Monday 3 March, 2008

It’s Monday and I am in Rotorua in New Zealand enjoying the hot springs, mud baths and geysers. I am not carrying my copy of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. That has been left in Auckland to pick up in a couple of weeks time. Why? Because for a paperback style book it is frightfully heavy and internal flights in New Zealand – and we fly down to Queenstown on Friday – restrict you to a tightly enforced 20kg.

It would have been good if I could have carried the book as I have discovered that it is not paper at all but a waterproof polymer which fits the authors ‘Design for the Environment’ protocol that focuses on the safety of a product’s material chemistry, the percentage of its recycled content, the recyclability of its parts, and the ease of disassembly. Trees should not be used for paper and this easily and fully recyclable polymer is far better according to the authors.

Why it would be good to have is that the polymer was originally developed not by the authors but by others wanting to develop a waterproof paper so the book would have been the perfect reading in the thermal baths here in Rotorua. It is not so easy taking in a Sony VGN-TZ lap-top.

The reason I am reading this book now, albeit it has sat on my shelves for some years, is that I heard Dr, Prof Michael Braungart give a lecture in Germany the other day at the Volvo Design Conference in Munich. The concept of making products with both proper functionality and disposal in mind, so that valid recycling of the biological and the technical elements can be truly meaningful does make sense. The idea is that you can consume as much as you want knowing that nothing actually goes to waste.

The reason that this reaches this blog starts on page 13 when the authors start to talk about “toxic footwear”. How come we did not learn about this before? Here they complain of chromium tanned leather and an extraction plant they visited in Germany that only employs people over 50 since it takes 20 years for cancer from chromium exposure to develop. So the workers will die before the cancer gets to them. Where did they find this plant? What truth is there in this story? I wish I had read the book so I could have challenged them. Where is the ICT and Cotance defending the tanner and supporting good science? We had a very good joint international leather forum in Paris last September where this sort of thing was discussed but we still seem to have no action and the world continues to view chromium as wicked and everything else in leather as “natural”. In what circumstances is vegetable really better in a “cradle to cradle” sense than chrome? We can recover unused chromium in the tannery and re-use the leather as leather board or even extract the chromium from it. Is vegetable leather when full of other chemicals we use really so naturally biodegradable and good fro landfill? And is vegetable tanning really a more appropriate use of trees than paper?

Someone needs to produce some definitive information on this and get it promoted. Like every other bit on environmental science this needs proper scrutiny and the application of well researched peer reviewed science or it is no better that some scruffy little tannery dropping lime and sulphide into the local streams and cutting down the mangroves for tannin telling us they are perfect because the process uses natural materials and is chrome free.

Remember the Corium Club gathering at the APLF in Hong Kong on 31 March 2008 in Room MR209-210 of the Convention and Exhibition Centre at 6pm.

Mike Redwood

3rd March 2008