How much can we truly upcycle?

What do scientists have to say about the technical vision and implementation challenges of Cradle to Cradle? Let's cherish their feedback and consider their points with scrutiny – not gobble it all blindly just because it’s scientists talking.
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

This is part 2 of a twin article about 14 scientific objections to Cradle to Cradle.

Disclaimer: This article has been misunderstood before, so I want to point put that it's not agitating the Cradle to Cradle vision and framework, and does the exact opposite instead. I will colloquially summarize the objection found in scientific literature in Italics and then turn to dissect it in the next step – a style inspired by the work of Robert Greene.

The old armchair creaks softly as she sits down …

It's this time again, and she doesn't mind.

She loves to talk about her youth, to tell the most thrilling story of her lifetime. Bright innocent eyes gaze at her expectantly, her own small tribe.

Every little soul in this room has heard the story many times already, down to the youngest, but there's no sign of fatigue or boredom. All eyes are on her, in love and anticipation.

As she starts to tell the story of her lifetime, the joy of her memories shows on the wrinkled features of her animated face. Not for a moment is she losing her grandchildrens attention.

‍A sense of awe is filling the air. It comes from knowing that this story is not fictional, but a record of her own journey.

Their own journey, shaping the world they live in. It's their story.

At times, it feels surreal.

She talks about how many people doubted an unavoidable revolution. Whether we could make it. How distracted and hopeless people were, just not moving to create a new reality with confidence and detemination. Just how much resistance there was to be found at the time before it finally happened, slowly but surely.

She remembers how much knowledge was left unused for so long. How long it took to implement it and turn it into action. How it all could have happened earlier, and how much fear and suffering could have been prevented.

Hanging on her every word, her small audience can't believe how close it was.

That we almost did not make it.

But as her story draws to an end, everyone rolls over with joy. Going to bed that night, wrapped into soft sheets, her offspring can't help but smile.

On their minds?

The tale of how the world awakened, went circular, and regenerated.

What keeps us from believing in this story?

It's simple: We don't know the way.

Looking back on a path we have walked in the past, everything appears in full sunlight, wind having blown away the fog. But when trying to see the future ahead of us, we can only look so far.

In Part 1 of this twin article, we have grappled with scientific objections to the philosophy of C2C. We talked about doubts that humanity could be good for nature, about nutrients and toxins and the question wether what C2C wants us to be even is what 'nature' is.

Let's finish the job and consider the scientific feedback to the other part of a nutrient economy – the one that is not supposed to return back to nature: 'Technical nutrients', circulating within our industrial systems.

How much can we truly upcycle?

Just imagine, a circular economy run on nothing but healthy materials in an endless cycle of continuous reuse.

As great as the vision sounds, it sounds like too much to some people. It is perceived as an impossible utopia, like a sweet idea from an innocent childs mind: Tragically unable to ever become a reality.

There are some physical and chemical barriers that some scientists deem unbreakable.

It’s true: We have no idea what will work, and when, and what probably won’t work at all. But if we want to survive and thrive on our home planet, we are called to a collective effort to realize circularity within our systems – an effort fueled by patience as much as urgency, and an anticipation of success.

What if we will be able to look back one day and proudly state:

We found a way!

Looking backwards from this future: How did we do it?

Likely through a solid belief in this change, urging us toward a decisive departure from our old industrial ways and a swift transition to a remodelled economy with a new sense of corporate responsibility.

But what do we see around us right now?

Reckless overproduction, corporate lies and legal tricks, empty soils and dwindling ore deposits, an abundance of waste and dying ecosystems. We’re too far away from a global circular standard or true integrity on a corporate level to truly believe in this possibility.

‍Being held hostage by a mental shortcut called Status Quo Bias, we are not particularly well equipped to believe in a radically different state of affairs until we see it. But then again, we won’t make it happen until we believe in it.

An impossible bind, a catch 22?

Let’s grapple with some criticism toward the technical vision of C2C, starting with a broader challenge for implementation and then moving straight to upcycling.

8/ The development side of C2C products takes knowledge, time and money – like, a lot

It doesn’t pay off to invest in circular models – they are not economical. We can’t afford to go circular.

Mostly not true.

