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Why Working With Educational Institutions Is Pivotal In Driving Innovation In The Circular Economy

As our planets' finite natural resources dwindle, carbon emissions soar and the global population increases, there is a growing need and a sense of urgency to adopt circular economic models.

Circular economies are more sustainable and less damaging to the environment. They involve methods and processes that consider production and consumption, where the end product can be either repaired, regenerated or recycled. This way, essentially less waste is produced, energy is saved, and environmental damage is reduced.

A Great Switch is Always Challenging

The last century has seen booming economic growth. Many countries, especially developing ones, have seen their population's spending capacity increase. This increase in demand for goods has been detrimental.

The wastefulness of our current society and the rather unsustainable ways of living are partly to do with the consumer. Businesses and governments also play a massive part in this wastefulness.

A circular economy promises economic growth without waste while alleviating some of these pressing issues. However, moving towards a more circular economy requires the cooperation and involvement of businesses, the public sector and researchers. Policy implementation and consumer behaviour is an essential part of the success of the circular economy.

The main challenges faced are:

1. Consumer behaviour

  1. Increased consumer demands: Businesses extract even more finite natural resources at unsustainable rates to meet consumer demands. This cycle has a knock-on effect on carbon emissions. It has also created masses of waste (2.01 billion tons annually)! This waste cannot be efficiently recycled, processed or disposed of. The ocean's plastic crisis is a stark reflection of this.

  2. The consumer's reluctance to pay a higher price: Manufacturing costs increase when producing more sustainable goods through recycling or repurposing. Naturally, this results in a higher selling price.

2. Government regulations

Inadvertently, some regulations could create waste—for example, consider the expiry date requirements on food items such as bread. The expiry date given is based on it being kept out on the shelf. It does not consider that if the bread is stored in the refrigerator or freezer, the date can be prolonged, leading to unnecessary waste.

3. The lack of proper waste disposal infrastructures

The plastic waste issue is just one consequence of improper waste disposal. Any plastic waste not appropriately collected ends up in the world's oceans, at a current estimated rate of 8 million tons annually.

4. Profitability

Businesses often find using new raw materials cheaper than having to recycle and reuse products. The processes needed and equipment and technology necessary are costly. In contrast, available recycling technology may not be sufficient to recycle the goods into the same quality products.

To address these plus the world's other pressing issues, the United Nations set out and adopted a series of goals in 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Global Goals, aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure every person is living a healthy, peaceful and prosperous life by 2030.

Many of the 17 SDGs are interlinked, automatically resulting in a circular economy if ultimately attained and achieved.

Why Educational Institutions are the Key to Driving the Switch

While a circular economy sounds like an ideal plan and solution to many of the planet's problems, the response to switching has been slow. This response needs to improve, as time is of the essence.

We need catalysts to advocate for the circular economy. This juncture is where educational institutions, especially higher education institutions, play a crucial role.

Education is key to changing the mindsets of future generations. We need to instil the need to recycle and reduce and think about our planet's needs before our own. Also, to address big questions like how we can turn to greener energy and reduce carbon emissions with the finite resources we have, the worsening climate crisis, and the unsustainable ways we live.

These are concepts that can and should be instilled during formative years. For example, children can be taught about recycling from a very early age, along with the concept of not wasting.

Universities, too, are critical agents for the socio-economic development of regions through knowledge creation, knowledge-sharing, community development and innovation. They are more receptive to implementing the concepts of circularity. However, due to some institutions' sometimes rigid governance structures and conservative mindsets, they are not so quick to adopt these changes themselves, despite teaching them.

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy, "There is no doubt that higher education plays a vital role in the global transition to a circular economy. From teaching and learning, through research and into student action, across the globe there is growing momentum from the sector to move into the circular economy space."

The foundation states that ultimately the transition to a circular economy depends on how innovative individuals and organisations are. And how they apply what they've learned in the real world.

How Can This Be Achieved?

Higher education institutions have the unique opportunity to bring about the necessary change through teaching, applied research, student-led initiatives and campus management. They represent a mini-city within a city. The population's mindset is fresh, young and more receptive to change and new ideas.

Universities can equip students with the knowledge and skills needed for circular economic success in their chosen fields.

The result is real change!

While this sounds like a simple enough idea, implementation is often harder. That's where platforms like Circular Cities Asia (CCAsia) can help. CCAsia's Circular Campus Programme helps universities become circular, showing how to apply theories in real life, making campus activities and supply chains more circular.

The Circular Campus Programme and How it Aims to Help

The Circular Campus Programme believes in universities as testing grounds for the circular economy. It provides the makings of a mini-city, where people live, work and eat. So the innovations, systems and ideas for circularity can be practised and perfected in the "living lab". It is from here then that we can scale up successfully and create circular cities.

By working with higher education institutes, CCAsia hopes to improve their sustainability while encouraging them to be leaders in this space.

Interactive learning opportunities with circular economy and industry providers are offered by the Circular Campus Programme, along with the bonus of knowledge-sharing and networking possibilities with innovators and industry experts. These will all help students grow the skills necessary to understand circularity and innovation.

The Circular Campus Programme also helps universities align with circular models and become more sustainable. In turn, this structure provides support and facilitates their journeys towards zero waste. The universities represent hubs that bring together many different sectors and foster influential relationships.

Shiva Susarla, the Founder of CCAsia and RENERGii, states, "University campuses are not just microcosms of larger cities, but also flag-bearers of innovation and new ways of doing things. Therefore, a bottom-up approach to creating change is to make university campuses circular and create pockets of excellence that can then be adapted to the larger urban canvas."

At CCAsia, we believe that innovation is the way to accelerate the circular economy. The Circular Campus Programme recognises the importance that academic institutions play in this acceleration and incubating promising ideas. It aims to help them bring circular solutions to life.

So, what’s next? How can you get involved in this revolution?

How can you get involved in the creation of a better future for all? What can you do to make and create a more circular economy?

As education is critical, well, start there. Ultimately, this is what the Circular Campus Programme aims to do, to help higher education institutions achieve this.

The time is now. Our planet is in crisis — the "plastic ocean", climate change, population explosion. Contact CCAsia to find out how we can help you achieve circularity and whether your university is eligible to join the programme next year.


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