“So many of my classmates and other friends say ‘I want to change the world’. The amazing thing is that most of us believe we can.” Max Hornick, a 26-year-old student at Western Michigan University, is reflecting on how the circular economy is inspiring young people to work for the social good.
Together with a team of four other students at WMU, Hornick recently won the 2015 Wege Prize for sustainable thinking with Local Loop Farms, an aquaponics food production concept that has since evolved into a community agricultural start-up.
“One of the biggest struggles we are facing as the global population grows is finding a way to feed everyone,” Hornick says. “In a circular economy, you have hyper-local food systems that allow the nutrients in organic wastes to be upcycled back into the food chain. This allows people to invest their food dollars in their communities and enjoy fresh, accessible food. People feel good knowing where their food comes from.”
This type of systems thinking and redesign, which models itself on a more utopian world, has wide appeal in the UK as well. Carrie Gray, a drama teacher at Paisley Grammar School in Renfrewshire, says the circular economy presents an opportunity for the younger generation to re-engage with their future.
“They are increasingly presented with a bleak future of depleted resources, unemployment and inflated costs. The circular economy is a chance to take charge of their lives in a positive way by being creative, innovative and resourceful,” she says.
Paisley Grammar has worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) to promote circular thinking across its technologies subjects. For the past three years it has hosted a circular economy expo, where pupils are tasked with developing solutions that make better use of resources and materials. Ideas range from a catering business growing mushrooms from locally sourced coffee waste grounds, to football team strips that use special inks so that different sponsor names can be removed and reprinted.
Another EMF pathfinder school, Archbishop Holgate’s in York, is already seeing the benefits of teaching what it calls “design economics”. The phrase, coined by the school’s lead design and technology practitioner, Steve Parkinson, emphasises that the circular economy is just as much a commercial opportunity as it is a social one.
“When you bring the economics side of it in, the students get hugely fired up,” says Parkinson. “I heard a maths teacher say the other day that this is all about preparing students for the jobs that don’t exist yet. People are now thinking of it in that way.”
This year, one of the school’s A-level students designed a pop-up modular hospital concept for developing countries, which can be shipped flat-packed anywhere around the world. It slots together during assembly, avoiding the need for glue or adhesive fixings. Parkinson says some universities are now making unconditional offers based on such portfolio work. “The universities are unbelievably impressed. They see this as having the XFactor.”
Parkinson sees further opportunities in the future. “What we’d like to do here is get business leaders to come to the school and talk about how they make money and manufacture products. Then get them to hand their products over to pupils to be redesigned in a circular economy sense.”
The Scottish government is capturing the ideas of young people to help inform its own national vision of a circular economy. Earlier this month , through Young Scot and Zero Waste Scotland, it hosted a two-day creative jam in Edinburgh for 16- to 25-year-olds.Tagged “25 hours to change the world in 25 years”, participants came from all across Scotland to pitch ideas on building cleaner, less wasteful cultures. These included concepts for business (zero-packaging supermarkets, urban farming), education (eco schools, mobile interactive exhibitions), government (tax reforms, deposit schemes) and citizen-led initiatives (circular community clusters, litter picking).
Many participants had never heard about the circular economy before and left feeling inspired. Sylvia Sime, a 16-year-old pupil at Edinburgh’s James Gillespie’s High School, was drawn to its inclusiveness. “To keep the circle going, we all need to be involved in it in some respect, even if it’s about doing something very small, like recycling or reusing a bag. Even little acts are really important,” she says.
Some, like 23-year-old Goodness Wondah, who is studying mechanical engineering at Glasgow Caledonian University, now want to make a career out of it. He hopes to encourage future employers to look at the benefits it can offer. “If I manage in the longer run to establish my own business, it’s going to be the basis on which I will run my company,” he says.