This is an argument only from a short term perspective, and in this way there’s actually still something to it: After all, a bankrupt company with a blind dedication to future economic health can no longer change anything for the better.

But the game is being restructured, the rules are changing:

‍Many resources are becoming scarce and expensive already, with a merciless spillover to the rest of the economy. The economics of linear production models are deteriorating rapidly.

Not some day, but right now

The more we drill around in dwindling fossil resource deposits, the easier to see it will be that we have to come up with something else.

In a linear model, over time, resource depletion is inevitable. It could be smart to change gears before the last crumbs of ore have been collected and the last drop of oil has been slurped out of the ground.

How deep can we dig before we scrape bare rock?

To tell ourselves that we don’t have the time and money for sustainable innovation means to dig our own grave. It means forgetting that money should serve us, not the other way around. We are confusing the tool with the purpose.

Doesn’t matter, actually: A linear model of production is slowly becoming unaffordable right now.

The problem is solving itself as you read this.

Toxin Relief = Budget Relief

For arguments sake, let’s factor out the ecological damage and systemic cost of a linear paradigm: Even then, a circular economy still becomes more profitable in the long run.

Pardon, not just in the long run: Again, right now!

In their first book, Cradle to Cradle, Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough describe their experience with Designtex, back then Rohner Textil, a textile dyer. They were hired to rework their formula to satisfy the waste = food principle.

For full insight into the formula and ecological profile of their dye, they needed suppliers to comply and make their formulas transparent. Of many, only one agreed to do so: Ciba-Geigy, now Novartis, a major player in the global chemical industry from Switzerland.

‍In the original formulas, over 8000 chemicals had been used to dye textiles. The employees of Rohner Textil had to wear gloves and respirator masks. Many of these chemicals were used because another chemical was present, which in turn was included because a third chemical was used, and further down the line.

Escalating feedback loops turned textile dyeing into an orchestra of toxicity.

The search for healthy substances eventually led to a total number of only 38 chemicals remaining from the original formula to rebuild the fabric line with 16 nontoxic dyes. Where a complicated and expensive process was feared, suddenly many problems were solved at once and costs reduced.

Yes, that’s right: Production became not only much healthier for employees, customers and their environment, but also cheaper. The production costs dropped by 20%.

Protective clothing became obsolete and an inspection of the factory's wastewater control system had the inspectors suspect their gauges to be broken:

The water was less contaminated when it left the factory.

How so?

The textiles filtered the water instead of the dye contaminating it.

Open Source & Win-Win Thinking

One way to tackle high development costs of green innovation is an open source approach: Don’t let everyone reinvent the wheel.

One precedent happened in 2014, when Tesla Inc. publicly released the patents to their electric vehicles. Their goal was to pave the way for other manufacturers and quickly create a mass market for electric cars, in turn beneficial for Tesla itself.

But other than that, it was their belief that everyone and their children will gain from having more electric cars on the road – well, at least compared to combustion engines.

Charles knew what's up

The more companies follow, the more effective the overall system becomes, cross-pollinating and gaining traction toward a change that has to happen.

Of course, an open source mindset does not sit well with people seeking to assert their ego in competitive environments, arguing that it’s competition that drives innovation. Sure, that might be one part of the equation. But here’s another part missing:

It was Darwin himself who recognized that cooperation is a more effective driver of evolution than competition.

Genuine cooperation might the very element that solves the 'cost problem' of an inevitable paradigm shift.

9/ With flawless upcycling, we will still need fresh resources

Some parts of the economy, like the construction sector, will bind resources for a long time before reuse – even in a circular paradigm. With a low fraction of cyclable materials in standing buildings right now and a growing demand for resources, we will still inevitably hit a barrier of resource scarcity.


On our way to a circular standard, we might have to find way to reuse resources that had never been planned to ever be cycled. And even then we might still reach points of exhaustion, far from being able to recover everything and hitting resource dry spells.

Enormous amounts of concrete: Notoriously hard to cycle.

But again: What’s the alternative? Don’t bother at all, don’t even try? Currently, we extract and waste so many resources that we will clearly hit a dead end, full stop. Clinging to a linear paradigm, we might be able to map our journey to the point of full resource depletion rather accurately.

To still need some fresh pine, granite and iron in a circular setting … really, where's the argument?

