Set sail with a circular economy

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Today, Ellen MacArthur has her sights set on tomorrow's world. Jackie Cosh finds out why she is taking action now

Based on today's consumption rates, in 42 years' time experts estimate that lead will run out and in 61 years copper will run out. The only workable solution is a circular economy where technical and biological material products are used over and over again, rented rather than bought, and returned to the supplier who will reuse all parts.

The philosophy of a circular rather than a linear economy is becoming more popular, with companies that have adopted it seeing a rise in profits and a fall in costs. It is also proving popular with schools, as pupils learn to understand the urgent need for action as well as how the business model works.

Design and technology teacher Steve Parkinson talks of a pupil who, when studying for his GCSEs, didn't know what to design. But after learning about the circular economy, he wanted to redesign everything.

Mr Parkinson is retelling this story at a Teardown lab for design and technology teachers at Paisley Grammar - a workshop on the circular economy and on designing tomorrow's economy, run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Dame Ellen set up the foundation in 2010 to educate businesses and schools about the circular economy and to inspire them to think about how it could work.

Colin Webster, its field development officer for Scotland, says: "The rationale for business and education is that business can provide practical case studies and on-the-ground rationale for the model. The education side can explore ideas, and help to develop and inspire generations to rethink." His job involves working with schools, introducing them to the educational resources the foundation offers, as well as the free CPD sessions.

Two pathfinder schools - Loudoun Academy in East Ayrshire and Paisley Grammar in Renfrewshire - trial resources and provide feedback.

The workshop's aim is to introduce teachers to the concept and give them ideas for teaching it to pupils. An activity where electrical goods such as kettles are taken apart highlights the huge number of parts and materials used for common household goods, and the fact that these parts are designed never to be reused.

Another activity, where each group has to redesign a toothbrush so that every part can be reused, sets teachers thinking about the challenges businesses will face, both in designing such a product and marketing it to consumers.

"A leaf will never become waste," Mr Parkinson tells them. "It is a pretty effective system that has worked for millions of years. Pupils automatically think we are recycling, but what we are doing is downcycling. We need to design products for disassembly."

With Dame Ellen's help, they inspire the room with examples of companies that are making this business model work - a car manufacturer that has seen its profits double, and a carpet retailer that rents carpets out to people. The cross-curricular aspects become obvious: what type of chemicals would be used? How could you avoid using toxic products?

"It has given me some ideas on how to teach it in class," says Kelly O'Neill, design and technology teacher at Bearsden Academy. "Both in product design and design and manufacturing. The activities are hands-on, so the knowledge could be applied, and there have been some good ideas for interdisciplinary work."

Carrie Gray is a drama teacher at Paisley Grammar and project leader for partnership working, liaising with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as part of the pathway work.

"Tonight was really useful," she says. "Colin had already done some CPD with us and I heard Ellen's speech at the Scottish Learning Festival, but it was still good to hear more, particularly from the McKinsey report.

"We have a pathfinder group at the school, so through discussions and meeting we are looking to see how it fits in."

In the schools he has visited so far, Mr Webster has found that teachers see the need to rethink the future, the argument for the circular economy, and the need to refresh students' thinking. He also thinks that perhaps they have started working with schools at the right time.

"It is a great thing for teachers to pin interdisciplinary learning on. Design and technology alone cannot teach it," he says. "There is also energy use, which comes under physics and geography, and the business model change that comes under business studies. Hopefully we are arriving at the right time. People are developing new courses. They are busy. We say 'we have the stuff for you'."

Delighted with the passion for the subject which she sees in students, Dame Ellen compares it with when she was at school and friends were choosing university courses.

"Those who went to university chose subjects they enjoyed. They didn't tend to be fascinated by the subject. This (concept) really inspires people. It is an interesting learning process for students," she says. "When we do workshops with pupils or go into schools, they very quickly see the relevance - to school, to university, to life."

For teaching resources, visit bit.lyL2szaE or to organise free CPD at your school, email


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation worked with management consultancy McKinsey Company for a year. Findings included:

- If customers leased rather than bought high-end washing machines, this would be approximately a third cheaper for them and manufacturers would earn a third more in profits;

- The cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be reduced by 50 per cent per device if they were made easier to take apart, if they improved the reverse cycle, and if they offered incentives to return the phones;

- The UK could save #163;692 million ($1.1 billion) a year on landfill costs by keeping organic food out of landfill sites.

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