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How to re-think plastics – interview with Chris Grantham, IDEO

New plastics economy“Now is the time for implementation. We must now begin to practice what we have preached – changing our production and consumption patterns in order to create virtuous cycles rather than depletive ones and harnessing the global interconnectedness, communications technology and breakthroughs in materials science.”

This is the sentiment with which President of the UN General Assembly H. E. Mogens Lykketoft opened January’s report The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. 2016 has been a landmark year, not only in reinforcing existing assertions on the global plastics problem, but also in emphasising the scale of the economic opportunity in cycling these materials. The report included an unprecedented analysis of the global plastic packaging value chain, highlighting both positives and negatives, such as material loss and environmental externalities.

While New Plastics Economy gained significant attention from global influencers, the media and public, the natural question that follows is ‘what next?’. The study recommends ‘a new approach’ focusing on five areas representing “a concerted, global collaboration initiative that matches the scale of the challenge and the opportunity”:

  1. Dialogue mechanism – Bringing together a group of leading companies and cities across the global value chain to complete collaborative demonstration projects and inform the other building blocks
  2. Global Plastics Protocol – Re-thinking plastic packaging materials, formats and after-use systems and standards to provide an economically and environmentally attractive target state to innovate towards
  3. Innovation moon-shots – Mobilising targeted innovation ‘moon-shots’ focussed on system wide solutions that have the potential to scale globally
  4. Evidence base – Closing critical knowledge gaps by building an economic and scientific evidence base from which to draw insights
  5. Outreach – Engaging a broad set of stakeholders, including citizens, educators, students, policymakers, NGOs, and industry associations in the redesign of a better system.

This initiative doesn’t exist – yet. But the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been working with its design partner IDEO to activate this new program; moving from the findings of the report to action. Today, the New Plastics Economy initiative will kick off in London. Circulate caught up with Chris Grantham, IDEO’s Circular Economy Portfolio Director, to find out how the agency’s expertise in design thinking and enthusiasm for wicked problems is finding application on this visionary project.

Chris Grantham, Circular Economy Portfolio Director at IDEO London
Chris Grantham, Circular Economy Portfolio Director at IDEO London

Why is the New Plastics Economy initiative needed to create a plastics system fit for a circular economy?

To accelerate change by mobilising and focusing efforts at points of greatest leverage within the plastics economy.

But why now? This ‘plastics problem’ is nothing new. Why have existing efforts not managed to ‘move the needle’?

As a complex system, there will be a number of reasons. We may lack the necessary circular technology and at a low enough price to incentivise transition. Also a lot of the innovation isn’t systemic (even at a sub system level) and therefore isn’t naturally reinforcing – in other words the system ends up being fitter as a linear system than as a circular system. Often the feedback loops and data flows into the system aren’t there either in terms of insight on what’s working or in terms of material circularity itself.

The first stage of the initiative is the creation of a ‘dialogue mechanism’. Some might say there’s enough talk around the issue of plastic packaging – how do you move from talk to action?

You have to start with an open and optimistic mindset that wants to learn. The ‘launch to learn’ mindset believes that all learning is good whether through success or failure – ultimately what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s easy to be paralysed by the idea that a whole system needs to change at once or that actions you take must be compatible with an entire system change outcome.

While this is of course impossible to anticipate, and there are many variables when designing an action plan for whole system change, we must think about what can set us off in the right direction to create positively reinforcing circular systems with the right feedback loops within the overall system, that rapidly build momentum and ultimately infect the host system. So ultimately my hypotheses is that to shift from talk to action we must keep a balance between an overarching vision and tangible progress, working in multiple sub systems aligned with the big players and build a movement of mindset change by amplifying successes. As William Gibson once said, ‘the future is here, just not evenly distributed’.

Any ideas what that action could look like?

Action for me would be using tools like product, service, system design, education and insight sharing to increase circularity within parts of today’s plastic economy and with players who we think would have leverage  – ultimately so that these actions over time have a positive impact on the circularity of the overall plastics economy system.

Photo credit: Jessica Dunajski via Visual hunt / CC BY
Photo credit: Jessica Dunajski via Visual hunt / CC BY

There’s nothing worse than ‘design by committee’. How does the approach of the New Plastics Economy initiative avoid a ‘lowest common denominator’ compromise, and retain the ambition set out in the New Plastics Economy report?

I’m a big believer that system design should be done systemically in partnerships, in multi-disciplinary constructs and by trying things and gaining feedback.

Recent research has suggested that fragmented improvements to the global plastics system over the past 40 years haven’t had much impact on our linear usage model. So a common target state, a point on the horizon to aim for, is crucial to guide systemic innovation. We don’t always know how we’re going to get there – this is something that can only be achieved through a collaborative process.

IDEO has a well-known and influential design thinking approach. What do you see as the relationship between design thinking and the circular economy?

Design thinking is just one tool that can be powerful in creating change. Iterating learning cycles of design, prototyping and testing can rapidly provide the learning that will help us iterate the circularity of a system. The design thinking process is systemic in so far as it explores multiple possible outcomes from multiple possible inputs. Ultimately the circular economy invites a more circular kind of design thinking, the idea of constant re-design of materials.

The New Plastics Economy initiative kicks off on 25th May. For more news on the initiative as it happens, make sure to stay up to date with Circulate via Facebook, Twitter, or email.

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]