Why our throwaway culture has to end

The plastic waste crisis is a symptom of our single-use approach to products and to solve it we need a new approach - the circular economy.

By Ellen MacArthur
Published 6 Jun 2018, 11:01 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

When you sail around the world, at times you can be 2,500 miles away from the nearest town. This awareness really brings home the fact that what you have on the boat is all you have, there is no more. You understand what finite means.

When I stepped away from professional sailing in 2009, I spent the next four years travelling the world to research the challenges facing our global economy. This led me to translate my understanding of finite to the global economy, which I began to realise is no different from that boat.

As a planet, we have finite materials – oil, metals, minerals and so on – available to us just once. Using them more sparingly and slowly merely delays the date at which we will exhaust them. We cannot continue in this linear fashion. Using less is not a solution, it just buys you time.

The world’s current take-make-dispose linear economy is outdated. It is also the root cause of some of today’s most challenging problems.

Planet Earth faces a waste plastic crisis that no amount of well intentioned clean-ups can solve.

In Life magazine in 1955, an American family celebrates the dawn of “Throwaway Living,” thanks in part to disposable plastics. Single-use plastics have brought great convenience to people around the world, but they also make up a big part of the plastic waste that’s now choking our oceans.
Photograph by Peter Stackpole, LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

The answer lies in the creation of a circular economy. We need to move beyond a philosophy of single use. All products, and especially plastics, metals and textiles, should be designed with the intention that their raw materials will be recovered and recycled.

The circular economy offers a blueprint for a way of life that is restorative and regenerative. It makes sound business sense. Increasingly, the biggest companies in the world agree – household names such as L’Oréal, Mars, Marks & Spencer and The Coca-Cola Company are now working towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.

The circular economy also delivers long-term benefits to the environment. It will protect our oceans from the onslaught of plastics and microfibres that they face, keep our shorelines clean, and spare our soils from landfill pollution.

I am delighted that National Geographic has turned its spotlight on this issue. By highlighting the scale of the problems we face as a planet, and outlining a viable framework for a solution, National Geographic can amplify the rallying cry to people, industries, companies and governments to commit to a sustainable future within a circular economy.

Dame Ellen MacArthur is the guest editor for the June 2018 issue, Planet or Plastic.

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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