Interview: Designing a Zero Waste Economy with Joe Iles from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded in 2010 by the sailor Ellen MacArthur, with the aim of driving forward a circular economy. In this special episode of The Third Angle, Paul sits down in the studio to speak to Joe Iles, Circular Design Programme Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. He tells us about the work the Foundation is doing to promote the circular economy and talks about the main things designers should keep in mind when designing something truly sustainable.

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Not every product itself is inherently sustainable in its purpose but almost every product has an impact on the environment through its manufacture. When we traditionally think of design and manufacturing, we think of a linear process where raw materials are manufactured, then sold to a consumer who uses them for a while, and then eventually thrown away as waste. The circular economy gives us a new way of thinking about building and creating the products of tomorrow where, through thoughtful design, we're able to repair, reuse or recycle nearly all the products that we make. At the end of their normal use, products are designed to be broken down to re-enter the system to be used again. This isn't about minimizing the negative impact of industry, but about flipping our way of thinking about industry itself so that it becomes sustainable or has a positive net impact on the environment. Paul Haimes spoke to Joe Iles from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to find out more.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was set up in 2010 by the round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, one of the most successful solo sailors in history. During one of her last round-the-world record-breaking voyages, she started thinking about resources, because when you go around the world, you want to be really fast. And to be fast, you want to be light, so you take with you just what you need to make that voyage around the globe. And you manage that precisely, because if you run out of something you can't restock. When Ellen was in the Southern Ocean, the closest people to her boats were the people in the International Space Station above her head. They're obviously not going to be very useful if she runs out of diesel for the generator, or food, or medical supplies, or something like that. It really forced her to grapple with this idea of the notion of finite.

Turning the tide on waste

When Ellen stepped back on dry land at the end, she started to ask, “Is our economy any different? How do we run our economy? We have stocks of materials, and we know that some of them are finite. What are we going to do about it?” The answer that she kept getting back was, “It's going to be okay, we're going to use a bit less and recycle a bit more,” which was unsatisfying for two main reasons. Firstly, does it really get us to a prosperous future? If we think of that as a straight line – take, make and waste for most of the materials and products we use – does that not just stretch the line a little bit further down the track, meaning we still hit the limits of that model maybe 10, 15, 20, 100 years into the future? Is it a model fit for the future? And then is the call to just use a bit less, do a bit less. Is that really inspiring? Is that really a mission? Could we not aspire to have a huge impact on the world? To do more, but make it positive rather than just trying to minimize the bad stuff?

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is fundamentally different to our current linear economy. Today, we take materials out of the ground, knock them around a bit, and turn them into products that are used often for a short amount of time before being disposed of. Most of the materials we use, we lose, and often after just one short use cycle. That model has worked, and still seems to be working for some businesses and affluent people. Throughout history, that model has lifted billions of people out of poverty, and enabled us to have medicines, warm clothes, healthier food, a roof over our heads – not universally, unfortunately, but for many. But that model only really worked when you don't think about the environmental consequences of where we put stuff when we no longer want it. A circular economy is inspired by living systems that embrace complexity and where there's no waste. It’s centered on three specific principles.

How is the circular economy different?

A circular economy works by eliminating waste and pollution. First, identify and eliminate waste and pollution at source, second circulate products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible and regenerate natural systems, and lastly, put back at least as much or more than you take out from the natural ecosystems on which we depend – and do that by design, by intention, from the start. This isn't about trying to just treat the symptoms of a broken linear economy and tidy up, but create products, services, materials and systems that are circular by design.

The butterfly diagram

The circular economy is not a completely new idea. It was invented in 2010. But it synthesizes and draws upon lots of other very important schools of thought. The butterfly diagram was first drawn back in 2011 on a napkin, and it owes a lot to biomimicry, to regenerative design and to industrial ecology. On the right-hand side are technical materials, things like metals and polymers, with a number of different routes or pathways ranging from recycling – which, whilst it's a starting point for many, should really be the last resort – and the inner loops through things like remanufacturing, refurbishing, repair, redistribution, reuse, maintenance and sharing. As we get into those tighter loops, what we're talking about in layperson terms is: let's try and mess with products less.

Selling as a service

If you can keep selling as a service without shipping around the world, or using 100 extra spare parts, or a week of labor to do it, why not do that? That's how you preserve the embodied carbon, the embodied energy labor that went into making that product in the first place. The biological side of the butterfly diagram makes it look quite simple, but it's hugely complex. We're talking in part about food and farming systems, as well as agricultural products. More complexity has been discovered about the butterfly diagram over the years, which we grapple with, which is products like, what about a wooden house? That's a biological material that then you would want to keep in use and maintain the repair over time. What we want to be doing is ensuring that when we take them and harvest them or process them, we're not adding something that means that they can't return to the soil or the ecosystem from where they came. And that's something that often gets missed.

