Fig caption: Figure 1. MBDC Material Rating Scale

Environmental, health & safety (EHS) professionals have been tasked with managing chemical inventories and resulting residues from production processes for decades. Efforts to reduce a chemical’s overall environmental impact have involved using less of a toxic material, or looking for a less hazardous alternative.

This method is supported by the last five years of EPA policy. The agency’s Resource Conservation Challenge has asked industry to voluntarily reduce use of 31 priority chemicals identified as bio-accumulative in the tissues of living organisms.

While voluntarily looking for ways to reduce chemical use can only result in positive environmental change — and companies that are working to accomplish it should be commended — there are some who believe the United States’ current focus on chemical management is missing the mark for truly meaningful change. They say meaningful change would involve making manufacturing processes and their resulting products so environmentally stable, that all chemical “nutrients” would be capable of being used in one way or another.

Called cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design, this new paradigm of business and product sustainability is based on lessons from nature regarding the synthesis and subsequent purification and reuse of nutrients to sustain life. The McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) organization assists companies in developing strategies to develop or redefine product formulations that meet C2C principles.

Social responsibility

The first of these principles is the idea that all waste from any production process should be treated as nutrients that either sustain living things, or are recaptured and returned to production processes. Biological nutrients are residues or end-products that can safely biodegrade once they are disposed. Technical nutrients are those that will not biodegrade, but can be recaptured and returned to the production process to be used again.

Products that meet the platinum, gold or silver levels of distinction in the MBDC certification process have also embraced three additional principles: energy quality; water conservation and quality; and social responsibility. Companies that choose to certify their products must subject them to environmental and human health impact studies and document production operations.

The process begins by identifying all materials used in a finished product at 100 ppm or higher. Then each material is defined as either a biological or technical nutrient based on its ability to metabolize naturally or be recaptured or recycled. For those products that contain both biological and technical nutrients, the parts that are of different cycles need to be able to be easily separated in order to be considered for the next phase of the process.

The road to certification

Each identified material used to manufacture a product is then rated for its impact on human and environmental health. A color code of green or yellow means the material has little to no risk, or low to moderate risk and can continue to be used in production, unless an alternative is found. High hazard materials are identified as red. A strategy for phase-out of materials identified within this category must be developed before the product can move to the next phase of certification. (See Figure 1.)

The next crucial step of the certification process for companies is developing a plan for how each of a product’s biological and technical nutrients will be reintroduced back into their respective systems. Each product is evaluated for certification based on how well its biological and technical nutrient can be recaptured — the percentage of the product considered recyclable or compostable — and the percentage of materials it contains that are already recycled. The resulting score is known as the products nutrient reutilization score. The higher the number the product receives, the higher the level of certification the product can achieve. A score of 50 or higher equates to a silver rating, 70 or higher a gold rating and 85 or higher a platinum rating.

Automated tracking and reporting

As companies document their progress toward complete C2C evolution, the ability to electronically track and report on a multitude of variables can simplify the process. There are systems available today that can link a company’s chemical inventory, MSDS, water and air quality compliance data from one central depository and offer an environmental dashboard, which summarizes all findings for management in a graphical interface that allows for clearer understanding of the data’s impact on business operations.

As C2C principles become more mainstream, EHS pros and EHS and crisis management software systems for operational risk management will play an increasingly important role in directing decisions affecting day-to-day operations and enterprise-wide decision-making. Not only will data from these systems define corporate compliance and safety and health initiatives, but also help to track energy cost savings from alternative sources and help management to find ways to improve water quality and resource management.

Sidebar: Examples of MBDC client products

  • A new building material from BASF will emit no chemical fumes, is lightweight and super-insulating.
  • The Think chair by Steelcase is 99 percent recyclable and contains 41 percent recycled materials.
  • A Swiss textile plant has developed a wool/ramie blend fabric for upholstery used in the Airbus 380. The fabric contains no carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disrupters, heavy metals or chemicals that damage ozone, are toxic to aquatic systems or cause allergic sensitivity in humans.
  • Furniture manufacturer Herman Miller redesigned its factory to take advantage of natural light, cutting lighting costs by 50 percent and overall energy expenditures by 30 percent.