She broke the solo record for sailing round “the worlds”, but now she used dedicating her life to an even greater challenge saving it from the destructive tide of plastic pollution

Trophies from her past exaltations as a competitive yachtswoman are placed discreetly around the 16 th-century building on the Isle of Wight, the base of Dame Ellen MacArthur’soperations today.

On a blackboard in one of the meeting rooms, the targets of a different ardour are spelled out. From uncovering the scale of plastic pollution in the oceans to targeting the textile waste of the fashion industry, MacArthur, who in 2005 has broken the solo record for sailing round the world, is dedicating their own lives to saving it.

Now 41, MacArthur dreamed of has become a sailor aged four when living in landlocked Derbyshire, and saved up her school lunch fund to buy her first rowboat.

The same single-minded drive to reach her objectives is clear in the way she tackles the dream that has consumed her since her early 30 s: to help stop humanity using up the world’s finite resources. Indeed, it is unlikely her new fervour would have emerged without the experience of her first.

” There were lots of subconscious things that happened that I was quite unaware of when I was racing; there used to be things I would write in the log ,” says MacArthur.” I was racing round “the worlds” to try and beat the record, I was completely and utterly fully immersed in the record, I was thinking of nothing outside that … but every now and then I would write something down.

” I recollect quite poignantly writing in the log in the craft;’ What I have got on the craft is everything .’ It actually struck me that you save everything, everything you have, because you know it’s finite, you know there isn’t any more. What you have on that boat is it, your whole world .”

Back on dry land, away from the intensity of racing, MacArthur began to process the reckons she had on the water. Her newfound renown suddenly became an opportunity.

In the winter after the round-the-world race, MacArthur invested two weeks on an island in the Southern Ocean to cinema a programme about the albatross.

” It gave me time to reflect and it built me imagine even more deep about resources ,” she said.” You assure the empty whaling stations down there and you realise that was just a resource- they drew out 175,000 of them … and then there weren’t any to pull out .”

” The basis of my thinking was entirely around resources. It was around the pure fact- stemming from what I had learned on the boat- that resources are finite. The more I learned, I only saw this as the greatest challenge I had ever come across. If we are using these resources in a very linear style we are going to use them up at some stage, and no one knows exactly when .”

Round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, in 2006. Photo: Chris Ison/ PA

MacArthur realized that if she was to capitalise on her instant of reputation, her periods as a competitive sailor would have to end.

MacArthur researched how best freed from the disposable economic framework to one in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, then recovered and regenerated into other products and materials. She decided to dedicate herself to acting as a catalyst for change- a duty that required her single-minded attention.

” It wasn’t like I was looking to stop sailing, I never envisioned I would stop sailing ever, ever, ever , no way ,” she said.” I would have argued 10 years ago I would be racing in 20 times’ time. It was the hardest decision I have ever made to walk away, but I realised I was at a position in “peoples lives” where entrances had opened that I wasn’t expecting to open and I could use that … that now was the time .”

Within two years of launching her foundation, MacArthur was presenting an analysis on the circular economy to the World Economic Forum. Seven years later, the team has grown from the yachtswoman and a couple of friends to a 100 -strong staff on the Isle of Wight, where she lives with her spouse and young baby. Today she still sails, but just as a hobby.

The foundation’s groundbreaking investigation into plastics made shocking findings: 95% of plastic package material- worth $80 -1 20 bn each year- is lost to the economy after a single use, and after 40 years of recycling simply 5% of plastic is recycled into a similar quality item.

Perhaps the most devastating statistic was the finding that if plastic leakage is not quenched, by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight.

MacArthur believes it is through global partnerships and” unbelievably frank conversations” with industry that change will naturally come by had confirmed that more fund can be made from circular rather than linear economics.

” We are trying to change a system , not one business. We need to change the lane people suppose, the way things are designed, information materials that are put into them ,” she said.

Her optimism is such that she belief change will happen through cooperation, and she has numerous resulting corporations, from Nike to Unilever, Google and Renault, as collaborators.

MacArthur is reticent about a more interventionist, polluter-pays approach, in which companies are forced to move to a less wasteful simulate through taxation, penalties and charges.

” There are mechanisms to speed these things up, regulation or policy change ,” is as far as she will go. Even with plastic packaging, information materials which, according to her research, is part of a system that is the hardest to change, she shies away from punitive incentives.

MacArthur says some corporations are getting on top of the questions- for example, Unilever, which has pledged to make all plastic package reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

” It’s shocking, its horrendous, it’s getting worse not better … but this is a systemic failing and we are trying to go back to the beginning of the tube and stop that systemic failure through redesigning the system ,” she said.

” It is by working with these companies, with policy makers, with cities, with innovation to design bio-benign products- that we will tackle this. There isn’t a company out there which wants to see its logo in the ocean or in a river .”

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