All we need to do is to:

  • Play smart with resources that are limited
  • Not overwhelm the regenerative capacities of nature with too heavy use of resources that could be abundant with measured extraction
  • Not wreck ecosystems by careless handling of our residues

I get it … letters on screen are easier to pull off than a real world paradigm shift.

But who has ever claimed that it will be easy?

10/ We can’t yet replace many (composite) materials

The main driver for industrial level material use is a function of price and properties that we can’t just replace with the snap of a finger. Banning materials by blindly enforcing C2C principles as mandatory product criteria would be equivalent to intentionally collapse the economy. This can’t be the way.


To outright ban materials and let manufacturers grab into empty space is not an option. Full material replacement on a system level requires enough suppliers, otherwise we’re just creating chaos and nothing get’s done.

‍A particlarly tough nut to crack are industrial composites – multi-component structures made from different materials that are very hard or even impossible to cleanly separate again. Often glued with no dissolvent, they can’t possibly qualify for a circular paradigm.

Need an example? Sure, think of a car door with a metallic outer layer that’s glued to a synthetic inner lacing, resulting in a lightweight composite that is making the cars use phase much more efficient.

The juicy thud when it shuts close and its effect on the male mind are powered by a composite approach to car doors

Leaving circular ambitions aside for a second, a quick way to understand that composites are a good idea would be to imagine the alternative. With 100% tin car doors or your car entirely made of plastics, would you trust it in terms of robstness and performance?

Let’s assume for a moment we can’t get rid of them

Knowing the damage and having no option to fully toss composites right now … do we really need to overproduce complex products with composite material layers that then won’t even see their use cycle before joining landfills?

‍Cars that have never been driven rust on open-air parking lots, inseparably dragging composites with a fresh factory smell to waste with them. It's like we are making an effort to produce the most complicated waste possible, even bridging the inconvenience to find anyone to use it first.

This should be something we can change, shouldn’t it?

The larger question on how to replace industry-defining composites is a hard one to tackle, granted, but the fact that we don’t know yet is still a bad argument.

The answers can be found while walking and by embracing interim solutions we can fill the gaps.

11/ There’s no infrastructure for upcycling

Sending each broken device back to the manufacturer individually would be unbearably inconvenient and not ecological, but we lack the infrastructure to do otherwise. Also, a bottle made of compostable plastics in a bin of petroplastic bottles does not help anyone.


'Technical nutrients' have to find their way back to the manufacturer or the circular idea doesn’t even start to move. But where there’s no infrastructure, one can grow.

For different sizes and degrees of complexity, different systems could be used:

  • Industrial Machinery
    Industrial metal blocks will probably not be moved, but repaired right then and there – but that’s not even something new, is it?
  • Larger Household Machinery
    For something like washing machines, product service systems will be used where the manufacturer will take them back and either repair or disassemble and reuse
  • Smaller Technical Gear
    For your fancy but dead phone, there might be central points of acceptance just like we use for deposit systems today, distributing products toward remanufacturers
  • Short-Term Use Items
    Daily use items should largely be compostable and part of the biological cycle – if they are not, the central acceptance point should serve

The challenge of habit

Hiding behind technical considerations and thoughts of infrastructure, there could be an adoption challenge: There’s no behavioural pattern in renting washing machines or other household machinery.

Might still work out, but we could find a smarter way and not take the gamble: What people do know is renting apartments.

‍In order to align with people's habits and not against them, leases from product service systems could be added to the rent payment, due monthly in one sum: A collaborative system of landlords and producers to meet the needs of tenants and users.

Another branch of waste separation?

For biological nutrients, the call is to separate compostable from non-compostable plastics.

What about another branch of waste separation? In addition to petroplastics, paper, residual and organic waste, there could be a designated bin for compostable plastics and a distinguished badge on everything truly biodegradable.

After some time, we might even reach the point where the classic petroplastic bin can disappear.

That's when we know we made it.

12/ Upcycling requires enormous amounts of energy

With so much energy involved in upcycling processes, achieving high material purity is either impossible right now or requires so much energy that it's not worthwhile – up to the point that it seriously damages any sustainability claim of a product.


In the transition to a circular economy, there probably needs to be a tolerance range for material purity after upcycling.

