Plastic sea: how to help fish and make a profit

Alastair Smart


It is an eye-watering prediction. By 2050, there will be – by weight – more plastic in the sea than fish.

How so? Because only 5 per cent of plastic is recycled effectively and production of the material is set to quadruple by the middle of the century – to around one billion tons a year.

This forecast was one of many discussed at Invest in the Future: Unleashing the Potential of Circular Economy conference, held at the London hub of Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s biggest bank.

These statistics were shared by Jocelyn Blériot, executive officer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s raison d’être is to promote a worldwide switch to circular economy. “Putting more efficiency into the current system isn’t the answer,” says Blériot. “The whole system needs overhauling.”

By which he means a move away from the make-use-dispose model of a linear economy, which citizens in the Western world are familiar with, towards a circular model, based on reuse, regeneration and designing out waste.

Since the end of 2015 Intesa Sanpaolo is the only Financial Services Global Partner of the Foundation, together with other multinational companies as Cisco, Danone, Google, H&M, Nike, Philips, Renault and Unilever.

Through their partnership, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Intesa Sanpaolo hope to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. As co-hosts of the conference, they invited speakers from across – and beyond – the financial spectrum to discuss the opportunities circular economy might bring.

“Resources are becoming more and more scarce in the 21st century. How much longer can the planet cope? Our medium- to long-term goal at Intesa Sanpaolo is to move towards a circular-economy paradigm of doing business.”
Photo: Maurizio Montagnese, chief innovation officer at Intesa Sanpaolo.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was set up by Dame Ellen MacArthur after a revelation during her record-breaking solo sea voyage around the globe in 2005. Battered by waves and often hundreds of miles from land, MacArthur knew that if her supplies ran out, she would have access to no more and die.

The same principles, she realised, could be applied – on a macro level and over a longer-term – to the world at large and its resources.

Montagnese is quick to point out, however, that the advantages of circular economy aren’t just environmental. “It’s estimated that if circular economy principles are adopted, there will be a gain of $1.8 trillion in global GDP by 2030. It can be used to bring great profit to our customers.”

By following the linear model – as many of the conference speakers pointed out – the world is exposed to volatility of resources, price fluctuations and loss of value through waste.

In contrast, by keeping materials, components and products at their highest value for the maximum time, the circular economy brings clear economic benefits.

Another statistic to emerge from the day was that food, transport and the built environment typically account for 60 per cent of household expenditure in European nations.

These sectors have also been identified as areas in which circular economy can make the furthest strides fastest – with organic farming, office sharing and electric cars seen as just a few of the potential growth areas.

“I think the circular economy has great days ahead,” says Massimiano Tellini, global head of circular economy at Intesa Sanpaolo. “Today’s entrepreneurs are moving away from the idea of out-and-out profit maximisation towards a more socially and globally responsible profit.”

Any significant transition towards the circular economy, however, may involve changing people’s customs, habits and mindsets. “Nobody says it is going to be easy,” adds Tellini. “Education will be a big factor.”

"Today’s entrepreneurs are moving away from the idea of out-and-out profit maximisation towards a more socially and globally responsible profit"
Photo: Massimiano Tellini, global head of circular economy at Intesa Sanpaolo

With that in mind, in January 2017 Intesa Sanpaolo launched a master’s degree in circular economy. In the meantime, it is working – alongside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – with local and national governments, as well as companies such as Cisco, Renault, Unilever and H&M – to invest in circular economy innovation.

In the case of H&M, the development of new technology is increasingly allowing used garments to be converted back into textiles.

The bank will also look favourably on any business, new or old, adopting the circular economy. “Ours is a systemic commitment to circular economy,” says Tellini. “We will financially support not just a business’s production processes but also its distribution processes. If our clients are more future-proof, then we as a bank are, too.”

In the spirit of innovation, representatives from 8 start-up companies were invited to the conference to share their circular economy business ideas. After a brief pitch, each fielded a quickfire round of questions from the audience.

Among those taking part were Ooho! ­– promoting a packaging for water, made of seaweed, that’s both biodegradable and edible; Desolenator – offering a solar-powered device that purifies water from any source, including the sea; and ECOR, offering a technology that converts paper, cardboard and other cellulose fibres into a long-lasting alternative to wood.

Also in attendance was Shiva Dustdar, head of division innovation finance advisory at the European Investment Bank (EIB). Last year EIB promised to set aside €24bln of EU money for circular economy projects before 2020.

“The aim is for circular economy to become part of mainstream discourse rather than stuck in a niche one,” says Dustdar. “The advantage is that it tends to be environmentally friendly by nature, and so goes hand in hand with climate-change goals. It should only become more important as time goes on.”

In the case of plastic, one option might be to develop an easily-recyclable variety, thereby ensuring the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predictions are wrong and fish still dominate the world’s waters in 2050 – and long after that, too.