Ellen MacArthur: Businesses must collaborate to make circular economy mainstream

EXCLUSIVE: Businesses need to adopt a collaborative systems approach to packaging and product design that creates value for the vast amount of plastic that has seeped into the oceans, Dame Ellen MacArthur told edie.

Speaking before the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy $2m innovation prize, MacArthur warned that a linear approach to product design was “broken” and that companies needed to collaborate to achieve the “long game” of transitioning to the circular economy.

MacArthur found fame as a British sailor and in 2005 broke the solo round-the-world sailing record with a time of 71 days, 14 hours. When asked what businesses could achieve in that timeframe to transition to a closed-loop operating model, MacArthur claimed that getting the right partnerships in place was key.

“This is a long game,” MacArthur told edie. “But the biggest thing companies can achieve is creating a dialogue mechanism between the biggest producers in the world to change the mechanism. You won’t have all the answers on packaging in 72 days, but the biggest thing that is changing is that we can now get Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sitting in the same room, and they have been since the beginning.

“There’s amazing potential for big organisations to work together to create systemic solutions to global problems. I’d say in 72 days the biggest thing that can be done is for companies to agree together that they can tackle this problem together and find the solutions.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been a huge advocate of the circular economy and has recently aimed the spotlight on plastic pollution. The Foundation’s New Plastic Economy initiative uncovered that as much as $80-120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy due to a linear, take-make-dispose value chain. 

Demand for plastic products is also expected to double in the next 20 years, despite only 14% of plastic packaging being collected for recycling. An estimated eight million metric tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year. If current pollution trends continue, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Systemic change

The Foundation’s $2m innovation prize was launched last week (18 May) in collaboration with the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit. It’s through collaborations like these that MacArthur believes the quickest progress can be made to help businesses transition to a circular economy.

Specifically, MacArthur claimed that the Foundation had been influential in placing rival companies into collaborative platforms to tackle issues. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are supporting a new global action plan to recycle and re-use 70% of the world’s plastic packaging.

But while companies have been striving to introduce closed-loop products, MacArthur stressed that the entire system needed changing, to create better waste collection options and a greater access to recycling infrastructure.

That is the “long game” of MacArthur’s vision. It will be catalysed by early business collaborations, and MacArthur, alluding to the increased amounts of plastic leakage occurring in developing countries, called on firms to create value for plastic to drive demand for new business models.

“The value of plastic packaging lost on the economy,” MacArthur added. “There is a realisation that the system doesn’t work. We talk about emerging markets, which do have mass amounts of leakage, but anything that has value will be treated accordingly. What we’re producing has no value and won’t be utilised in any country.

“Even in the developed world, with complex sorting systems, the recycling rates aren’t that high. Plastic is produced globally, designed globally and the same sachet is sold in Delhi as it is at the top end of the Amazon river, it’s the same corporations that produce it and it these corporations can change it.”

Matt Mace

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