If this shortens the material life cycle from almost endless to very long, this could pass as good enoug compared to our current waste of resources. The condition is that this tolerance range doesn’t weaken the material in crucial use scenarios and pose a risk to users.

With a greater abundance of renewable energy, the full upcycling vision might eventually become reality.

Is it really energy we're lacking?

At present, we can only speculate about the possibilities of such a system. We do not yet know the limits of an intelligent energy supply.

We have never seriously tried to find them and some attempts might have even been suppressed in the pursuit of incumbent corporate interest.

13/ There is no such thing as continuous upcycling

With use, materials are structurally weakened and eroded. Biological substitutes often lack certain material properties and require land areas to grow, potentially competing with agricultural land use. Nothing is unlimited in supply, everything has its ecological impact and opportunity costs.

True, that’s a hard problem for the vision of true upcycling.

On the longevity of upcycling, there has already been an answer formulated: When an outer layer of organic, compostable material sits on top of an inner skeleton of a resistant and highly durable material, material erosion doesn't matter as much.

The critics' response was that organic materials erode too quickly on average, compromising a product's lifespan and quality too much. For example, brake pads made of an organic fabric, containing nutrients instead of toxins, wouldn’t last as long and would need constant replacement.

Walking the walk

This question is notoriously hard to discuss, going all the way to the end only in theory. From our current position, we have a hard time assessing what is possible and what is not.

Who can truly factor out the possibility that we will find highly durable organic compounds once we really start looking for them? We need trial and error and then some more of it, iterating forward.

If pursuing the goal of infinite recyclability simply extends product life, creating a significantly slower downward spiral, we have gained a valuable amount of time that we can put to use to work on even better solutions.

‍The claim of endless upcycling to be impossible is questionable for a simple and impressive reason: Nature does it, untiringly.

It suddenly becomes a question of effort and ingenuity, not of possibility.

14/ To truly close loops, everybody has to be in on it

People have to return circular products so that they can truly circulate. We can't assume that everyone is willing or able to do their share. Just look at the world right now, how should that work?

True, people have to participate. So why wouldn’t they?

First, a point of pragmatism: The deposit system for plastic and glass bottles is working really well in Germany. In contrast, there’s no such system in Italy, so Rome is littered with bottles that people didn’t care to return anywhere or put into a bin.

‍Set the right incentives to act circular and people will unfailingly do so … after some years of habit building. We »only« have to create enough buy-in to set a trend in motion and have business models appear, supported by education.

Easy …

But seriously: More and more people understand the implications of overconsumption and the need for regenerative models. We are gradually, collectively, understanding the signs of the times.

Now, if we choose to turn our attention to people with ingrained habits and patterns, noticing that they won’t change, we will extrapolate from there and give an advance payment of despair.

But what about X, Y and Z?

Knowing about the environmental cost of livestock farming, how many people from younger generations are eating meat and how often?

Is it sometimes, only when grandma cooks at Christmas or even never at all?

Generations X, Y and Z are already responding to the call of our age, some more than others.

Now take a guess, how many people of the same age thought that way just 30 years ago? How many seniors today couldn’t leave meat out of their diet if their life depended on it?

‍Habit change takes time to gain traction, but never underestimate the world-shaping power of generational mindset change. If the trend toward a circular economy continues to gain momentum, at some point, it won't matter who wants to participate.

Between collective sentiment translated into consumer signals, their connection to corporate image and the economics of demand, nothing else will add up.

Once we arrive in a new paradigm, the old way of doing business will seem medieval to us.

Bonus Objection – The C2C philosophy is full of dogma

Dogmatism makes an ideas advocates blind to everything that does not fit their own convictions. It damages their likelihood of success by a loss of balance, trust and sympathy. We have already seen enough cults and blind fanaticism throughout history.

Sadly, somewhat true.

Whoever feels like fighting for a cause, should also take a very good look at the response: Does the temperament of your communication damage your message?

Many people have met one hardcore vegan so obnoxiously intrusive about making everyone eat broccoli and brussel sprouts that he fails to reach anyone at all. Also, you start to suspect that he might be missing his steak and cheese really bad.

