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Can a circular economy save us from ourselves? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Andrew Morlet thinks so

By 2050, there may be more plastic in the world’s oceans, when measured by weight, than fish.

Alarming? Yes – but that’s also what the uber-influential World Economic Forum (WEF) was told in 2016. According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report launched at the WEF that year, new plastics will consume 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5 percent at 2016 levels. It comes without saying how devastating an effect that would have on the environment – and the very survival of humans as a species.

“What we can see today is we have an economy that’s largely extractive and consumptive,” says Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “It’s a massively wasteful system.”

Morlet advocates what is known as the “circular economy.” In short, a circular economy is one where all the resources we need to use are kept in effective, efficient use for as long as possible. In a circular economy, the systems that sustain us and our way of life do not pollute the natural world or disrupt its processes as much as single-use products or products with short lifespans. According to Morlet, as much as 90 percent of the things we use are either single-use or have lifespans of just a few years.

Morlet is visiting New Zealand for top-level meetings with business and government leaders. His visit comes at the same time former Prime Minister Helen Clark and actor Sam Neill have added their voices to a petition urging the Government to ban single-use plastic bags, like the ones people often bag their groceries in at the supermarket or take their fake plastic plants from Kmart home in. Famed primatologist Dr Jane Goodall has also called for a ban – and on Tuesday Greenpeace and the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand (JGINZ) presented a letter and petition signed by more than 65,000 people to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage urging a disposable plastic bag ban.

Morlet says a ban would be important. “It’s a fairly simple and highly symbolic initiative in shifting public perception and awareness.”

Legislation can help the circular economy “take off,” says Morlet. “We have evolved into an economy that is focused on pushing down costs as much as possible,” he says. “We are starting to see the challenges of limited resources and commodity availability. The existing linear model has run its course.”

Yet still we are wasteful. “The massive trend over the last 30 years or so is single-use or short lifespan,” he says. “Recycling of most products is almost negligible.”

One particular concern, Morlet says, is the rise of so-called fast fashion – which, in addition to perpetuating environmental destruction and human rights abuses, is only increasing our waste when we could easily reuse or repurpose such items. “People are buying much more clothes than they have in the past, and disposing of it much more quickly.”

But all is not lost. A study by McKinsey & Co recently estimated that transitioning to circular economy models could unleash $1 trillion worth of new business into the global economy. New Zealand, in particular, could learn from models such as those in China – where organisations like YCloset and Rent the Runway encourage people to rent and reuse clothes rather than buy and discard them – and Japan, according to Morlet. He adds that, in the last seven years, there has been a significant increase in interest in the circular economy. He says the number of Google search results alone for the term “circular economy” has risen from just a few hundred to “millions.”

“There is a massive innovation opportunity here,” Morlet says. “There has been an awakening over the last few years of the challenge plastics represent.”

And he believes New Zealand can play an important role – particularly in setting an example for other small, island and Pacific nations. “There’s a tremendous amount of influence New Zealand can have,” he says. “New Zealand is renowned for its ability to innovate and creative leadership.”

As part of his visit to Aotearoa, Morlet will also be speaking at public events in Auckland and Wellington, organised by the Sustainable Business Network with support from the Ministry for Environment and WasteMINZ.

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