Ellen MacArthur and the idea of circular economy

You have heard brands wax eloquently about circular economy. You might also have some fair idea about what it means. But have you heard of Ellen MacArthur and her organisation?

07 Aug 2021 | By WhatPackaging? Team

Image source: An Introduction to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016)

Let us introduce you to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works with, and inspires, businesses, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally to develop and promote the idea of a circular economy.

So, basically, the Foundation wants to introduce a new economic system that delivers better outcomes for people and the environment — a system where business models, products, and materials are designed to increase the use and reuse, replicating the balance of the natural world, where nothing becomes waste and everything has value.

This, in short, is a circular economy, which is built on renewable energy and materials, is distributed, diverse, and inclusive.

To imagine, Dame Ellen Patricia MacArthur, the founder, was a yachtswoman. In February 2005, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, a feat that gained her international renown. Probably, circumnavigating the globe fuelled her interest in a circular economy. Anyhow, she announced the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity in September 2010 and since then has been working towards accelerating the transition to a circular economy.

With the support of its strategic partners, the Foundation’s work focuses on six interlinking areas:

Learning: The Foundation emphasises interdisciplinary, project-based and participatory approaches, encompassing both formal education and informal learning. With a focus on online platforms, the Foundation provides insights and resources to support learning about the circular economy, and the systems thinking required to accelerate a transition.

Business: Since its launch, the Foundation has emphasised the real-world relevance of the circular economy framework, recognising that business innovation sits at the heart of economic transitions. The Foundation works with its strategic partners and partners to develop scalable circular business initiatives and to address challenges to implementing them. It brings together industry-leading corporations, emerging innovators, affiliate networks, government authorities, regions and cities, to build circular capacity, address common barriers to progress, understand the necessary enabling conditions, and pilot circular practices, in a collaborative, pre-competitive environment.

Institutions, governments and cities: To complement its strong business engagement effort, the Foundation works with governments and institutions, from municipal to international, with the aim of informing policymakers and supporting public-private co-creation mechanisms.

Insight and analysis: The Foundation works to quantify the economic potential of the circular model and develop approaches for capturing this value.

Systemic initiatives: Taking a global, cross-sectoral approach to material flows, the Foundation is bringing together organisations from across value chains to tackle systemic stalemates that organisations cannot overcome in isolation. Plastics were identified through initial work by the Foundation with the World Economic Forum and McKinsey & Company as one of the value chain’s most representative of the current linear model and is, therefore, the focus of the Foundation’s first systemic initiative. Applying the principles of the circular economy, the New Plastics Economy initiative, launched in May 2016, brings together key stakeholders to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

Communications: The Foundation communicates cutting edge ideas and insight through its circular economy research reports, case studies and books. Through digital media, it reaches audiences who can accelerate the transition, globally. The Foundation aggregates, curates, and makes knowledge accessible through Circulate, an online information source dedicated to providing unique insight on the circular economy and related subjects.

Why circular economy?
The year was 1684. Thomas Savery invented the steam engine and it changed everything. It kick-started the industrial revolution, which transformed our ability to make things. For the first time in history, goods were mass produced.

Since then, the rapid pace of technological progress has continued. The resulting innovations mean that many now have access to products from all over the world at affordable prices. These products have brought many of us levels of material comfort unimaginable to previous generations.

But today, our way of doing things is reaching its limits. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. The current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment.

We take resources from the ground to make products, which we use, and, when we no longer want them, throw them away. Take-make-waste. We call this a linear economy.

But the linear economy has to change. Today, we have the knowledge and tools to build an economy that is fit for the 21st Century.

We must transform all the elements of the take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet.

And a circular economy is the way forward.

Click here to visit the Ellen MacArthur Foundation