In the realm of C2C and circular concepts it’s no different: Self-confidence in what you stand for can slowly morph into dogma, distorting your message, creating reactance and even reversing its effect.

As bad as this can get, this confidence emerges from a certain, well, certainty: We can no longer squander the earth's treasures so carelessly before our behaviour will painfully turn against us.

The deeply existential aspect of this topic is heating tempers

The way forward doesn’t have to be one specific approach under one specific name.

If there’s a better idea or next level to C2C coming around soon, welcome it. Finding ways to find deeper unity on a few basic, compassionately articulated values helps us to not butt up against other belief systems, habits or even similar frameworks.

True, Zero Waste is not enough, but a good idea to begin with. Start running before you dream of winning a gold medal. Cradle to Cradle delivers crucial pieces to the puzzle that is the 21st century, but so do Biomimicry, Permaculture and other regenerative frameworks.

To discard dogma and focus on open collaboration will allow these systems to merge and create a sense of direction for everyone. We will get closer to the productive synchronization of the ant hivemind – just smarter and more complex, with Wifi.

Stakkato of doubts = still no signal for project termination

Some criticism was aimed at the fact that a circular future will still not be perfect, that new and unique problems will arise. That’s true for, say, everything we do.

Some of the scientific objections to C2C had a concerning fixation on destructive trends of the past and present. Thankfully, many of the opinions we’re constructively softspoken and not of a rigid, belligerent nature.

‍At the same time, there seems to be not lot of courage going around to anticipate scientific breakthroughs around applied circularity or other collective turning points.

Understandably so, it’s science. Sober pragmatism and all, the extrapolation of the future from trends of the past. This points to the deep need for enlightened business practice and visionary leadership – to just do and try what science deems impossible.

Why? We don’t know what happens to the creative hivemind of an intelligent species hurtling toward extinction.

It could be anything, and it helps to create favourable results when we anticipate success. It's not like we haven't seen turning tides and unexpected outcomes before.

Anticipating turning points

We could see turning points that no professional data digester would ever expect, looking at the charts and numbers of the past to extrapolate into an unknown future.

There are no conclusive statistics, scientific papers or case studies on the behaviour of intelligent species around historic landmarks like this, faced with the inevitability to either deplete it's resources or go circular.

Sure, it can feel like a faint hope to anticipate unexpected events or black swans, but we’re in the unknown here. It’s within our power and responsibility to not wait for them, but to produce them.

»The best way to predict your future is to create it.«

– Abraham Lincoln

Only having ourselves to count on, who knows what our minds will grow to be capable of and what new generations with fresh minds will bring to the table?

Anticipating hardship

We will probably have to break through some mental barriers as much as engineering ones, just like the legendary four-minute mile was thought to be an impossible feat to perform.

It was believed to be a hard barrier for athlete performance. Once broken in 1954, it saw hundreds of athletes breaking it again and again in the decades to come, as if a dam of collective limiting beliefs had collapsed that day.

The most compelling scientific arguments have been those around upcycling, around the very core of circular models. To cycle everything – endlessly, without loss of quality – is a tough nut to crack and could actually turn out to be impossible according to the laws of entropy.

‍We might have to settle with only getting close to true upcycling, nearing it asymptotically, never actually reaching it.

But then again, and again, and again: Nature does it, all the time.

What does that tell us?

Why can’t we?

What will be the circular four-minute mile?

Will it be a breakthrough in understanding the mystery of fungi, an incredibly promising team of contestants?

Will it come from a luxury car brand turning circular in record speed, a dedicated packaging manufacturer with a broad education from sophisticated parents or a marketing agency finding the key to make true sustainability irresistible?

Will it come right from the archetype of the mad scientist, figuring out something mindblowing that noone else had looked for or even considered? Will it be none of those or all of them together?

We can’t know for sure, but it’s sure fun asking. More fun than despairing.

Truly understanding the hidden workings of nature, leading to breakthough applications in human industrial systems, may be to the circular quest what breaking the four-minute barrier was to athletes.

Get the free ebook and email series
Ready to elevate your digital marketing game?

Find all the bits and pieces to successfully steer your ship in a sea of exponential noise – with four enduring, versatile and high-leverage digital marketing tools. Built on first principles and inverted thinking.

Ebook: The 4 best ways to sink your marketing budget