π Society π Economics
Have we hit the limits of the circular economy?

Construction, textiles: how eco-design is transforming certain markets 

Benjamin Cabanes, Lecturer at Mines Paris - PSL & at the MIE department of École Polytechnique (IP Paris) and Nicolas Cruaud, Co-founder and President of Néolithe
On May 3rd, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Benjamin Cabanes
Lecturer at Mines Paris - PSL & at the MIE department of École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Nicolas Cruaud
Nicolas Cruaud
Co-founder and President of Néolithe
Key takeaways
  • Eco-design is an approach that integrates environmental aspects not only in the design phase but throughout the life cycle of a product.
  • To remain competitive, it is in the interest of companies to anticipate increasingly restrictive regulations, such as AGEC.
  • To avoid greenwashing, it is essential to consider the entire production process, and to generalise the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a product.
  • Eco-design is particularly useful in the construction sector, where the use of new materials and construction processes can reduce carbon footprint.
  • The sector also has a strong potential for recycling waste: the start-up Néolithe “fossilises” common waste into reusable aggregates for construction.

Green­house gas emis­sions need to be reduced by 40% as we approach 2030 to lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing to less than 2 degrees. Hence, if we want to respect the 2015 Paris Agree­ment, we must adopt new pro­duc­tion mod­els and think well upstream about the envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance of prod­ucts and indus­tri­al or com­mer­cial process­es. To do this, com­pa­nies are turn­ing to the prin­ci­ple of “eco-design”, which con­sists of inte­grat­ing as many envi­ron­men­tal aspects and process­es as pos­si­ble into prod­ucts, well before they are put on the market. 

The (whole) life of products 

Ben­jamin Cabanes, a lec­tur­er and researcher in man­age­ment sci­ence at École des Mines de Paris and École Poly­tech­nique (IP Paris), defines eco-design as “a pre­ven­tive approach”. It con­sists of inte­grat­ing envi­ron­men­tal aspects not only in the design phase, but also through­out the life cycle of a prod­uct. This is true from the extrac­tion of its raw mate­ri­als, through its pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion, to its use, recy­cling and end of life. 

“This approach is based on sev­er­al method­olo­gies,” explains Ben­jamin Cabanes, “includ­ing Life Cycle Assess­ment (LCA), which is divid­ed into four stages: objec­tives of the LCA; inven­to­ry of incom­ing and out­go­ing mate­r­i­al and ener­gy flows; iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of poten­tial impacts; and final­ly, analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion of the results to pro­pose solu­tions for prod­uct design.”

If you want to make a T‑shirt, for exam­ple, you must con­sid­er the raw mate­ri­als used: like how cot­ton is pro­duced, as it often requires a lot of water, pes­ti­cides, and fer­tilis­ers, which have very sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal impacts. Then, the gar­ment will, of course, need to be pro­duced and often dis­trib­uted to the oth­er side of the plan­et: all steps that con­sume a lot of ener­gy. Final­ly, we must con­sid­er how the T‑shirt will actu­al­ly be used. It will need to be washed more or less often depend­ing on the mate­r­i­al or colour and these suc­ces­sive wash­ings will have an impact on the envi­ron­ment, as they require water and ener­gy used in the wash­ing machine.

Important issues for the company

In order to remain com­pet­i­tive, it is in the inter­est of com­pa­nies to antic­i­pate reg­u­la­tions that will be increas­ing­ly restric­tive, such as those induced in France by the “Anti-waste for a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my” (AGEC) law. How­ev­er, this LCA approach is far from being wide­spread, as the ten­sion between envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic per­for­mance remains too great. 

“It is not enough to pro­duce organ­ic T‑shirts to be an eco-respon­si­ble com­pa­ny,” says Ben­jamin Cabanes. “If, as a com­pa­ny, you release ten new col­lec­tions a year and have sev­er­al sale peri­ods to sell off old stock, you are encour­ag­ing con­sump­tion with­out meet­ing real needs.”

It takes more than a line of organ­i­cal­ly-pro­duced T‑shirts to be an eco-respon­si­ble company.