What about chemicals?

Sometimes people think, “Well, that cotton has been grown,” or, “That meat came from an animal,” so it can just go back in, right? It's not quite that simple. We need to be very conscious of added dyes or chemicals to those natural materials, as they may not be able to return to that system and may impact the ability for that system to be truly regenerative. So obviously, crops are grown now, which is a good thing, but the way that we grow them, we need huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to keep that profitable and soil health is massively degraded. Actually, even though it might seem rosy, because these are natural products and natural materials, a huge amount of thinking and effort needs to go into making that regenerative rather than equally as degrading as a copper mine or something like that.

Regenerative by design

Decisions that are made at the design stage influence how we make and use things. Once those decisions have been made, they're hard to reverse. Take ocean plastic. Unfortunately, the more we understand, the more it seems unimaginable that we could ever extract all the plastic that's reached the ocean already. These are challenges at different scales, admittedly, but it's completely feasible to imagine a packaging model, business model, that never leaks plastic into the ocean. That's why design is so important. In terms of the actual principles, it’s important to avoid going straight to certain strategies. With the circular economy, often you hear about repair or remanufacturing, or renting a product rather than selling it, or recycling, or smarter materials choices. Those all might be the answer, but the method that you might apply for a bicycle that's designed for shared use versus a piece of packaging for some crisps, or a house, they're going to be different strategies.

From ambition to action

The EMF produced a report earlier this year called From ambition to action: an adaptive strategy for circular design. They tried to lay out six design skills that practitioners can use to lay the groundwork for truly impactful circular economy innovation. These were: understand the system, set your vision, build capability, create space for collaboration, use tools, and set and respond to rules. And I can go into more detail on some of those, but really what we aim to do there is to say, “This is how you unlock the power of the design team.” Because designers are doing all those things at different levels already. And the designers that we speak to, they want to use their skills to a more strategic level to support the shift to a circular economy rather than just saying, “Here's this product, can we make it with 50% recycled material rather than 10?” We think what designers can do goes a bit deeper than just tweaking the materials or making something a bit repairable or something like that.


From roughly 1970 to today, the average washing-up liquid bottle had something like a 50-60% reduction in weight. Through smart material science, engineering, maybe some additives to the plastic which meant it could still perform its tasks in durability and waterproofing, but with using less material. The potential impact of that over time is that each unit of packaging is worth less than before, which means that the economics of recycling become skewed. These are the things that designers, and the organizations of which they are a part, should watch out for. If someone is using a certain tool to reach a specific goal around lightweighting, they should look at that in the context of that vision and understand the system, because they would realize it would be unhelpful to proceed down a particular innovation pathway. “Ah, we're sort of stuck now because we've had so many unintended consequences which we never imagined.”

Shifting the business model

Systemic understanding is also really important. Paying for performance, not just the product itself, shifts the incentives for making a durable product towards the manufacturer. If I'm making printers, and I could get that item back 10 or 20 times and effectively sell it to 10 or 20 different customers with mostly the same materials, that seems like a good idea. In fact, in some of our earlier reports, the foundation did the numbers for things like washing machines and commercial vehicles and it stacked up pretty well. So that's absolutely part of it, that business model shift.

Digital product passports

The digital product passport is a method to provide data for products –the categories haven't been pinned down yet, or the priority order of the different categories of products. That data is then stored in the cloud and is accessed through something like a QR code for different stakeholders along the supply chain. It could be end of life, or repair, or something like that. And this is not a completely new topic. At the policy level, it's gaining traction, which is fantastic. It’s an interesting observation that technological innovation often outpaces systems innovation. Most of the technology that we need to build elements of the circular economy exists in our world today, but the system is certainly underdeveloped. And the lock-ins of today's linear system, or the incentives, mean it's harder to break from that take, make, waste model than to stick with it. This means that progress on some of these things will be 20 or 30 years in the making.

Case Study: Maersk Triple E

One of the first case studies Joe wrote when joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was for a Maersk Triple E liner, which is a gargantuan cargo ship. The ambition there was they were saying, “Well, there's a problem currently, a big boat like that would usually have a lifespan of about 20 years. There are seven different grades of steel on that vessel. But at the end of life, it goes to a beach somewhere and it gets broken up. But they lose track of those different grades of steel, so it all gets merged into one pretty low-grade steel which is not worth that much. The product passport, even for an item of that size, we’ll aim to say, “Well, if at the end of life, we could at least say ‘here is the high-grade steel, here's the low-grade steel and everything in between’ then we could keep that material in use at the same level of performance.”

