Practitioner Insights on Systemic Change from the New Plastics Economy Initiative

Workshop: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

This paper was also one of four RSD7 full-day workshops offered by the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, Smart Circular Economy Network, University of Brighton, and Namahn Center and ShiftN. Approximately 100 attendees attended workshops, and the workshops’ results shared in a plenary session at the end of the day.

Widmer Simon

At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, our mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Through our systemic initiatives, we aim to transform key industries from a take-make-dispose model towards a circular economic one.

This keynote aims to share some practitioner insights the Foundation has gained in effecting systems change, especially from its longest-standing and most successful initiative to date, the New Plastics Economy initiative.

Get the system in the room: To change the system, it’s important to get the system into the room. For plastics, we set out to gather the world’s leading polymer manufacturers, packaging companies, consumer goods brands, and recyclers, plus governments and NGOs – representatives of the entire system.

Lead with a positive vision: Arguably one reason the circular economy has gained so much momentum is that it lays out a positive vision we can collectively move and innovate towards. We found that it’s crucial to define such a vision because in the early stages of an initiative there no consensus on the target state.

Portfolio of solutions: At beginning of the initiative we had discussions among participants about “the thing” that would allow a breakthrough: A new technology? Government policy? Practical demonstration projects? Company commitments? More evidence? More public awareness? What we have learnt is that a portfolio of well-coordinated, mutually reinforcing interventions is necessary to build momentum across the industry, governments, and the public.

Reject incrementalism: Given the scale of the challenge and the exponential increase in linear material flows, it became clear that we would have to go beyond incrementalism. In fact, 40 years after the introduction of the recycling symbol, fragmented and incremental efforts only brought us to 10% recycling of plastics on a global level. Hence finding solutions with the potential to scale across the system is essential.

Influential nodes: It’s impossible to move everyone at the same time and important to identify the most influential nodes in the system that can help reach a tipping point. For plastics, these were mostly leading brands and retailers who make important decisions on how to package their products, whether to rely on single-use packaging or not, whether to use virgin or recycled materials, etc. With the Global Commitment of 150 international companies, we’ve seen how leading brands have a ripple effect both horizontally (to other brands and retailers) and vertically along the supply chain (e.g. to the packaging manufacturers).

Global and local: A global perspective and alignment are essential to tackle global issues, yet ultimately change often happens at a local level. In the initiative, we aim to represent this by driving action worldwide through the Global Commitment and helping put in place national implementation plans known as Plastics Pacts.

Love the problem: Perhaps most importantly we need to love the problem and be comfortable with what is an often challenging and iterative learning process. Design thinking applied on a systems-level (e.g. empathy for stakeholders in the system, prototyping and testing across the system, quick iterations, cross-disciplinary and cross-value chain collaboration) can help us on this journey. We have therefore developed The Circular Design Guide resource as a free online tool to support individuals to start applying design thinking in the context of the circular economy.

Posted Oct-2018

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