ANALYSIS: Ellen MacArthur puts sustainability ahead of the curve

Designing out waste is not only at the core of a circular economy but will be crucial in society's transition towards it, according to a detailed blueprint recently released from environmental think tank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The 90-page document Towards the Circular Economy which former sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur took to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos sets out the economic and business rationale for a resource-efficient future, in which we get most of our products and services from things we’ve already made.

However this requires making stuff better – items that are easier to reuse or disassemble for recovery. According to the study, this means replacing end-of-life concept with restoration and eliminating the use of toxic materials that can impair reuse potential. Indeed, the very notion of waste wouldn’t even exist.

The blueprint follows on from a Green Alliance report published last October that called for circular use of three major resources crucial to environmental stability and economic growth – metals, phosphorous and water. The Green Alliance wants to see a multi-pronged approach taken to improve product design and to drive up the capture of end-of-life products.

Speaking to edie back in July, the Green Alliance’s senior policy adviser Hannah Hislop expressed hope that the report would be used to inform Defra’s forthcoming resource security action plan, which is due to be published shortly. “We know that our linear economy discards valuable materials because of a series of market failures,” she said.

Ellen MacArthur’s blueprint builds on this ideology by exploring in some detail how a circular economy approach could be applied to mainstream products. The research found, for example, that the cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be cut in half if manufacturers made them easier to take apart, improved the reverse cycle and offered more incentives under customer takeback schemes.

In another cost-saving scenario, if washing machines were leased to households instead of sold, customers would save roughly a third per wash cycle and the manufacturer would also earn roughly a third more in profits. These case studies – which looked at only a subset of EU manufacturing sectors – indicated the potential for annual net material cost savings of up to £396bn.

However, shifting current business models and the economic balance away from energy-intensive materials and primary extraction won’t be easy. Reverse cycle activities such as refurb and remanufacture would have to become the norm, and companies would have to markedly improve their collection rates for used materials.

It’s a tough challenge – but not an insurmountable one, according to Ellen MacArthur. Answering questions directly via a Guardian live webchat on the blueprint last week, she said: “What we are seeing is that people, and indeed big business, are looking for different models and solutions – and we believe that the circular economy provides a coherent framework for redesign.”

She pointed out that a circular economy decouples growth from finite resources and creates a more stable business model. “The vast majority of manufacturing works in a linear way so there is significant opportunity for a car manufacturer, for example, to grow through this different model which would have positive implications on their profits, their use of finite resources and their employment statistics.”

Ray Georgeson, a materials recovery expert who heads up the Resource Association, welcomes such inventive thinking, especially in light of sharp increases in commodity prices over the past decade. But any accelerated shift towards materials reuse would undoubtedly have profound implications for the waste sector, particularly reprocessors and recovery merchants.

Talking to edieWaste, he said: “We may see some in the industry redesign their own businesses along circular economic lines, as well as the emergence of new entrants with skills in influencing consumers and using information technology to boost collaborative consumption model.”

What is certain is that if a circular economy model is embraced, the shape of how global markets do business in the future will change beyond recognition. For some, it’s a frightening prospect but for many, curving that line can’t happen soon enough.

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie