It’s nearly impossible to manufacture a modern product without the use of fossil fuels: Even if the design doesn’t use any plastic or other fossil-based materials, most transportation still runs on gas or diesel, and most factories still run on power made with natural gas or coal. In a new project, the European energy company Vattenfall decided to see what it would take to make one item—a crib for a baby—in a fully fossil-free way.
“We wanted to see whether or not it was possible in 2020 to do something like this—if something can be done totally fossil-free,” says Anouk Veenstra-IJfs, who helped lead the project at Vattenfall. “The good news is that it’s possible, but it’s also very challenging.”
The wood used in the crib came from a tree cut down with an electric chainsaw, a technology that doesn’t yet work quite as well as chainsaws running on gas. “The tree needed to be a bit thinner than usual, which also means that you have less wood to work with, and makes you more creative in the design,” she says. (The tree itself was chosen because it had to be cut down due to disease.) The wood was delivered to a mill on an electric van, then processed at a sawmill using green electricity. For the crib’s bedding, the team initially considered using cotton but then realized that because there aren’t yet fossil-free options for transporting cotton from other countries, it would have to use local flax, which was handwoven into linen using a loom. Wool that normally might have come from South America or Australia came from a Dutch island called Texel via sailboat.
The steel industry is notorious for using large amounts of energy and can’t easily rely on traditional renewables, so the tiny piece of steel in the crib’s logo came from a lab that ran on hydrogen to make the world’s first steel without fossil fuels. Vattenfall worked with a mining company and steel producer in Sweden to test a system using hydrogen, which was successful. A new pilot plant is now under construction to make steel at a larger scale. The first small piece used in the crib was delivered from Sweden by electric train and electric car.
It’s not a scalable way to make a crib now—and it took the team months to locate the right materials. A single crib cost $28,885. For the energy company, the project is partly a way to engage other industrial partners to help them find ways to eliminate carbon that can more easily be used in mass production. It’s also a way to make the transition away from fossil fuels more tangible for consumers. “The issue of climate change and themes like CO2 emission reduction are such theoretical, enormous themes that are so hard to grasp,” Veenstra-IJfs says. “If you look at the objects that you use on a daily basis, like the toothbrush that you use or the pajamas that you put your kid in, we don’t tend to think that much about all the processes behind that product. But there is a huge gain to be had if you, for example, electrify those processes and bring down CO2 emissions.”
The crib was a symbolic choice. “Our ambition is to enable fossil-free life within one generation,” she says. “So for us, it felt like a natural step to make something for the next generation to sleep in, and hopefully wake up in a world where fossil-free is the standard and not the exception.”