The Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Circularity More Relevant Than Ever

Analyzing the Status of a Circular Economy

In 2016, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) decided to bring plastic packaging into the circular economy. The foundation’s message is clear: “The vision aims at ensuring that plastic never becomes a waste by 1) eliminating the plastic we don’t need; 2) innovating to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, and compostable; and 3) make all plastics circulate in the economy and out of the environment.”

The foundation has also shed light on information about plastics and the problems regarding plastics management—data used by both specialists and the general public. Instead of attacking the industry, however, the organization has taken a proactive stand to propose precise objectives to solve the problem in a clever and nuanced approach.

We spoke with Joss Bleriot, executive lead—institutions, governments, and cities—with EMF to help members understand the strategy. (The interview is lightly edited for clarity and style.)

Question: In an article published last May, you said the COVID-19 crisis revealed that the call for a more resilient, circular, and low-carbon economic model is more relevant now than ever. Is that still the case?

Joss Bleriot: There is definitely renewed commitment from a lot of companies, and we’ve seen that in a joint statement that we published in the Financial Times in June 2020, which gathered a lot of business representatives, CEOs, but also policymakers, reaffirming the commitment to the circular economy in those troubled times. We have seen this at the European Commission level from the president and executive vice president themselves, [Ursula von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans] who promptly stated that their Green Deal and the circular economy action plan were going to be crucial in the recovery. Of course, we can’t be naïve. Nothing is set in stone, and we can’t declare victory. But it’s a fact: the call for a system reset that predated the pandemic has not been pushed away. A lot of actors feared that the climate agenda, for example, would take a backseat, but it has not been the case. To help the process, what we need to do now is to make a very clear link between the circular economy strategies and the objectives set by the Paris Agreement. We need to make it clear that a circular economy is not something that comes as an added task, but as a strategy that is conducive and helpful to achieve the CO2 targets that countries and companies have signed up to or set themselves.

Q: The functionality of the packaging is something that the public is not aware of. Not all single-use packaging has the same value. Should this definition be clarified?

JB: The definition of single-use is straightforward: If it cannot be reused, then it is by definition a single-use. For the packaging we do need, and even in that first elimination phase, there is a huge opportunity to shift from single-use to reusable formats. That requires a fundamental rethink of what is the product you want to deliver—rethinking and redesigning the packaging, sometimes even the product itself and the system within which it sits. We see good pickup for refillable solutions, for example.

Q: We can see a lot of plastic bans everywhere. Do you think it is a good solution?

JB: When there is an emergency in countries that suffer from the absence of a collection and recycling infrastructure, it does have its place. Is it a cure to everything? Absolutely not. Of course, certain substances that are famously and proven toxic and detrimental need to be banned. But that is a different question. It is more about the contaminants that can be in any sort of product, not only in plastic packaging. The ban of plastic bags, such as we’ve seen in certain countries in Africa and certainly enforced with vigor in Kenya, was responding to an urgent need. And it did have some positive effects, so there is a place for it. But you have to understand that banning a product does not necessarily mean that the need for it is going to go away. Carrying bags does perform a fuction and banning them should come with an alternative solution. But to think that all of a sudden everybody is going to be lifted from the burden of having to even think about a bag to carry their groceries, for instance, is not realistic: what’s needed is innovation in materials and business models.

Q: Sometimes, we have the feeling that the cities are more concretely committed than the governments and countries. Should they be the best leading stakeholders?

JB: No, it’s a systemic question, so there is no best or worst. Everybody—every institution and level of governance—has a role to play simultaneously. It doesn’t mean that the same effects will be achieved. Let’s take a look bottom to top without any judgment here. The municipal level can act really quickly and implement projects, change logistics, and change the material flows through urban planning, for instance. What we see is that a circular economy in concrete terms plays out much quicker at the city level simply because they can. The national level has the potential to make that relevant for a whole territory in one go, in which case it will not be relying only upon the goodwill of mayors to act. It could give a sense of direction that will impact the whole territory. At the institution level, if you look at groups such as the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] or even bigger—the United Nations—when the UN adopted a resolution on sustainable consumption and production (which is SDG 12), and acknowledged that there is an important role to play for a circular economy, it does not give anything that is binding. It does not give a direct order to either a government or a city. What it does is give an unofficial mandate for those actors who felt like there was potential in the idea but didn’t really know if it was accepted or credible. When there is an “endorsement” from the UN, effectively it doesn’t have anything binding behind it. But I think we see a lot of players—governments, municipalities, and regions—being confirmed in their intuition that it is a good way to go. All these levels play out on a different timeline, but they mutually reinforce themselves. It is very useful to see what each of them can bring, as opposed to which is the best one.

To conclude on the UN side of things, the resolution that I mentioned was that of UNEA 4 [United Nations Environment Assembly, fourth session]—some months ago—and UNEA 3—years ago. The adoption of the resolution on microplastics and marine litter was pushed by the Norwegian government, which in essence paved the way for a potential call for a treaty of a global agreement on the way to deal with plastics. This is important to the conversation today because that call has not gone away. There is a trend, there is something growing, which means that by the time we reach UNEA 5, it is going to be a conversation. I am not saying that it will yield a treaty or anything like that, but at the very least it will be on the table. This is why, even if the UN and supernational bodies don’t have the power to impose anything, they can set a massive precedent and set the context for others to act.

Q: The effect of the current pandemic is that the industry is not producing the same products in the same volumes. There is a shift caused by demand, and this is even reflected in film manufacturers at the beginning of the value chain. As a result, there is the impression that there is more packaging in the stores. Will this lead to delays in the transition to a circular economy?

JB: Of course that can induce some delay, but the question is where to put the available resources in a time of crisis. The balance is stuck between short-term issues that need to be dealt with because they are hurting the economy, and how to project beyond that storm – what are we looking to build – . Because at this stage, it is about rebuilding something. It is difficult, but at the same time, we see that there is a more central role played by governments, and the public sector has taken center stage due to its ability to put massive stimulus packages on the table. It will be important for the private and public sector dialogue to agree on a priority and to make sure that, if there are investments to be made in terms of reindustrialization programs or transition programs, then they are informed by the circular economy priorities. We see this at the European level: the circular economy action plan is precise on what steps need to be taken, what sectors are priority sectors due to their material intensity, etc. We could have feared that this question of circular economy and Green Deal, in general, would completely disappear in the face of the emergency, and the reassuring thing is they have not. We have a commitment from leading global businesses and governments alike to treat the recovery as an opportunity to reset the system, as well. Now it does not presume that it will be an overall success but, at the very least, the sense of direction has remained.

Now let’s look at it another way: what does the pandemic actually change? Does it change the levels of pollution that we’ve seen? Does it change the urgency of dwindling natural resources? Does it change the pressure on ecosystem services that are suffering from economic activity? No, the context does not change. Businesses’ and governments’ actions are dampened by the fact that they have potentially fewer resources and financial terms due to the economic downturn, but it does not shift anything away from the focus and the fact that what needed to be solved before the pandemic still needs to be solved. (OK, a small drop in pollution has been very localized. According to calculations for earth overshoot days, it has set it back by three weeks, which is negligible, frankly.) This means that the situation that we have on our hands is exactly the same. The same logic as the ban applies here—does the ban displace the needs? The pandemic does not displace the pre-existing need.

The authors for the interview were Pierre Sarazin, PolyExpert Inc., and Emma Sarazin, HEC Montreal, with the collaboration of Nathalie Laganière, PolyExpert Inc.

Editor’s Note: This page shows the unabridged version of the interview that ran in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue.