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The circular economy requires a new way of conducting business

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates the re-thinking of our economies

An internationally renowned figure in the world of competitive sailing, Ellen MacArthur took her distances from the professional sailing circuit in 2010 to create a foundation promoting the circular economy. As it turns out, her engagement towards the transformation of our extractive and productive economies stemmed from her experience being alone in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. In an exclusive interview for the Solvay podcast series, she told us about the revelation that led her to embark upon an unexpected journey as an environmental activist and her vision of what a truly circular way of producing and consuming goods means to her – and how it can prove to be profitable for businesses as well as for the planet.

Listen to the complete podcast with Dame Ellen MacArthur

From surviving in the ocean to natural resource management

When she came in second in the Vendée Globe race in 2001 at the age of 24, Ellen MacArthur became the youngest person to sail around the world solo. After breaking another record by completing the fastest solo sail around the world in 2005, she retired from professional sailing to begin an even bigger race: leading the charge to accelerate the transition to a circular economy through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

She explains how adventure one led to the other: “I became overwhelmingly aware of the nature of finite resources through taking that boat around the world,” she explains. “When you set off, you take with you everything you need for your survival, and if you need more, there is no more. You’re in the middle of the ocean and the closest people are manning the international space station. That makes you really understand the nature of finite resources, and it hit me that the world is no different: we have finite resources available to us once in the history of humanity, yet our economic model uses them up.”


An economic model for regeneration

Following that realization, Ellen MacArthur embarked upon a learning journey about circularity. Driven by the conviction that our economy could run in a different way, where the linear model of using resources to make things and then discard them is replaced by a circular pattern, she simply followed her instinct: “I knew nothing about this, but it's common sense: after all, life itself has been circular for billions of years,” she says. “There’s no waste in a forest.” Based on that instinct, she created the Ellen MacArthur foundation in 2010 with one simple conviction: “Let’s build a system that really can run in the long run.”

Because that’s the ultimate objective of circularity. Far from being a hollow buzzword or a greenwashing gizmo, it represents a paradigm shift for our entire economic system. When asked to explain the concept as if to a child, Dame MacArthur says it’s basically about eliminating what we don’t need. “And there's an awful lot of that that feeds into the economy that we don't need. But circularity is also about regenerating natural resources. If you build a regenerative agriculture system, for example, the soil is better at the end of the decade than when you started.”

Design, the matrix for circularity

When applying this principle to production and manufacturing, the key is design, she explains. When a product or piece of infrastructure is designed with the re-use of resources in mind from the get-go, that’s when circularity becomes possible. “The first line on every design brief should be: we need this material to feed back into the economy,” adds Ellen.

To enable this, everyone along the value chain should start seeing resources as molecules on a journey, where the journey flows in and out of the economic system instead of being on a one-way extractive trajectory. This implies recognizing the things that have no value: what we consider waste in our current economy must no longer be seen as waste, but instead another type of resource. “Why in today's world when we can be so creative, would we make a piece of packaging that is going to become waste, that you can do nothing with?” she asks.

Innovation and creativity are certainly going to be needed in order to bring about such changes across all sectors; siloed innovation won’t do the trick, as the entire system must work differently. Manufacturing a product with circularity in mind is good, but if it ends up in a landfill for lack of an infrastructure that can effectively re-use its resources, the effort remains moot. “You have to make sure that the whole system, the journey, the design, everything is thought about so that that molecule can continue its journey forever,” continues Ellen. “And to me, that’s really exciting.”

The main hurdle for this to happen? In addition to considerable regulatory and business model changes, Ellen MacArthur believes that the real challenge will be a huge mindset shift. Enabling circularity is a different conversation than switching to renewables or promoting biodiversity, both necessary but insufficient paths to tackle our planet’s environmental challenges. “This is about much broader change where the biggest competitors in the world have to work together,” says Ellen. “That's exactly what Solvay has been doing with Veolia with electric vehicle batteries. It’s about coming together with organizations to change the whole system, not just the design of a battery or the ability to recycle a battery, but the custody of the battery and the system the battery flows to. And that touches everyone from the finance industry to the marketing industry and the managers within organizations.”

Be part of the future, don't be part of the past. There's a lot to understand to make it happen, but there's an opportunity here to be seized. And it can only happen through collaboration.

Ellen MacArthur

Problem to solution: the fundamental role of chemistry

These changes are big ones, and they won’t be possible without the contribution of chemistry, confirms Ellen MacArthur. “Chemistry is behind everything,” she says. “It's easy to say a company like Solvay is part of the problem, but the only way we’re going to get to the solution is if the problem turns into the solution.”

What matters is the role chemical companies are playing. “Are you playing the production line conveyor belt or are you enabling a whole different way for the economy to function?” To her, the latter “is firmly where Solvay sits in its mindset, with its goals. You’re saying ‘we’re moving over here guys, this is where we're headed’. And I think that's incredibly powerful.”

Her final word of wisdom is as simple as it is efficient: “I just say: be part of the future, don't be part of the past. That’s a pretty simple switch to flick. There's a lot to understand to make it happen, but there's an opportunity here to be seized, so let's make that future happen together. And it can only happen through collaboration.”