It’s all about marketing

Policymakers can align incentives, and level playing fields, they can also pull customers to new behaviours, or ensure that products with a circular potential reach that potential – whether that's France’s repair indicators that they now have for some products, or I think in Austria they'll give almost like a mini-grant for people who want to repair a product rather than chucking it out. Smartphones changed everything, but they weren't forced by regulation; regulation enabled some of the technology, like GPS and things like that. But a lot of those innovations are a product of technological developments and really good marketing. We need to make the circular economy appealing and present it as a desirable life. The idea of owning a car, a house, and a dog or whatever, there have been times when marketing people have created a vision of what a prosperous, happy life looks like. And there's a huge opportunity now to shape that around a different set of needs.

End-of-life planning

In one of Joe’s early trips with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to a car manufacturer a decade or so ago, he observed that the factory floor for new cars was mind-blowing. Hugely automated, clean and shiny, and hundreds of parts and cars roll off the production line every day. The remanufacturing facility, however, was a cottage industry. Things have moved on since, but the outward flow of stuff is still hugely efficient and optimized in comparison. And we've had decades of practice to get that working, by some measure, really, really well. It needs huge amounts of thinking and investment to make remanufacturing just as compelling. Again, that comes back to design.

Smartphones: an example of poor design

The smartphone is a good example. Yes, we can repair them, but it's not necessarily easy, because they've been designed using adhesive and proprietary screws, and maybe the technology, the software gets a bit screwed when you take it apart or something like that. I can understand why for the past few years OEMs have not wanted to do that. “Why would we want to get our stuff back? Think about how many people we would have to employ to repair all that.” But if you by intention designed that because you knew that you were going to get those items back, or you were renting it so the business depended on you be able to keep that sort of core, as you said with the automotive parts, in service for longer, then you would make different design decisions.

Caterpillar: an example of great planning

“Caterpillar are famous for it,” said Joe. “I spoke to someone from Caterpillar, again many years ago, at a remanufacturing summit. And I was surprised at the size of the deposit they put on the engines for these industrial engines. It was almost 50% of the cost, I think. I don't know if that is true now, but it was so big because they wanted to ensure that every single one of those was returned to them.”

Education, education, education

The foundation takes quite a broad view of learning, so they work with schools and universities, and a lot of effort is spent on inspiring and building capabilities within businesses. They have a network of around 200 businesses, both large and small, and host events for them where they can network and collaboratively problem-solve on projects and shared challenges. They also produce a range of educational materials, including courses. They also extend learning to digital marketing and social media. “You start learning if you read a tweet that says what the three principles of a circular economy are,” said Joe. “We try and guide people through different layers of understanding. Not everyone on the planet needs to understand deeply what a circular economy is, with all its systemic implications and complexity. But we do think that it's a compelling idea.”

The circular economy show

People sometimes say, “The economy is not going to be a circle. It's not that simple.” Of course, it's not that simple – there's unimaginable complexity. But the idea of a circle is so simple and universal, something without a beginning and an end, that anyone can get it. To that end, we have produced a huge number of podcasts. We've been producing something called The Circular Economy Show, which is a live magazine-format show from our office on the Isle of Wight. It's a really broad range of materials, from insights and reports through to digestible story-driven stuff, through to workshops and more hands-on activities.

A message for designers

Joe’s final message would be for designers to look at what they're working on right now. What was the last thing you designed or were involved in designing? Did you ask yourself, “What happens next?” Joe’s advice is to keep asking that until you think you've illuminated as much of the system around that thing as you can to the limits of your awareness or understanding. “The real superpower for the circular economy is understanding systems, or scrutinizing the world around us and asking what's the system in which they sit. And understanding that will lead you to the right sort of answers, or maybe even asking better questions,” said Joe.

The importance of asking

Joe adds, “I'd encourage people to ask: ‘What next?’ Where did the materials come from? Where are they going to end up? Who's going to use this after the first person is finished with it? Will it be repaired? How will it be repaired? Will it end up in this country or another country? Will the cap of this bottle end up somewhere different from the bottle itself?” Keep asking those questions and you will be surprised at how many follow-on questions come up and how much information you can build around something as simple as a plastic bottle, a pair of jeans or a ham sandwich. Asking questions, especially the question of what happens next, is something that everyone can do and is the best starting point.

Episode Guests

Joe Iles, Circular Design Programme Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

More About Ellen MacArthur Foundation