Post industrial revolutionary
07 Mar 2011
She is best known for sailing, doesn't like the word sustainable, discovered her calling on a remote island in the Southern Ocean and is determined that young engineers overthrow the manufacturing process that has evolved since the industrial revolution. Ellen MacArthur 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. 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 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 the direct experiences she has encountered on her celebrated travels. As she endured loneliness and hardship on her famous sailing journeys, MacArthur became used to treating every resource she carried as finite. Every calorie of food and drop of diesel had to be planned and accounted for to minimise weight in preparation for racing.
"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, MacArthur had maintained a clear distinction between the two types of life, simply because a solo voyage is 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 might as well throw it over the side, because it just makes the boat heavier. 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 following journey 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 her into the realisation that, ultimately, the same will happen with oil and coal. "That was the first flick of the switch," she recalls.
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. "Oh, my God," says McArthur. "That's in my lifetime!"
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, she states. To avoid that, she asserts 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. 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 be, for example, 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, as opposed to cradle-to-grave, 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," she says. 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 she believes 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. The machine would then be refurbished, or broken down and remanufactured by the original supplier, a strategy that 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 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 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."
Some blue chip companies are supporting the foundation, which has already raised millions of pounds in corporate sponsorships. DIY giant B&Q was a founding partner, relates MacArthur: "The company's chief executive, Euan Sutherland, was saying that, if you look at manufacturers, and especially at retailers, they are all constantly trying to sell a little bit less for a little bit more. He stood up at a conference a few months ago and his first line was: 'Maybe in the future retailers like B&Q won't sell anything any more.' Everyone sat there and stared. But what he's actually thinking about is that B&Q could own the materials and recycle them. Rather than buying a £21 drill that is going to last three goes and then not be worth repairing, instead you pay three quid or five quid and you rent a £300 drill that's not going to break on you, because actually you don't need one every day of the year."
The prices charged for goods might need to become more transparent, too. "Are we really paying the real price for our goods?" MacArthur 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 that, no matter what, most of it is going into landfill, because quite frankly we don't have amazing recycling facilities, as we live on a small island [MacArthur 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."
Aware that modern manufacturing involves layers of subcontractors, and both large and small companies, she 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," 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 shape it. That way, says MacArthur, it might be possible to tempt those wanting to enter the fashion industry to consider studying 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."
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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