Ellen Macarthur Foundation


It’s all good on paper, but…


The idea of sustainability being based on a ‘circular economy’ model is gaining more exposure. It is based on converting to a solar powered, closed materials loop: designing a benign production system which rebuilds social and natural capital while increasing well-being. It relies heavily on insight from living systems. It does not pretend to offer a perfect solution right out of the box, and has attracted some questions and/or criticism. We have acknowledged them, and tried to address the most frequent issues pointed out.

Energy: Closed loop does not provide a solution to our energy problem. The model is mainly focused on material.

Actually the circular model is focused on energy to the extent that it assumes, reasonably, a shift to renewables and efficiency. It assumes we have to invest heavily in that direction while we still have a surplus of cheap energy. These reserves are considered as essential tools to achieve the transition, the energy we have left should be devoted to preparing the future (that means, in concrete albeit a bit schematic terms, using more of the remaining fossil fuels to build renewable power generation devices and plants, like solar panels for example).

Industrial Ecology: The base of circular economy is Industrial Ecology, which is basically connecting industrial material flows with each other. This is something we are already trying for years and which is until now easier said than done.

No one said it was easy to do. The Cradle to Cradle philosophy is keen to point out the need to keep materials in as highest quality as possible if being returned. Not just recycling – which means the design of products must incorporate their end of life as well: when thinking about developing a new object, manufacturers have to be able to have a precise idea of what will become of it after it’s been used. How can it be fed back into the loop ? Are there any processes that be can implemented during the manufacturing phase to help retain the materials’ qualities when the object is recycled?

Society: For the circular economy to function products have to be kept in a loop, in their material flows, while currently consumers just throw away their waste of which a large part is burned. This will require a paradigm shift at the consumer side, whic

A key element of the closed loop model is the “technical nutrient”, made of highly stable materials that can be used again and again. Technical nutrients are designed to be retrieved and reused within the closed-loop cycle, they are actually the only things that need to be maintained. In terms of behavioural changes, moving away from the illusion that everything is available, cheap and plentiful, will take some time and educational efforts. There is a lot to be said about pricing goods to include full costs, or about the role of incentives to change behaviour: yet the main approach is through rethinking the design of products and systems.

Consumption: Closed loop is the first sustainability theory which is pro, or at least not anti-consumption. The idea that consumption can limitlessly grow is not true and a dangerous sign to consumers and industry.

Yes it can be seen as pro consumption so long as conditions are met – why not? Sure, in an absolute sense you can’t capture everything you need to but given the way we generate waste at the moment there is an enormous headroom. McDonough and the promoters of Cradle To Cradle do talk about growing well being, quality of life etc. The point being that this model is not premised on less and ‘doing less harm’ but aims to be a restorative cycle – so you might even argue that in a restored world there could be more consumption opportunities anyway – which suits the developing world. One key is the full cost pricing of course – and this is part of the system design. Some of this re-pricing will automatically follow the end of cheap energy, since at the moment there is no real connection between what consumers pay to acquire goods and what that cost would be (and eventually WILL be) if our economy was not supported by the incredibly cheap “workforce” contained in a single barrel of oil.

Material cycles: Circular Economy is based on the premise of endless material recycling, which is theoretically impossible; all materials disperse (their quality goes down) over time, which brings us back to using virgin material again.

Virgin materials are not a worry if sourced from appropriate parts of biosphere – they should be renewable, not diverted from food etc. There is an issue for metals and complex manmade materials obviously, at the extreme not all materials can be captured: but this is precisely why redesign is such a crucial part of the new model. Wherever possible, it aims at re-thinking processes to avoid the trap our economies have fallen into, which is developing whole sectors that rely only on finite resources. To put things simply, the circular model wishes to free the economy and society from finite resources dependency, and there are ways to do this using advanced technology.

Transport: Material flow management will require a lot of transport, which costs a lot of energy.

Assuming we can shift to innovative renewables deployed cleverly, there need be no end to shipping stuff but its pattern will change a great deal – more local, nested systems in all likelihood. A change of pace will probably happen too, as speed is very energy-hungry. This issue brings us back to the point made when dealing with consumption (above): reconnecting with the reality of the work (as a physical quantity) involved in manufacturing processes is parallel to realising that commerciali globalisation is only possible because it’s fueled by cheap oil. “Next day delivery” for absolutely everything is not realistic. A more local model is what the current economic meltdown and resource management issues are pushing towards anyway – the rise of shipping tariffs, for example, have already slowed down American imports of Chinese steel, and disused factories in the Rust Belt of the USA have reopened after years of inactivity because it’s become cheaper to produce locally. Regardless of a change of model, the “back to local” trend is already on the menu.

Developing countries: Closed loop thinking is in general not focusing on the social sustainability in developing countries, which is an essential part of sustainability.

True, it has less to say about developing countries but actually the exploitation of such places often depends on cheap fossil fuel energy and wasteful materials use combined with poor governance. Cradle To Cradle is a model for making production and consumption so much better, more enabling. It has no pretenses to be a political movement. In practice it supports diversity of provision by emphasising connections and flows at appropriate scales, and as such opens up opportunities. Synergies and cooperation play an important role, and working with developing countries on a ‘fair deal’ basis is key. On this topic, and given the importance of solar power in the circular model, it is interesting to see all the initiatives put in place between Northern European nations and countries around the Sahara desert in Africa – many solar power plants are being developed there, and countries such as Algeria will ‘grow’ our electricity (a deal has recently been signed with Germany, for example), which will generate a substantial income.

For more about Closed Loop and Communities, see Ken Webster’s article


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