Closing the loop: Interview with Ellen Macarthur

Written by: Matthew Valentine | Published:

Ellen MacArthur is determined that young engineers should overthrow the traditional manufacturing process. Here, she speaks to Matthew Valentine.

Ellen MacArthur is no typical environmentalist, and it is fair to say that she chose an unconventional route to the role. Indeed, she insists that the current 'green' approach of maximising efficiencies and recycling will simply delay the inevitable moment when we run out of essential resources.

As a result, she has established a foundation to advocate far more radical change to the way we design and manufacture the products that support our lives. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a charity that aims to make people fundamentally rethink how they go about engineering a more sustainable future, and it came about because of direct experiences MacArthur has encountered on her celebrated travels.

The catalyst for this was a visit to South Georgia in the Southern Ocean, a place she had raced past but never visited. The island had been a centre for the whaling industry for half a century, with several towns built where the whalers and associated trades had made their homes. "All sorts of things came out of whaling... but when you see these towns today they are completely empty.

There is not a soul there, because that industry has died. There were resources we used to take from the sea; we used them up and moved on to the next one," says MacArthur. The concept that an abundant resource was so heavily used that it became uneconomical to harvest jolted MacArthur into the realisation that, ultimately, the same will happen wiith oil and coal. "That was the first flick of the switch," she says.

Once her interest had been sparked, a long process of research and learning followed. Slowly, she passed the point of considering efficient use of resources to be the goal to aim for. While it is an essential element of longer term plans, efficiency will only delay the inevitable day when resources run out, MacArthur says. To avoid that, she asserts that the end goal must be a 'closed loop' economy.

Put simply, this is a system of making products that imitates nature in its approach to resources. In nature, when plants or animals die they decompose, providing energy or food for whatever grows next. Just as, for instance, a windfall apple that drops uneaten to the ground will return its nutrients to the soil. A closed loop manufacturing system eradicates waste by ensuring that all products are designed to be disassembled and their components re-used at the end of the product's useful life.

Biological components could, for example, be composted. Meanwhile alloys, polymers and similar materials would be designed in such a way that they could be used again with minimal use of energy, which should come from renewable sources. This 'cradle-to-cradle' approach is designed to ensure that finite resources remain within the system for re-use, rather than simply being used until they run out. To be truly effective companies big and small would need to adopt a closed-loop system, as would entire nations.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was formed to promote understanding and education of the issues. "I don't even like the word 'sustainability' because to me it's [about] our future," says MacArthur. Many people are lulled into a false sense of security by following advice to put out their recycling and switch off lights, because they think that points the way to a sustainable future, she suggests.

But, insists MacArthur, there is nothing sustainable about such lifestyles because far more drastic action is needed: "If your only solution for the future is to be more efficient, that's not a way out, because all it does is buy you more time... using less is not a destination to get to. It's a necessity, but it's not shaping the future so that it works."

Nobody supporting the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is under the impression that the adoption of such an ambitious closed loop strategy could be easy, but MacArthur thinks the expertise to do it does exist. And engineers will be an essential part of the process, she says, describing the enormous challenges in designing products so that technical nutrients can be easily recovered, and how these could also involve a change in the relationships consumers have with companies that supply their products.

"Maybe you won't buy things. Maybe you'll rent things that are then returned to the manufacturers so that they recover those materials at the end of their life," she suggests. Rather than buy a cheap washing machine a family could purchase 3,000 wash cycles, she suggests. The machine would then be refurbished, or broken down and remanufactured by the original supplier.

In theory, this strategy could also encourage manufacturers to make more durable products. "Companies make money by selling a washing machine and, when it breaks, by selling another," says MacArthur. "That's how they make the profit. But if you sell 3000 washes it's not in your interest to have a machine that breaks down. So you design the machine in a different way.

You don't design the cheapest machine that will last for three years and that's just about acceptable. You design a machine that actually will last and, because nothing can last infinitely, you design it so it is repairable; but also that machine is not owned by the consumer, it's owned by the manufacturer and at the end of its life it goes back to the manufacturer and the materials are used to make the next washing machine."

Aware that modern manufacturing involves layers of subcontractors, and both large and small companies, MacArthur knows that it will not be profitable for SMEs to change all their processes, unless their customers change the way they subcontract. "One of the biggest barriers to long term investment is the lack of long term contracts," she says. "They [subcontractors] aren't going to invest in the infrastructure to change the way they build something or make something if they only have a contract for two years."

Getting young people interested in engineering will be essential too. "I think, partly, the challenge when it comes to engineering is how many people come through school wanting to be an engineer," says MacArthur. As well as visiting schools and colleges, the Foundation supplies a large and growing range of teaching resources to help encourage students to think about the future, and how they might help shape it.

That way, says MacArthur, it might be possible to tempt those wanting to enter the fashion industry to consider study materials science: "They might invent the next polymer we are all going to make our clothes out of, because that's not on people's radar at the moment." New generations with an engineering education and the freedom to use it creatively are essential to the foundation's vision. "Innovation is at the heart of it because this is all about creativity. What we believe more than anything else is that this is a time to be creative. We need to be more creative than ever before."

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