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Shifting the System: how can we change whole-systems to progress towards a circular economy?

Each year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation holds its Summit, an event to collaborate and connect governments, business and influential change-makers around the mission to reach a circular future.

This year, at Summit 21, the core theme was ‘transformation’, exploring what it will take to transform the current take-make-waste linear economy to a renewable, regenerative circular economy. In one of the keynote sessions, Mariana Mazzucato, Professor and Founding Director at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, and James Quincey, CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, discussed how systems-level change can be facilitated.

James Quincey said, “I think the system can be moved, if we get a few things in place to start with. Firstly, the objective; do we actually all agree where we're trying to go? In this case, we're talking about the circular economy on packaging materials, and we're saying we don't want waste. But it's more than just waste, or eliminating waste, we want to actually reduce our carbon footprint. The objective in this case: no waste, lower carbon footprint. It's not ‘don't use a material’, it's the circular economy”.

But how can such a significant operational shift be made in a giant global company like Coke? Here, Quincey also had some insight…

“It very simply needs to become part of the business objective or the business vision…it ultimately fails to attract enough attention and sustainability if it's not integrated in business. So, for me, the principal way of galvanising the company is to make it an inherent part of the business vision. And if you can show everyone places where you've made it work, sustainably and within the business imperatives, then it's much more powerful”.

Why collaboration is important and how do we get it to happen?

Another core theme was collaboration. It’s a term used often in the circular economy, but why is it so important and how do we get it to happen? Here, Mariana Mazzucato offered a view:

“Markets themselves are outcomes of how we designed the governance structures within all the different value creating organisations, within the private sector, public sector, third sector, and one of the really interesting things right now is that there's a conversation within the business community about stakeholder value, purposeful business, and my kind of real gut instinct is that that's never going to create real systems change unless it goes to the centre of the system, of how all the different actors actually work together. So a purposeful system, not just purposeful corporate governance, as important as that also is”.

The need for regulation is critical

The need for regulation was seen to be critical; of governments acting purposefully and in collaboration with industry. Quincey noted that again this is about all agreeing the same objectives and goals, namely that if we can all agree that we want less waste and a circular economy that has both a lower carbon footprint and can ultimately also be at a lower cost to businesses, then it’s possible to work together and move forward.

There was agreement between the panellists, Quincey and Mazzucato, that profound innovation is critical to achieving circularity. Today, there are examples abound of high value plastic items being reused, recycled, and kept in circulation in the economy But lower value plastic items, such as small-format flexible packaging have limited value after use, and at worst becomes pollutant waste. This is where innovation is key, to ensure plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or made with renewable materials, keeping it in the economy and out of the environment.

This is where the work of Borealis in developing technologies that create portfolios of recycled and renewable plastic is playing a role today, through Borcycle and Bornewables, respectively. The topics and issues discussed in the Foundation’s Summit21 session reported above, of whole system collaboration and innovation, are critical to EverMinds™ and our purpose to help accelerate action for a circular economy for plastic.


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