Ellen MacArthur sets sail for a world without waste

In an exclusive interview, Ellen MacArthur talks to Maxine Perella about her quest for a circular economy - and how her days at sea inspired such sustainable thinking

Last month environmental think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation published a detailed blueprint Towards the Circular Economy which set out the economic and business rationale for a resource-efficient future. Designing out waste would not only at the core of this economy, but crucial in society’s transition towards it, so edie caught up with Ellen herself, the Foundation’s founder, to find out how she sees such a world shaping up.

When did you first become aware of the importance of waste minimisation and resource recovery?

Realising the true meaning of the word ‘finite’ was the defining moment for me. Sailing around the world against the clock in 2004, I had with me the absolute minimum of resources in order to be as light, hence as fast, as possible.

At sea, what you have is all you have, stopping en route to re-stock is not an option and careful resource management can be a matter of life or death – running out of energy to power the autopilot means you can be upside down in seconds.

How has this influenced the work you are doing now with regards to promoting more sustainable thinking?

My boat was my world, I was constantly aware of its supplies limits and when I stepped back ashore, I began to see that our world was not any different. I started to research issues around energy and materials, which eventually led me to set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010, with the aim to rethink, redesign and build a positive future.

Do you find society’s attitudes towards waste a hindrance or help? For example, we are often conditioned to view waste as bad or dirty, rather than having a value

The current linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model generates waste; by-products that simply do not fit anywhere, as the vast majority of objects have not been designed from the outset to re-enter a cycle. The real question is not so much that of the attitude we should adopt towards it, but rather why it is we have to deal with it.

At the heart of the issue lies a potential systemic shift towards a circular model in which materials, technical as well as biological, continuously flow. Metals and polymers are kept in loops and re-employed whilst being kept at the highest level of quality, organic elements return to the soil safely and help build natural capital.

This of course presupposes careful design – for ease of disassembly, for instance – and the elimination of toxicity. As we’ve seen when working on our economic report on the opportunities of such as model, there are both immediate and long-term benefits to be achieved by moving away from linear consumption.

The figures that came out of that work, which involved no less than 50 expert interviews, are quite compelling.

Designing out waste is a central theme in your new report. Tell me more about that

The idea is to make sure everything fits in a materials cycle – this includes designing for disassembly and refurbishment, avoiding materials contamination and enabling materials identification.

These strategies allow recovery processes to be effectively put in place, and at large scale it has a big positive impact on materials cost savings. Our report notably stresses that a subset of the EU manufacturing sector could realise net materials cost savings worth up to $630bn per annum towards 2025 – stimulating economic activity in the areas of product development, remanufacturing and refurbishment.

It’s worth emphasising that these numbers are indicative as they only cover ‘sweet spot’ sectors that represent a little less than half of GDP contribution of EU manufacturing sectors. They also assume the addition of only one product cycle with today’s technologies. Yet many cycles would be possible and technological innovation would likely lead to rapid improvements and additional cost savings.

Another good news is that it will require a lot of creativity, which means it provides perspectives for young generations which at the moment struggle to find a sense of direction or a way to realise their potential. Engaging them by demonstrating the opportunities of the model is the Foundation’s mission.

You’re calling for alternative business models, basically changing from linear to circular, but should not the starting point be to consume less?

During the transition careful use of resources is essential. However we feel that ‘less’ is an uninspiring proposition so we communicate the idea of a framework that works long term and has beneficial effects. On the business model side of things, rather than being consumers we could become users and only buy the performance, or service, and not the products themselves.

Manufacturers retain ownership of their equipment, which makes sense for them in a context of rising materials scarcity and prices, so their interest is to build their products with durability in mind. The user then benefits from a high-quality service at a more affordable price than in the linear model.

Think for example that a high-quality washing machine, over the long term, will provide the user a wash for roughly 12 cents, whilst for a low-cost one that figures rises to 27 cents. Yet there is a barrier in the current model, because naturally consumers will be inclined to go for the cheap option for obvious reasons, which disappear in the context of a leasing model as people do not have to buy the machine upfront.

In other words, a performance-based system will make cheaper services accessible to more people. The trade-off between high and low quality machines also have positive implications for material and energy consumption.

Finally, how do we address this change in thinking where a ‘feel good’ society is very much about having the latest products and services?

For more fashionable items, high-tech devices for example, a contract-based relationship would allow users to benefit from frequent upgrades and not have to deal with externalities – for example, drawers full of obsolete products – provided these have been designed for disassembly and take-back systems are in place.

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste

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