Post industrial revolutionary
04 Apr 2011
A new way must be found to make things if we are to preserve limited natural resources, says Ellen MacArthur
Ellen MacArthur is no typical environmentalist and it is fair to say that she chose an unconventional route to the role. If indeed that is her role. For MacArthur insists that the current 'green' approach of maximising efficiencies and ad hoc 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 aims to make people fundamentally rethink how they can engineer a more sustainable future and came about because of direct experiences she encountered on her travels. As she endured loneliness and hardship on her sailing journeys, MacArthur became used to treating every resource as finite. Every calorie of food and drop of diesel had to be planned and accounted for to minimise weight.
"When you're in a boat race, you make sure you have enough to get to the finish line. And when you get to the finish line, it's all okay, because you can stock up again," she says. "But we don't have that option on land."
Initially, she maintained a clear distinction between the two types of life, because the demands of a solo voyage are so extreme. "You are disconnected from the things that we are so used to. Your mobile phone won't work and money is completely useless. You are in a different world, where you manage all your resources minute by minute, hour by hour. But you are also far more connected to the things around you... you are disconnected, but connected in a different way." After years of adjusting back to 'normal' life after each journey, she began to question just what 'normal' meant.
The catalyst for her subsequent journey was a visit to South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. The island had been a centre for the whaling industry for half a century, with several towns where whalers 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 a resource was so heavily used that it became uneconomical to harvest jolted her into the realisation that, ultimately, the same will happen will oil and coal.
She became more concerned when she began to research how much oil is left. While the figure is much disputed, and new techniques such as drilling for shale oil may change calculations, many sources state that, at current usage rates, the world could run out of oil in 40 years."That's in my lifetime!" says McArthur.
A long process of research 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, she 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. Closed loop manufacturing eradicates waste by ensuring that all products are designed to be disassembled and their components reused at the end of a product's useful life. Biological components could be composted. Meanwhile, alloys, polymers and similar materials would be designed to be used again, with minimal expenditure of energy, which should come from renewable sources. This cradle-to -cradle, as opposed to cradle-to-grave, approach is designed to ensure that finite resources remain within the system for reuse, rather than being bled to death.
"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, she insists, "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 engineers will be an essential part of the process, she says, describing the 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 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 proposes. The machine would then be refurbished or broken down and remanufactured by the original supplier, a strategy that could encourage manufacturers to make more durable products.
"Companies make money by selling a washing machine and, when it breaks, by selling another," states MacArthur. "That's how they make the profit. But, if you sell 3,000 washes, it's not in your interest to have a machine that breaks down. So you design the machine in a different way. 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." Some blue chip companies are supporting the foundation, which has already raised millions of pounds in corporate sponsorships.
The prices charged for goods might need to become more transparent, too. "Are we really paying the real price for our goods?" she asks. And the way products are presented may need to be rethought, she adds. "When I go shopping and come home with loads of packaging, I feel guilty. You know, no matter what, that most of it is going into landfill, because quite frankly we don't have amazing recycling facilities as we live on a small island [she lives on the Isle of Wight]. We've been around the facility, which is amazing... but it's a linear system.
"If all that packaging goes into big biomass generators or, even better, gets broken down into compost and goes to all the farms on the island and becomes food for the next cycle – which can absolutely be done - then you don't feel guilty about the packaging," she adds. "It becomes part of the cycle."
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 also be essential. "I think, partly, the challenge when it comes to engineering is how many people come through school wanting to be an engineer," she adds. 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 to shape it. 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."
Famous for the determination she displayed in sailing around the world singlehandedly or, to a younger generation, when setting lap records on the Top Gear test track, it now looks likely that future generations will remember Ellen MacArthur for something else entirely.
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