Cradle to Cradle products could be key to a healthy house

Unity Home
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Unity Home at Greenbuild

These are interesting times in the world of green certification systems. One of the more interesting and sometimes controversial certifications is the Cradle to Cradle (C2C), originally developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart and spun off into The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) in 2010. The Unity Home on display at Greenbuild in Washington was also a demonstration platform for C2C, with over twenty products approved C2CPII either built into the building’s fabric or on display inside. I came away from a tour of the house conducted by Stacy Glass, C2CPII’s Vice President, built environment, and from the Greenbuild show in general, with a new appreciation of C2C, and, after worrying that it wasn't catching on, a sense that finally, this is a certification that is going to go mainstream.

(For background, here is a summary of Cradle to Cradle prepared by my students at Ryerson School of Interior Design, and here are some previous somewhat critical posts on TreeHugger.)

Along with C2C certification, the C2CPII issues Material Health Certificates, sort of C2C Lite that addresses three main concerns:

  • Knowing more about chemicals in products and supply chains
  • Avoiding chemicals of concern and shifting to inherently safer chemicals
  • Making a commitment to continual improvement towards greener chemistry

These are the aspects of C2C that are perhaps of most interest to consumers, as it certifies that a product does not contain chemicals on the C2C banned list, there is no exposure from carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants, and it meets VOC emissions requirements.

This is becoming more and more important as our homes become more airtight and energy efficient; you can build the greenest, most efficient house possible but if builders construct it from materials that are toxic or consumers fill it with furnishings and products that are full of chemicals that can can hurt or kill, then we are not doing anybody a favour. Or as I wrote years ago in a post titled In Green Building, You Can't Separate Energy and Health:

You cannot worry about energy savings without worrying about air quality, they go hand in hand. If you make a building energy efficient then you have to worry about VOCs, formaldehyde, fire retardants and every other chemical that can build up; an efficient house has to be a healthy house.

This is why C2C and its Material Health Certificates are so important- it’s a great way to determine if a product is healthy enough to be in your home or office. It also covers all kinds of products that consumers actually have a role in choosing, which are often limited to the final finishes like flooring or kitchen counters in houses, home furnishings, the cleaning products under the sink and yes, even the toilet paper in the bathroom.

As an example, lets look at some of the C2C and MHC products displayed in the Unity Home. There are the builder choices including Sunpower solar power systems and GAF Materials Corp, EverGuard Extreme TPO Roofing System. Then there are the finish choices that a homebuyer might make in the sales office….

Finishes

linoleum© Good old linoleum

…like Johnsonite/Tarkett Linoleum, one of the greenest flooring surfaces you can get and a no-brainer alternative to vinyl flooring. It’s made from the most benign of edible ingredients, from linseed oil, pine rosin, wood flour and jute. Here is how they make it- from 1936.

shaw floor© Shaw

It’s next to Shaw Epic engineered hardwood flooring, which is a layer of real hardwood on top of a Stabilitek core, which according to their website, is made “ from wood fibres bonded with proproietary [sic] chemistry, Stability holds up to the challenges of climate fluctuation and sub floor moisture”

Now here is where I think C2C can be especially valuable; I never have liked proprietary chemistry, even when it is spelled right. But at least with C2C I know that somebody has looked at it, and at least I know that there are no chemicals of concern in that proprietary mix. Shaw may not want to tell me or its competitors what it’s made of, but they have to tell C2C.

icestone© Icestone

There are also IceStone counters in the kitchen. I love this company, writing in my review of countertops:

Then there is IceStone, which is unlike any other company I have looked at. They are in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, making their precast counters out of local broken glass. But that really is just the start. They got their product Cradle to Cradle certified; they take their environmental and social responsibilities seriously. They are “a founding member of B Corp, a group of companies dedicated to improving social and environmental problems through smart, sustainable business practices.” They teach their employees english and they feed them healthy food. Dig deeply enough into their website and you can probably find the menus. I am still not crazy about concrete counters, but I am totally crazy about the company for their transparency and their commitment.

The walls are covered in Roma EcoDomus Paint; it sounds like you could drink this stuff for a mineral-rich diet.

Roma EcoDomus mineral paints are toxin-free, containing no solvents or VOCs and therefore experience no off-gassing. The paint’s microcrystalline structure allows air and moisture vapour to permeate through the surface into the substrate, providing a healthy exchange of air; the microcrystalline bond also allows for a more durable coating.

Furnishings

mattress© Naturepedic

Until this point, Unless you are buying or renovating a house, you are stuck with what you’ve got. But here is where C2C really makes a difference in peoples lives, because these are the things that everyone chooses. Furnishings can have a serious impact on health; they are often full of formaldehyde binders, polyurethane foam, flammable fabrics and toxic fire retardants. They are the real fuel for the fires that kill through toxic smoke. The C2C certified sofas from Ekla Home and the mattresses from Naturepedic are made from natural materials like wool and latex that don’t need flame retardants because they don’t actually burn that well.

towels© Jules Clarysse B.V.

There are also totally natural Pendleton Eco-Wise blankets and pillows on the bed and Jules Clarysse B.V towels in the bathroom, “made with 100% natural cotton and pigments, and are 100% biodegradable and compostable.” I would imagine that most all natural blankets and towels could qualify for C2C, but it is really like having an extra bit of insurance.

The stuff of daily life.

I often send my sustainable design students out to look at so-called green buildings, and as part of their review I ask them to look in the janitors’ closets and under the sink in the kitchens- here is where you find out if people are walking the walk, using green and healthy cleaning materials. A substantial majority of them are not. When you ask why, you find that a) they never thought about it, b) they don’t work as well, or c) they are too expensive. However this is probably the place where we find the most volatile organic compounds, the most toxic solvents and chemicals, the stuff that we absolutely should not have in our homes. This is where the C2C label can be so valuable.

Method Cleaners© Method

Method cleaners are “Derived from corn and coconut, the cleaners break down dirt naturally, so each spray leaves nothing behind except clean surfaces and a fresh scent.” Their Gel Hand Wash “is naturally derived and triclosan-free.”

The next most toxic room in the house is the bathroom, where cosmetics and personal cleaners are full of chemicals, in a with usually lousy ventilation. Aveda shampoos are certified C2C gold, the highest level yet given (nobody has managed Platinum yet).

toilet paper© Van Houtum

And yes, there is even C2C toilet paper from Van Houtum, “designed for luxury, comfort, and hygiene.” I suppose that means that nothing toxic will touch your delicate bottom.

Nine seconds of Stacy Glass from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

Talking to people from all the different certification systems, from LEED to Living Building Challenge to Well to C2C, I got the sense that there is an increasing awareness of health and wellbeing as a prime concern, of more importance to consumers than, say energy or recycled content. There is also an increasing realization that everyone should really be working together more, so that C2C products are now recognized by LEED and and the USGBC is working with Well. There appears to be a growing trend toward harmonization of different standards; As Stacy Glass noted earlier in Metropolis magazine:

Collectively, what we want are better products but that requires more than transparency. We need to create an environment that encourages continuous improvement and rewards progress. I would like to see LEED, the Living Building Challenge, owners, operators, and architecture and design firms align language and their requests to encourage companies to disclose ingredients, assess ingredients, make commitments to avoid and eliminate chemicals of concern, and be rewarded for their progress on this continuum.

I really got a sense that this is beginning to happen. I also got a sense that we are going to be seeing a lot more Cradle to Cradle certified products in our homes, which will be healthier because of it, right down to the toilet paper.

Tags: Cradle To Cradle | greenbuild

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