Charting A New Course For The Planet’s Resources

Her experience of sailing taught Dame Ellen MacArthur that resources are finite, and that has inspired her new approach to how we produce products. It’s called the circular economy.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 10 Jun 2018, 14:43 BST
Dame Ellen MacArthur was inspired by her time on sailing boats to realise a new vision ...
Dame Ellen MacArthur was inspired by her time on sailing boats to realise a new vision to our current take-make-dispose linear economy that is the root cause of today's challenging problems, including plastic waste.
Photograph by Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Dame Ellen MacArthur carved her name into yachting history in 2005, when she became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe. She stepped away from professional sailing in 2009 to launch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with a mission to accelerate the world’s transition to a circular economy, where the planet’s resources are constantly recycled.

How has sailing influenced your approach?

The one thing that I did learn from sailing that helped me to understand this issue [the circular economy] as an individual, is that when you are on a boat you understand the system of the boat, so it’s about the electricity, the ropes, and managing yourself to keep that going. You live in this contained little world that is sailing on the ocean, but at the same time, that boat sits within a bigger system and that’s weather and the waves and the water and the temperature and the ice bergs, and the depth of the water, which all play a part in what you experience every day.

If the water temperature changes by two degrees then the wind will change direction and it will get stronger or weaker. You begin to understand that within the bigger system, everything is inter-related. I think that bigger system approach to the global economy is where we’ve ended up with the circular economy.

What was the spark for your ideas about the circular economy?

After being on a boat in the middle of nowhere for months on end, I had become increasingly aware of the finite nature of resources. I began to question how our global economy worked, how does it function, how does it use resources.

If resources are finite on a boat, they must be finite on land. The more I learned, the more I realised that we use resources in an increasingly linear manner and at an increasing speed. We know that linear cannot work in the long term with an increasing population, and finite resources. Exponential growth can’t work.

But many of the solutions being discussed at the time were about using less and being more efficient with the use of resources, which of course is vital, but as part of a transition to what? What actually works for the global economy? And that’s what led me to the circular economy and really to question a global economic model based on linear efficiencies. Although circular made sense as a gut feeling - after all, natural systems have existed for billions of years and successfully processed materials back into new growth - we have found there was more economic growth to be unlocked through embracing circularity and building circular systems in all aspects of the economy, than continuing with the linear model, and that has been huge.

That restorative and regenerative nature has been proven for millions of years.

A new approach reveals that everyday items can be produced in a sustainable way. The Triocup is made from 100 percent compostable materials and its simple trifold lid design easily integrates into traditional coffee cup production methods.
Photograph by Tom Chan

How is the concept of a circular economy gaining traction?

The momentum we have seen over the last seven years has been extraordinary, all over the world. It’s being driven by the understanding that the circular economy is a different economic model, which creates regenerative and restorative cycles, which designs so you can recover materials, which keeps items once they are made at their highest value for longer. And it also makes more money economically than a linear economy.

It allows you to decouple economic growth from the resource constraint of a linear economy.

How receptive is big business to the idea of a circular economy?

What has been really exciting for us as a Foundation is that there is an understanding that the current system is broken. We have found the momentum within these industries to be quite considerable. They are in the room talking about the failure of their system and they are actively trying to fix that. Some of these companies are huge.

One of our global partners, H&M, want 100% of their clothing to be circular by design. That is a massive target, but they know where they are headed. They know linear can’t work in the long term and they want to be ahead of the game.

What fills me with optimism is that there is a goal to step towards. If you can get to a point whereby you can design everything to recover the materials, where you can feed those materials back into the economy, where you can change business models to enable that sort of end-of-life collection system, then you are building towards something which is restorative and regenerative. There is a massive frustration that it won’t happen tomorrow, but it can’t happen tomorrow because we are trying to change an entire system.

Why are plastics such a focus of the circular economy?

When you look at the New Plastics Economy Report, plastic is one of the highest volume materials within the FMCG sector, 78 million tonnes per year, and when you see the statistics about what leaks into the ocean, you see a system which is effectively broken.

Plastic should not be there, it’s not designed to be there, and actually, nobody did design it to be there. The system needs fixing. Likewise, with the textiles industry, when you see half a million tonnes of microfibres leaking into the ocean every year, you see stratospheric failure in the system.

Find out why plastics are used so widely

Plastics 101
Once a completely natural product, much of today's plastic is man-made and largely dependent upon fossil fuels. From polymers to nurdles, learn how plastic is created and what we can do to slow the lasting repercussions this material will have on both our planet and our lives.

How can you persuade individuals to get involved when they see the industrial scale of environmental damage?

People want to engage but they don’t know what to do. I spent three years trying to understand plastics and I still have no idea what to do with the plastic that ends up in my home. The system doesn’t enable me to put all plastics in one bin and be valorisable – ie to have value so it can be recycled.

We are trying to change the system so the plastic has value, can be easily sorted and can be reprocessed into plastic again. That involves a change in the system. At the moment, it’s incredibly hard because the majority of plastic packaging is not designed to be recycled at all. Multi-film packaging cannot be recycled because it’s got several different types of plastics in it.

So where does the answer lie?

We are trying to build a protocol, and it could be for textiles, it could be plastics, to say what is this made of and how can it be valorised. We can have plastic provided to us in a different way, which automatically enables it to be reprocessed or resold.

For example, with a takeaway coffee we need to enable the user to buy a disposable cup when travelling, so you know that cup can be recycled, or it’s a biodegradable cup and can go into the ground and become a fertiliser for farming.

Which new business models have caught your eye?

Well, rather than buying a dress, why not rent that dress? In China, Y Closet has got millions of users and thousands of different clothing options – you choose what you want, and the old clothing goes back to them. You’d think who wants a library for clothes, but actually five million people in China do, and there are significant companies growing very quickly providing clothing in different ways

TheRealReal in the USA sells secondhand luxury items, and after six years in business their sales are $500 million a year.

Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has a huge repair facility in North America, which repairs more than 50,000 garments per year.

We are seeing changes in industries and new business models that enable the materials to flow back in. We are seeing these models emerge, and grow in value very quickly.

A London-based team development team Delta was inspired by the way nature encapsulates liquids within membranes, from egg yolks to fruits. Their machine produces and fills an edible and biodegradable packet for such condiments as tomato ketchup.
Photograph by Skipping Rocks Lab

What role does the Ellen Macarthur Foundation play in developing a new circular economy?

The Foundation is about presenting a different way an economy can function, and to be catalytic in driving that change. We work with 14-19 education, international university networks, we have executive education, we have online resources open to all education, we try to be a catalyst.

I am not an expert, but I have brought an ability to open doors and perhaps in the early days that pursuit of what success looks like. As an individual I am used to chasing goals, whether competing in the Vendee Globe, the Route de Rhum, to try to be the fastest person ever to sail solo non-stop around the world. Those were very clear, identifiable goals, to which you can rally people and gain momentum, because the goal is clear and understandable.

What the circular economy has done is taken that picture and say, this is what success can look like for the global economy.

The June 2018 issue is guest edited by Dame Ellen MacArthur and tackles the issue of plastic pollution and the effect on the planet.
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