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#28 Achieving Environmental Excellence through the Circular Economy with Ken Webster.


Welcome to episode 28 of the Enterprise Excellence Podcast. I am so honoured to have Mr Ken Webster with me today. Ken is a leading researcher in the circular economy. Ken has been the head of innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading, inspiring organisation looking at sustaining Earth's future. He is the author of "The Circular Economy a Wealth of Flows" and the book "Sense and Sustainability". Ken is currently a director for the International Society for the Circular Economy. He continues to play a large part in helping to create a better future for us all.

Ken, thank you so much for joining me today. I am so looking forward to our conversation.


Almost by chance, Ken, when working at the University of Manchester in economics education for young people, was contacted by World Wildlife Fund for Nature, now known as the WWF. He was asked to join them for an environmental project. After this encounter, Ken made a move to work for the World Wildlife Fund. Ken became very dissatisfied with the questions asked, mainly of young people; accept your responsibility, be a good citizen, do the little things that count. His economic background suggested otherwise.

Ken looked farther afield for more profound thinking organisations and was excited with what he found. He discovered organisations that were redesigning industrial systems. His frustration with broader industrial and economic ideas in education resulted in his book "Sense and Sustainability". This book caught the attention of Ellen MacArthur, who had just finished sailing solo around the world. She was looking for something to sink her teeth into and was put in touch with Ken. They formed an immediate connection, and the team commenced working towards developing the circular economy idea. Ken spoke about the broader financial, resources and business climates driving the interest in the circular economy.

Ken also spoke about the difference between being eco-efficient and eco-effective. In an eco-effective cradle-to-cradle society, the nutrient economy exists. Waste is food - you can continually recycle it, which creates opportunities for asking, what is the next life for this waste?

Currently, we have a linear 'take, make and dispose' economy, with a massive problem of waste. We are entering an era with high population growth, it is true. But with high aging populations, there are less of us needing to purchase more 'stuff'. Therefore, there is over-production, particularly cheap, one-off type items, like drill bits and plastic toys with a severely short lifetime use. Do these items add high value to our lives? Unlikely. And could you answer how the natural resources of those products would be recovered?

So, the idea is to have 'please litter' on your item because it will dissolve into nutrients in the soil; everything has another use. Everything is a nutrient for something else in this biological loop. Products will be created from plant-based materials, which compost down into food to grow more plants.

Ken mentioned many aspects of the technical loop and the need to look at more than just recycling. Recycling, even at 90%, is not going to work, according to Ken.

Ken also spoke about the future to come. Organisations must be strategically aware and move towards this new future before they get left behind. Organisations need to design with circularity in mind. They need to develop and own their products' circularity, creating products that will last longer, sell and recover them as a service. They must have an obligation to recover their products and use them again.

Ken speaks about the concepts in a circular economy:

  1. Nutrients - everything is food for something else

  2. A shift towards renewables that are not fossil fuels based

  3. Redesign materials that suit their duration of use

The stock maintenance idea relates to the useful durables that we can put into service and know what will happen to them afterwards to close the loop intelligently, without recycling.

Innovative ways to create a more circular economy are being developed every day. Ken spoke about Australia's mining industry, looking to iterate towards using more sustainable energy - hydrogen to fuel their mining trucks. And a company called Enviro-Lease, developing a non-toxic recovery system for metals. Central banks globally are saying they will not save your business next financial year if you do not work in the right direction. There is a lot of exciting opportunities for new businesses!

The digital world is supporting a move towards a circular economy. Ken is concerned that data security and personal privacy be safeguarded as we move towards this technological service direction. We are humans, and we are fallible. Our financial systems also need to evolve to help us achieve a circular economy. Ken mentioned the need to stop supporting and propping up fossil fuel-based production and channel investment into future sustainability.

Mr Ken Webster is genuinely a person who has helped us create a better future, and he continues to support and inspire. Thank you for such an encouraging and knowledgable conversation today Ken.


Ken’s LinkedIn Profile:


02:15min and as I went through this process, working with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, I became more and more dissatisfied with what sustainability was engaged in, particularly for younger people. It looked like personal responsibility questions. It looked like be a good citizen. It looked like do little things. Well, my economics background had said, hang on, this is just, this is like asking people the wrong question and not really being worried about what they reply. Because it doesn't matter what they are going to reply, it's not going to shift the, move the dial as they say.

04:05min and so by Tuesday, I'd agreed to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation because what I was able to do was to bring a synthesis of ideas around redesigning industrial systems to have a positive cycle, which is the cradle-to-cradle thing, or industrial capitalism.

08:05min the angle is if you use a different business model, leverage digital opportunities, you could deliver better goods and services with far less environmental cost.

17:54min So you're seeing much more a shift towards, aided by digital, the producer responsibility extend and extend. It might that there are some papers out about this, in the end, total product liability.

28:35min or rather, there are two camps. The most obvious camp is the waste management. In other words, the economy is Ok, but it's messy. We've got to clean it up a bit. We're not going to change anything else. And there's those who see things as no, no, we have to have an eco-effective system that works at all scales. It's an interplay between resilience and efficiency.

35:22min I'm a big believer that a circular economy needs an input of tools, including land, resources, you know, like food processing, community kitchens, make-a-labs. There's a whole infrastructure to enable enterprising young people to build businesses from the base up.

39:26min it's really based on understanding the eco-system in which you're working.

Key takeaways

My key takeaways from this episode with Mr Ken Webster were:

  1. Design with the circular economy in mind.

  2. Strategically plan to sustain value in your products in a circular economy rather than the traditional linear 'make, use, dispose' approach.

  3. Measures and incentive drive behaviour

Thanks again, Ken, our conversation inspires me to continue with my purpose in life: creating a better future.

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