages of the product life cycle. It is no good recycling materials that might contain toxins. That needs to be kept in mind as we move towards better circular models and hopefully drive sustainable economic growth globally.