Dame Ellen MacArthur wants to change the world. She became famous for breaking the world sailing record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. The boat she did it in was a little shorter than a tennis court. The circumnavigation took her 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds.
When you are alone in a boat in the middle of the ocean you have to be independent. The resources you carry with you are all you have. There is no popping to the shop to refresh supplies. So you fix, re-use and re-cycle as much as you can.
That make-do approach is the philosophical driving force behind a charity she founded when she hit shore, it’s called the Circular Economy Foundation.
The Foundation believes the take, make and dispose society, is no longer sustainable. It believes there is a new way of designing the world and the things we produce in it. It believes everything should have a second chance – a second life, if not a third and a fourth.
On the morning I’m due to meet her, I wake up to the old world clatter of a big lorry and men at work. The men who pick up the recycling rubbish at my house come later than the men who pick up the throw away rubbish – so on a Monday you get a double loud visit of banging bins, hydraulic crushers and big engines.
I’m careful about what I buy and I certainly believe I’m a conscientious consumer and yet each week the pavement outside my house testifies to the amount of stuff I throw away.
I’m not alone. The world produces a lot of things. Global use of raw materials, from energy to minerals and metals will reach 140 billion tonnes a year by 2050, three times what it was in 2000 and so much of it is thrown away.
I was due to meet Dame Ellen at the Royal Thames Yacht Club overlooking Hyde Park. Much of the crew’s early morning preparations are trying to get the builders next door to agree to stop banging for half an hour during the interview and thoughts about whether I should keep calling her Dame Ellen. I think it sounds much too formal but I don’t want to be disrespectful so I try a strategy of not mentioning her name very much at all and just smiling a lot.
Dame Ellen is not at all formal, even in the rather old world atmosphere of the Yacht Club. In fact, we get chatting about a school we both know where she came to give a speech. The school were clearly expecting a much more traditional kind of Dame. But this particular one came in jeans. She was helpfully told by the Head they had a room in which she could change into something more formal. The only problem being – she didn’t have anything – she came dressed as she was.
Her casual, friendly approach should not be mistaken for any lack of seriousness in the task she thinks lies ahead of us.
“We’re in a world where we need answers.” She tell me. Today our economy is predominantly linear. That is to say that we take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it, and then ultimately at the end of its life that product gets thrown away.”
Within a circular economy, you build an economy which is cyclical rather than linear in nature. So by design that product is provided in a way that enables it to be remanufactured, enables it to be disassembled, enables components to be recovered.
She says he approach is “based on hard economics. We live in a world that has more volatility in raw material prices than we’ve ever seen before in history. We’ve got three billion new middle class consumers entering the global marketplace. We have a growing population. We have finite resources. We’re using them more and more quickly. The moment you go circular, you unlock a different form of growth. A form of growth that keeps products, components and materials within and at the highest value and utility at all times.
And that is driven by hard economics and it’s driven by profit for business. And all of that is decoupled from those resource constraints.”
There was no way I was going to attempt a circumnavigation of the world to test her approach but I was prepared to take a budget flight to The Netherlands to see how it was operating in practice.
I arrived at the trendy offices of a company called Fairphone in a converted warehouse loft in Amsterdam, which has developed a smart phone which share the principals of the circular economy.
Rather than just throwing it away each time there’s a model update, this company has designed the product so each element can be replaced. If you want to upgrade the camera or the speaker, you don’t need a new phone, you just pop in a new element.
The CEO, Bas van Abel offers me his phone and says I am welcome to pull it apart. I can open the back and take all the elements out, dismantle the electronics and pop out the camera. It might make for good TV I say, but I tell him I once tried to replace the element in my toaster and ended up destroying the device and had myself a mini breakdown and I didn’t think he should trust me with his phone.
The point he says is that they’ve made an architecture on the phone that people can actually replace the parts themselves. He’s confident I won’t break anything. True enough I dismantle the phone and can put it back together.
The phones are not cheap – they cost around 500 euros and they want to compete with the best of Apple and Samsung.
There is also something curious that happens when you fix something yourself or when you upgrade your own handset. Van Abel says “If you repair something, you start to love that thing more. And you start knowing the stories behind it. And I think that is also an important aspect, a psychological aspect of people wanting to use that phone longer.”
There is even a message on the home page of the phone reminding you how long you have had it. Many companies might want this reminder to jog you into an expensive upgrade. Fairphone believes it reminds you how proud you should be to have kept the phone so long.
The notion of recycle and re-use is being investigated by many different organisations around the world. Another is the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in the U.S.A. I visited their labs to meet Professor Marion Emmert who is helping pioneer a new industry of Urban Mining.
The idea is that we are surrounded by precious metals and materials that are imbedded in the products we often throw away. Rather than dig down deep into the earth to find new metals – we could mine them form the products we already have around us but no longer find useful. In particular, this urban mining approach could be useful in re-using rare earth metals.
They are the seventeen rare earth elements or metals. Our need for them is escalating, yet our ability to source them is limited. These vital elements are increasingly needed in electric cars, mobile phones, even medical imaging devices, because they’re good at conducting electricity.
At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Professor Marion Emmert has developed new ways to extract them.
With the help of her students and colleague, Professor Emmert is taking old motors, demagnetizing the elements and shredding the metals. They add diluted acid which dissolves the material which contains the rare earths. They then selectively precipitate the rare earths to isolate them ready for re-use.
At the moment it’s about 20 percent more expensive to get the material from this process than digging it out of the earth. But Professor Emmert says they are actually in negotiations with several companies thinking about how they can scale it up and make it really commercially feasible.
Professor Emmert let me have a go. She’s a stickler for safety and I have to wear two pairs of glasses – my own and some safety glasses on top – which makes me look like a dotty professor but ensures my eyes safety from all the acid I’m using. After s fairly simple set of processes I manage to extract some rare earth metals from a small electric defunct motor which would otherwise have been thrown away.
I’ve seen examples of the way industry could change to benefit the planet and even help economics. From phones in The Netherlands to Motors in the USA – we are seeing the development of new ways to imaging the way industry can work.
Let’s not pretend that is about to suddenly change the way we live. My rubbish bags remain full – despite my best efforts to cut down on waste. But serious thought and research effort is starting to be focused on a way of re-imaging the world.
A sailor’s journey around the world may well end up helping to change it.
 http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/publications/Poster3-Decoupling-FinalScreen.pdf http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/press%20release/Decoupling%202%20Press%20Release%20English.pdf