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Case Study: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation looks to build a circular economy by working with government, business and academia. This video asks them how.
The circular economy is the framework for an economy that’s restorative and regenerative by design. And what we mean by that is that today’s economy you would typically characterise as linear and that certainly applies to plastics. You take resources out of the ground, you bash them around, you make them into something and you ultimately throw them away at the end. There’s maybe a bit of recycling in there but that is a throughput model. What we’re talking about with the circular economy is something fundamentally different.
We’re talking about two cycles; one of biological materials, so the sorts of organic matter that can return to a natural system, to a food and farming system, and we’re talking about regenerating and kind of rebuilding natural capital on that side. And then we’re talking about technical cycle metals, polymers, things in our cars and phones and buildings. And there we’re thinking about recycling as part of the picture but we call it the ‘loop of last resort.’ What we should be aiming for, better than recycling, would be remanufacturing a product and returning it to its like-new state.
Really keeping it in circulation, in the economy, providing value with the minimum interference and, just to mention plastics, obviously that is a hugely currently one way linear model. About ninety-five percent of the material we use, we lose in the plastic system. And what we’ve tried to do with our work with the new plastics economy is to convene all the different stakeholders in the plastics supply chain because really nothing will change in isolation and to work on rethinking, redesigning the way we make and use plastics so that it works and we don’t have this enormous leakage from the system which causes, not just environmental damage which has an economic impact, but also it’s just value that is being lost every single day.
Another challenge is that a large proportion of plastics never actually reaches formal recycling systems. Think of things like sachets, the ketchup sachets, or things that you tear off the top of a milk carton and microplastics would be another one. They’re so small that they’re never going to be collected or recycled in that way. So we really need to design out that waste. And where you might do that, one suggestion will be ‘what about a plastic material that dissolves as you use the product?
Something that you can tear off and put it in the washing machine, for example, and it just dissolves’ is it at worst benign, at best it would actually improve the condition of the water at the end of at its use.
So that’s one initiative we’re really excited about. We’re trying to capture the imagination and stimulate designers, material science experts, chemists around the world. And because the new plastics economy initiative is supported by something along lines of 40 CEOs and city governments and recyclers, packaging manufacturers, and because it’s an initiative with that much support we hope that some of these top entries into these two tracks of this prize can actually be scaled up and used. The businesses involved in that, they know they need to change. They know that the way that they make plastics now, again there’s that economic opportunity that’s being lost every day, and then there’s, I was going to say there’s a kind of P.R.
disaster waiting to happen but it does happen quite frequently really. The problem I think a lot of organisations face is where do they start that innovation journey? Whilst there’s a first mover advantage for some of the circular economy activities there’s also a bit of a risk there. It’s not something that’s been, it’s not a path that’s been well trodden. The businesses today do seem very risk-adverse. They’re sat on quite large piles of money and looking for, they are looking for, the right places to invest that. So we try and facilitate or sometimes you don’t even have to actively do it but spot those links between the small start-up with the game-changing, groundbreaking innovation and the incumbent who wants to shift.
And, actually, the companies we see that are making progress are the ones who have told a really compelling story internally, they’ve got CEO buy-in and they have the product innovation to go along with it.
Something that we get asked quite a lot: ‘why’d you work with some of the biggest businesses in the world?’ and part of the reason is that if they can shift the needle just a tiny bit, then it can make an enormous impact. That’s why we kind of approach it from the ‘emerging innovator’ and the ‘incumbent disruptor’ side of things.
The designers, retailers, manufacturers, they want to design great products obviously they want to design something that benefits the user and they want to stay profitable. They also want the risk, kind of recyclers or end-of-life handlers, waste processors, to be able to handle the materials that they’re putting out on the market. At the same time, the people at that end of the scale are praying that the designers and manufacturers will maybe just simplify their products, use a few less materials, make it a bit easier to recycle or reprocess at the end of its use. Just thinking primarily around plastics and policy makers are the people that can step in to really level the playing field there.
I mean to two approaches that you could take would be extended producer responsibility as one example, which is very much a dialogue driven approach, trying to find a solution that works for both of those parties and not just them, but all the parties in there along that value chain. Another approach could just be bans and levies and you just say ‘no we just get rid of disposable plastic bags’ or ‘we charge 5p for them’ and both methods can work, both methods might be applicable to different product types. For me there seems to be quite a lot of promise in the former. That, through dialogue, you can have a system that benefits all parties.
Seems like just outright banning a product or a substance doesn’t seem quite the way to go. So we very much disagree with the sense that we need to just, that plastic’s evil and we need to get rid of it, it’s not. It’s the way that we make and use it that’s broken. It could be a system that works really well but it needs some fundamental changes.
I think something that doing a history degree has given me and I don’t know if this is me just me retrospectively adding this lens on is that, from a zoomed out perspective, you can see some of the big shifts in history. When our first ever economic report, which we released a few months after I joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
started with this quote: ‘Nothing is impossible especially if it’s inevitable,’ and certain elements of circular economy are inevitable. We will get more savvy with the way that we use and reuse resources. We will have to shift to using renewable energy but we have the chance to develop an economy that is really prosperous and delivers a whole range of benefits, not just for businesses and around resources, but for well-being, livable cities health and so on. So I hope that we’ll look back and just see that the circular economy was something that unfolded naturally and there were organisations and people out there who helped direct it in that, in that way.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation looks to build a circular economy by working with government, business and academia. The aim of the foundation is to create an economy that is restorative and regenerative, supported by funders and partners.

In this step, we meet Joe Illes, who graduated from the University of Bristol in 2010 with a degree in History. He joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a Digital Marketing Coordinator, working on editorial pieces and social media, before becoming Editor in Chief. Within this role, he created and now runs Circulate, the circular economy news website. Through Circulate, Joe can champion commentary on economics, business, and society from the perspective of the circular economy. In this video, Joe discusses some aspects of the circular economy.

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