“The circular economy is a model for an economic system that goes beyond the current ‘take, make and dispose’ extractive industrial model, which we might characterise as linear”. Dale Walker is a Project Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and is currently seconded to the World Economic Forum in Geneva where he is leading the work of Project MainStream to tackle systemic stalemates in global material flows that are too big or too complex for an individual business, city or government to overcome alone.
The BioJournal has interviewed him to understand better this economic paradigm re-launched by Ellen McArthur, a successful solo long-distance yatchwoman, and its Foundation.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
What is exactly the circular economy?
The circular economy is a model for an economic system that goes beyond the current “take, make and dispose” extractive industrial model, which we might characterise as linear. The circular economy in comparison is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, to redefine products and services to design waste out of the system and minimise negative impacts. It is a model that builds economic, natural and social capital and is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey state that, in the EU, the circular economy could generate a net profit of €1.8 trillion by 2030, cause the households’ average income to increase by €3,000 and the GDP to grow by 11% instead of the currently forecast 4%. How will all this be possible?
Continuous improvements in resource productivity have generated unprecedented wealth for Europe over the past century, however, at the same time resource productivity remains hugely underexploited as a source of wealth and competitiveness. Growth Within, the study you are referring to, looked at the sectors of mobility, food and the built environment and found that shifting to a circular economy, enabled by new technologies, has the potential to deliver multiple benefits in areas such as household spending, GDP and carbon emissions.
Achieving the shift will require systemic change for Europe’s countries, cities and companies with a change in how we think about the economy and define success being perhaps the most important. Efforts to accelerate the shift might include: Europe-wide research and learning initiatives to better understand the near and medium term implications, the development of a material backbone that preserves value and optimises the circulation of materials through mechanisms such as remanufacturing, secondary resource markets and improved product design, and the development governance systems that focus equally on improving the value derived from material stocks and flows and the regeneration of natural capital.
The European Union has started to take its first steps in the circular economy. What is your opinion on this?
It is a positive signal that the European Union is taking steps to enable the shift to the circular economy. Creating the enabling system conditions for the shift to take place is a core building block to realising the shift. The European Union is taking the opportunity to create those enabling conditions by developing policies that are a step in the right direction.
Circular economy implies to work with companies and large corporations that embrace this new agenda. How could we accelerate this paradigm shift?
Transitioning to the circular economy requires shifting the system entirely and to do that we need more than just large corporations to embrace the idea and begin to make changes in how they operate. We need the startups and the small and medium enterprises with exciting new innovations. We need governments to create enabling policies and cities to create sandboxes for experimentation. We need academia to develop the knowledge base and understanding of the mechanisms and implications of the change. There are challenges to transforming the system that no single company, government or city can overcome on their own so collaboration involving all stakeholders is crucial to accelerating the shift.
On the issue of circular economy it seems that there is no sharing of ideas from the bioeconomy stakeholders. John Bell, director for Bioeconomy at the European Commission, said that the “bioeconomy is the biological heart of the circular economy”. How is it possible to anchor the concept of bioeconomy within the circular economy policies?
The circular economy is policy-relevant rather than policy-prescriptive so what is important in order to anchor the concept of bioeconomy in policies is to develop the knowledge base that policymakers can then draw upon. Understanding and effectively communicating the role of the bioeconomy within the circular economy and the mechanisms and implications of developing the bioeconomy through the circular lens will in turn gives policymakers the means to create policies that create the right conditions for the circular bioeconomy.
As part of the effort to develop the knowledge base the Foundation released a position paper at the end of March that explored the opportunities for applying the principles of the circular economy to urban organic material flows. The paper is part of Project MainStream, a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum that focuses on systemic stalemates in global material flows that are too big for any one actor to overcome alone in order to accelerate business-driven innovations and help scale the circular economy.
Without the people on board, it’s really difficult to deploy across the board everything you need to do to really de-carbonize. What is the perception of the circular economy by the world public opinion? Are there plans for education and training supporting by your Foundation?
The concept of the circular economy is still relatively nascent, but awareness and understanding of the idea is growing. Education and training, from school, through higher-education and all the way through to on-the-job training are critical to ensuring this understanding continues to increase and awareness of the concept develops. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works both in formal and informal education to build a global platform for teaching and learning based on the framework of the circular economy.
The Foundation’s formal education programmes include an extensive network of higher education institutions across the globe working together to develop curricula and teaching programmes such as a circular economy MBA. In the informal education space the Foundation runs an annual Disruptive Innovation Festival, a global online education event that explores the changing economy and how best to respond to it.