A conversation with Dame Ellen MacArthur

A conversation with Dame Ellen MacArthur

GreenBiz
Ellen MacArthur opens her organization's annual summit, in June 2018 in London.

Dame Ellen MacArthur needs no introduction in the world of circularity. Having become the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe in 2005, she grew acutely aware of the finite nature of resources in a linear system, which she discusses in her iconic 2015 TED Talk that has been watched nearly 2 million times. She launched the Ellen Macarthur Foundation in 2010, and has been showing the way to a circular economy ever since.

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with MacArthur, an adviser to our Circularity 19 conference. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Lauren Phipps: What are you excited about right now?

Ellen MacArthur: Right now, I feel this overwhelming need and space for a positive narrative. There is momentum in the circular economy and we've seen that build over the last 10 years. But I feel that now the positive story — the economic opportunity, the way it's framed, everything — there's a real opportunity to crank it up. And at the foundation we're heavily focused on accelerating the transition even further, amplifying the work we do. I feel now is the time for that. It's ready. The economy is right for it.

Phipps: What are the biggest messages that are working to amplify the foundation’s work?

MacArthur: There's a massive opportunity to build an economy that can run in the long term, that's restorative and regenerative, that's about creativity, innovation, redesign, material science and new business models. That's what resonates. It's resonated from the very first moment that I made sense of a circle rather than a straight line in my head. And there's never been a more important time than now.

Phipps: Despite great momentum, there are roadblocks in the transition from here to circularity. What’s the biggest obstacle you’re facing in advancing you work?  

MacArthur: It’s the thinking; you get locked in this linear mindset. Ten years ago, that's where I was. You think this is how things are. You think that you have to replace like for like. You have to replace this power station with the equivalence in renewables. You have to try and make this product a little bit better. You have to tweak the current system to make it a bit better.

It's not just about shifting from coal-fired power stations to wind generators and solar panels. It's not just about different forms of transportation. It's about remanufacturing. It's about redesign. It's about regeneration. It's the system that has to change. It's complex. It's exciting.

Obviously, putting it into place is much more complex, and shifting systems is more complicated. You need to go to the root cause. You need to look at the whole system. You need all the players in the room. But it's about understanding that place to get to.

Phipps: When it comes to systems change, how do you think about slow, incremental shifts versus foundational and fundamental pivots?

MacArthur: Systemic shifts are incredibly difficult to put in place. I think there are certain elements of the shift to circularity that can be done more easily than others, perhaps more autonomously.

Take, for example, heavy industry: Caterpillar engines, Power-by-the-Hour that Rolls-Royce provides, or different transit systems for railways. You have a different business model: They own the engine; they repair the engine; they use their technology to remanufacture the engine. I can't say it's easy because obviously there are many complexities, but you need fewer players in the room to make that happen. You can lead from the airline and engine manufacturer position.

When you go to something like plastic packaging, it's very high volume and very low value. It's much more complex and it's international. You have different products sold in different markets. You have different collection schemes. You have no collection schemes in many markets. And you're trying to make this system work.

It’s not a case of a municipality in whatever country working with a plastics company; that's not going to fix the problem of plastics pollution. Even the biggest plastics company in the world cannot fix this on their own.

It needs all the players in the room to agree on the direction. It needs a basic set of principles that everyone adheres to. That's exactly the journey that we've been on with New Plastics Economy. It's about everyone agreeing on a general direction for which there will need to be many innovations: 100 percent recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. They are clear, time-bound targets in a complex system.

Phipps: What's keeping you up at night?

MacArthur: If anything keeps me awake it's a mixture of frustration and excitement. Excitement in that there is such an opportunity; why aren't we grabbing this now? And frustration in that there is such an opportunity; why aren't we grabbing it now? You swing from being astonished at where we are to thinking, "Crikey, we haven't started yet."

I remember when we first had a conversation around plastic packaging at Davos. The feedback was, "No one is interested in plastic packaging. There's lots of exciting elements to circular economy, but really? Plastic packaging?" And now look. It shows what's possible at speed, and that's possibly one of the hardest, most complex problems.

I feel so optimistic. There's a different narrative. There's a different story. There's a story around innovation, creatively decoupling growth and resource constraints. We can do this so much better. We can design out waste. We can keep products and materials in use at their highest value. And we can regenerate that through systems.

How cool is that? We know pretty much how to do that. We just need to put the elements in place to make that happen.