DT - Everlasting life

25th May 2012 at 01:00
Mimic the natural world to create a 'circular economy'

How do we inspire our pupils when teaching about environmental issues in design and technology? The essence of our message is often "use less", but in a society that perceives success in terms of material wealth, this is a paradox. And using less doesn't solve the problem, it just makes the tube of toothpaste last a bit longer before it runs out.

The most common approach now is to teach the 6Rs: rethink, reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle and repair. However, a number of organisations and academics are now promoting a refinement to this approach, where materials are continually recycled, creating a "circular economy".

For example, take a typical juice carton, made from card and coated with aluminium and plastic, which is made from oil. At the end of its life, we can't separate the ingredients to recycle them separately. The carton is most likely to end up in landfill. But the natural world uses a different approach. Materials flow in a circle where everything is reused; waste from one process becomes food in another. For example, leaves fall from trees and become compost that nourishes the growth of more trees.

In a circular economy we adopt this no-waste approach. The materials we use fall into two categories: biological nutrients such as leaves or wood, which come from the environment and are returned to the environment to feed the growth of more materials; and technical nutrients such as metals and polymers, which are the "food" for manufacturing cycles.

The juice carton is made from a mix of biological nutrients (card) and technical nutrients (plastic and aluminium). In a circular economy it would be redesigned to use just biological nutrients or to be made from easily separable technical nutrients such as glass or plastic. This is different from the recycling we do today, where high-quality materials end up mixed with other materials, and recycled materials are of lower specification than the originals. Maintaining the material quality would give us the potential to use those materials indefinitely.

For an inspiring lesson on sustainability, how about getting pupils to redesign common products so that they are made from either biological or technical nutrients?

Paul Anderson is a DT and engineering teacher in West Yorkshire. He is a member of the James Dyson Foundation Innovation Group and principal moderator for an exam board

What else?

Explore the 6Rs of sustainability in an extensive scheme of work from HUNTJO.

Get creative with old pairs of jeans: try June21's recycled denim presentation.

In the forums

DT teachers share their ideas for sustainability and recycling projects.

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