Transitions of Circular Economy

In Finland’s Road Map to a Circular Economy, Sitra has outlined 64 actions and 250 ideas for actions to help Finland transition from a linear produce-use-dispose economy to cyclic models. The shift to a circular economy takes place via different transitions, where circular economic actions are encouraged through new ways of thinking, the employment of new methods, and through systemic changes. This may require financial resources, but innovations and inventions are the key factors facilitating the shift in thinking and actions.

Here are four clear transitions that can be looked at in the classroom:

  • from waste to raw material
  • from ownership to sharing
  • from disposable to fixable
  • from product to service

Below is a more detailed description of each transition. There are also video interviews with pupils of different ages on the first three transitions. The interviews include questions that can be used to observe the pupils’ attitudes towards circular economy. It is also a good idea to think about how you would answer the questions.

From waste to raw material

This transition aims at taking a new look at material generated from a production process. Instead of disposing the materials as waste, they are recycled directly or indirectly back into raw material form. This can take place within the same branch of industry or even within the same facility. More commonly, the material goes from enterprise and industry to another. For example, a company called Tracegrow turns old batteries into fertiliser that can be used in agriculture. This type of activity aims at maximising the financial value of the raw materials and, at the same time, decreasing the environmental problems caused by production.

Reusing waste as raw materials also diminished the need for raw materials from nature and limits their overconsumption. The textile industry and today’s culture of consuming clothing that is very affordable, for example, produce a great deal of textile waste. A company called Infinited Fiber has developed technology that enables the turning of recycled mass into soft textile fibres resembling cotton.

In a study by Evans et al. (2007), approximately half of 6-8-year-old children he studied reported recycling at home most of the time, and one third reported recycling occasionally. However, when eating at a restaurant, over 60 % of the children admit to not always finishing their plate. The educational background and political values of the parents of the children included in the study are connected with their environmental values and attitudes, but the values and attitudes of the parents do not appear to correlate with those of their children.

How do you think the pupils understand the lifespan of a product or an object? Is it linear or partly cyclic? How do the pupils describe recycling? How could you best support them with recycling? Compare the pupils’ suggestiong for reducing waste with the claims made in this video by Yle.

From ownership to sharing

Sharing has long been a familiar concept to many. Apartment buildings often have shared laundry rooms so that people would not need to purchase their own washing machines. This is more economical from the point of view of the residents and it also reduces consumption. Shared cars managed by their owners are a more modern example although one that does not generate financial value. However, there are companies, such as 24Rent, who rent out shared cars for people to use. These kind of services are made possible by internet infrastructure and services making use of it. The term commonly used is platform economy, and it is not only limited to circular economy but also benefits many other transitions. An example of platform economy in the school setting could be a mobile application enabling shared use of sports equipment.

There are multiple factors at play when discussing sharing and the shared use of objects. With the examples presented in the paragraph above, the owner of the object is an institution, a co-operative, or a company, instead of a private individual. Privately owned objects may have such value to their owners that they may be reluctant to share them with others. Another factor is social distance: it is easier to share an important item with someone close to you. On the other hand, an object bearing less importance can often be shared rather easily.It is surprising, however, that according to Schreiner, Pick, and Kenning (2018), consumption habits and trust between people do not really affect willingness for shared use of objects.

Sharing among family members is very familiar to children. There are, however, a multitude of ways to share one’s items with other people. New Zealand, for example, has several toy libraries where people can both bring in and check out toys in the spirit of shared use (Ozanne & Ballantine, 2010).

How do the pupils feel about sharing objects that they own? How do they feel about shared items in general? How could you support pupils to share their items even more effectively? These are factors that need to be thought about when instructing the pupils to invent applications and operating models for the shared use of objects.

From disposable to fixable

Economic growth is often associated with an increase of consumption, which leads to a culture of single-use products, an increase in waste production, and overconsumption of natural resources. According to circular economy, natural resources should be made use of for as long as possible, and thus allow nature to recover and regenerate. Lengthening the lifespan of a product by improving their quality and by paying particular attention to their repairability.

In the past, when a device broke, one would first attempt to repair it. If this was unsuccessful, a professional was called to repair it. Nowadays many products are glued, laminated, or pressed together, thus making it difficult for the consumer to take them apart. Some products, particularly electronics, are difficult even for their manufacturers to disassemble, and fixing broken products might be more expensive than buying a new one. Manufacturers are also often reluctant to make their products repairable by the consumer and might even deliberately design their products to eventually become outdated.

Repairability can be increased by designing products to be modular. An example of this are the modular furniture made by Muurame. With modular products, those parts of an item that become worn quickly can be repaired or replaced with new ones. This requires a shift in thinking and consumer habits, as this sort of design is notably more expensive for the consumer. Solving this issue requires innovations in both the products themselves and proving the benefits of those products.

What do the pupils think of repairing objects? Are there differences in their attitudes towards different items? How might you encourage them to fix their own broken objects more often? In what ways could you guide the children towards sustainable purchases?

From product to service

When a commodity is available as a service, there will be no need for everyone to own everything. It is not always clear what sets service apart from object sharing, especially as part of sharing takes place in the form of services. Earlier we mentioned shared cars, but should we classify public transport as sharing or a service that is provided to us? What about communal roads, maintained by tax revenue? Then again, perhaps we should avoid getting stuck in the semantics of the terms and focus on making the transitions happen. The important thing with services is, after all, that the product is provided to the individual in return for a fee.

Domestic lighting is an interesting example, where the consumer will request a professional to arrange the desired solution, instead of purchasing it oneself. The professional will then plan and execute the lighting. The lamps and other products are delivered by the service provider, and they are returned at the end of the service. This is already taking place in the business world, where Valtavalo, for example, is selling light instead of lighting.

Replacing products with services is clearly the most difficult transition to make. This was evident in the pupil interviews, where the children were unable to answer the questions or provided inappropriate answers. It might be worth thinking about why this topic is so tricky for children to grasp. Is the amount of services encountered by young people so low that they are unable to define them and the related processes? On the other hand, the concept of service is a difficult one and requires the ability for abstract thinking, of which the pupils might not yet be fully capable. For instance, purchasing a coffee from a kiosk might be experiences as purchasing an item, when it is in fact an example of purchasing a service. Similarly, school lunches might not appear to be a service, when this is exactly what they are. Finally, we might think about what other services schools provide and how these appear to the pupils.

Sources and further reading:

  • Schreiner, N., Pick, D., & Kenning, P. (2018). To share or not to share? Explaining willingness to share in the context of social distance. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 17(4), 366–378.
  • Sitra. (2016). Kierrolla kärkeen, Suomen tiekartta kiertotalouteen 2016–2025, Sitran selvityksiä 117.
  • Jeremy Bulow; An Economic Theory of Planned Obsolescence, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 101, Issue 4, 1 November 1986, Pages 729–749
  • Fowler, G. A. (2015, Sep 09). We need the right to repair our gadgets. Wall Street Journal
  • Evans, G. W., Brauchle, G., Haq, A., Stecker, R., Wong, K. & Shapiro, E. (2007). Young Children’s Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 39, 635-658.
  • Ozanne, L., & Ballantine, P. (2010). Sharing as a form of anti-consumption? An examination of toy library users. Journal Of Consumer Behaviour, 9(6), 485-498.