VIDEO: Pete Myers, in the round, on the circular economy

Aug 26, 2016

EHN's founder heads to London to talk plastics but is confronted by drummers banging on polycarbonate bottles, a circular stage, and a violinist playing 'Yesterday.' He pulls it off.

By Pete Myers
Environmental Health News

LONDON—I have given any number of academic and public talks in my 45-year career as a scientist. None of that prepared me for what I faced just before taking the stage at the Circular Economy 100 workshop earlier this summer here in London.

The workshop brings different sectors of business, government and academia together in hopes of building a framework for an economy that is both restorative and regenerative. It was organized by the Isle of Wight-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the Schmidt Family Foundation (as in Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, now Alphabet).  It was held in the Abbey Road Studio (as in Beatles' Abbey Road). 

I've never participated in anything like it.

A woman warmed up the crowd by singing to cows.

Musicians preceded each session. The short clip above shows the stage at the start of my talk, on what must be considered when you contemplate the role of plastics in a circular economy. Note that the drums for my sessions' musicians are made of kitchen utensils and polycarbonate bottles. 

A violinist playing excerpts from Beatles songs, like "Yesterday," started off the entire conference. A deep throated woman warmed up the crowd for a session on "regenerative farming" by singing to cows who responded to her (she was live, they were taped). The music was just the start. The stage was in the middle of the room with audience on all sides.  I had to gradually rotate as I talked so that I had eye contact with audience in each of the four bleachers surrounding me. There were four huge screens, one at each corner of the room.

Going into the conference, I didn't realize this was the set up. So I spent the first and second sessions both listening and watching to see how the speakers handled it. 

My core message was this: If you want a truly circular economy, you need to know a lot about the materials you are planning to recycle or reuse.  We've made countless consumer products out of materials that are inherently toxic because they contain endocrine disrupting chemicals. They don't get any healthier when you recycle them, and sometimes exposure becomes more extensive.

Dame Ellen MacArthur. Photo by Pete Myers.

I quickly summarized some of the core principles of endocrine disruption, and then, because of Dame Ellen MacArthur's interest in the marine plastic problem, I examined how microplastic's adsorption of persistent organic pollutants and other endocrine disrupting compounds can enter the marine food web at its base (zooplankton and fish larvae) and bioaccumulate by factors of a million or more until they reach the top of the marine food chain: Us. I also described a green chemistry framework known as TiPED that is designed to help chemists avoid endocrine disruption hazards while they are creating new molecules for commerce.

Exposure to endocrine-disrupting compounds is ubiquitous in the world today. Such exposure robs residents of the European Union alone of €157 billion annually. And, perhaps most troubling of all, exposures in the womb can trigger changes that last a lifetime.

The good news is that people are getting this. We've seen a revolution of the science in the past 20 years. There's a whole movement that's arisen in the last 10 years, really driven by moms who want to be sure that the stuff they buy for their kids is safe. And, for the past eight years, we have been organizing teams of scientists—chemists and biologists—to take that knowledge and use it, in the lab, to guide the synthesis of new materials. That's TiPED: An intellectual framework that helps chemists to work with biologists to ask the question "how do we do this right?"  We want to help chemists make money by grabbing market share in an economy where 'safe' is valuable.

I'm proud to say the talk went better than really well. This is a great way to deliver scientific news. You can see it for yourself on Circulate, the online portal to the circular economy curated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Pete Myers is founder and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org and DailyClimate.org.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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