To avoid green­wash­ing, it is there­fore essen­tial to con­sid­er the entire pro­duc­tion process, and to gen­er­alise the LCA approach through­out the com­pa­ny, apply­ing it to all prod­ucts not just a few. But how can com­pa­nies be con­vinced? Ben­jamin Cabanes is bank­ing on the train­ing of young peo­ple in these meth­ods and issues and counts on the moti­va­tion of young engi­neers who are already choos­ing to go into a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor of activ­i­ty or com­pa­ny that are more aligned with their own envi­ron­men­tal commitments.

The building sector, a leading example

In the build­ing and pub­lic works (BTP) sec­tor, the eco-design approach, framed by increas­ing­ly rig­or­ous reg­u­la­tions, is already hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant impact. For exam­ple, the use of new types of mate­ri­als and new con­struc­tion process­es makes it pos­si­ble to reduce ener­gy loss in exist­ing build­ings and to ren­o­vate old build­ings with a view to reduc­ing their car­bon foot­print. The con­struc­tion indus­try has much poten­tial for recy­cling its own waste, but also for using cur­rent waste. This is how the founders of the fam­i­ly-run start-up Néolithe came up with the idea of fos­sil­is­ing com­mon waste to trans­form it into min­er­al aggre­gates that can be reused in con­struc­tion and pub­lic works. 

Today, most of the non-recy­clable waste pro­duced by indi­vid­u­als (house­hold waste) or by com­pa­nies (ordi­nary indus­tri­al waste) is buried in huge land­fills or incin­er­at­ed, which in both cas­es leads to sig­nif­i­cant pol­lu­tion. In the first case, there is seri­ous soil pol­lu­tion and methane emis­sions dur­ing the decom­po­si­tion of the waste; in the sec­ond case, the mate­r­i­al dis­ap­pears in smoke, but the ener­gy pro­duced by the incin­er­a­tor to burn it is high­ly carbonated. 

“The waste fos­sil­i­sa­tion process was invent­ed by my father William Cru­aud, a stone mason,” explains Nico­las Cru­aud, pres­i­dent of Néolithe. “For 40 years he has been work­ing on the white lime­stone of the Loire cas­tles. What is known as ‘tuffeau’ is noth­ing more than the remains of Cre­ta­ceous waste, which has been fos­silised and sed­i­ment­ed. His idea was to repli­cate this nat­ur­al process by accel­er­at­ing it, through a mechan­i­cal and chem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion with­out heat­ing that min­er­alis­es the mate­r­i­al and does not emit CO2.”

The son, a poly­tech­ni­cian, imple­ment­ed his father’s idea, and they cre­at­ed this indus­tri­al start-up in Angers in 2019, in asso­ci­a­tion with engi­neer Clé­ment Bénassy.

Fossilising waste 

The prin­ci­ple is to grind the waste into a very fine flour (between 0 and 500 microns) and then to react this flour with min­er­al binders, which are the indus­tri­al secret of Neolithe. This reac­tion pro­duces a min­er­al paste that is shaped under pres­sure in a “fos­silis­er” to pro­duce small aggre­gates. “We call this aggre­gate ‘Anthro­pocite’ in ref­er­ence to the Anthro­pocene era, the geo­log­i­cal peri­od when humans began to have a real influ­ence on the Earth.”

This min­er­al aggre­gate can be used in cer­tain types of con­crete and is in the process of being approved for use in road sub-base mate­ri­als. “If we fos­silised the 30 mil­lion tonnes of French waste per year, we would obtain 40 mil­lion tonnes of aggre­gates and reduce the French car­bon foot­print by a fac­tor of ten,” says Nico­las Cru­aud. Because this process also has the advan­tage of being ‘car­bon neg­a­tive’, since it allows for car­bon sequestration. 

The com­pa­ny plans to deploy 250 fos­silis­ers through­out the coun­try by 2027, each of these machines being able to process 10,000 tonnes of waste per year and pro­duce 12,000 tonnes of aggre­gates. The com­pa­ny will then gen­er­ate rev­enue both from the quan­ti­ties of aggre­gate sold and from its waste treat­ment ser­vices, as the accel­er­at­ed fos­sil­i­sa­tion process is finan­cial­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly com­pet­i­tive with land­fill or incineration. 

Many coun­tries, espe­cial­ly those with strong reg­u­la­to­ry con­straints on land­fill and incin­er­a­tion, are begin­ning to show inter­est in this new process. 

Marina Julienne

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter