top of page

10 ways how Universities can lead the way towards Circular Economy

Universities are increasingly re-thinking their role in the twenty-first century and looking to be both more responsive to societal needs and to become agents of change towards solving global challenges. Universities drive technological and societal progress through research, discovery and knowledge creation. The Academic Institutions also provide people with professional and personal skills and capabilities. They have access to large concentrations of young and curious people who are passionate, creative and have a desire for a better world. They also increasingly influence global development through international students and alumni, international campuses, and capacity building activities. A few features make universities stand out from other institutions: they are small enough to keep it all under control while allowing for a relatively quick change; they have interlinked infrastructure with a stable number of residents; they have effective communication channels; they boast the possibility to set internal rules to be followed by everyone, and they have a strong intellectual climate. Hence making them a perfect testbed when it comes to walking the talk concerning Circular Economy.

The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

Here are ten ways in which any university across the Globe could incorporate Circular Economy principles into their day-to-day operations.

1. Building a business case on Campus: Important areas for focus include food, energy, and water use. Biological and food waste can be used within composting and anaerobic digestion projects to promote the reintegration of waste streams. It is vital to involve all relevant stakeholders on campus to match behaviour with ways of maximizing the value of food waste. At the University of Melbourne, all new buildings qualify for 5-star green design ratings. This has resulted in a 24% reduction in energy; a 49% reduction in net energy-related carbon emissions; a 38% reduction in water usage and a 41% recycling of waste. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with the Green roof programme they recorded a 12% reduction in building-related GHG emissions; 33% reduction in energy. Additionally, 42% of waste is diverted from landfills; 25% of local or sustainable food in dining services, and 13% also organic.

2. Furniture as a Service: The procurement office of the University could integrate CE criteria in new tender processes to access a service of delivery and full life cycle management of remanufactured furniture or new products with a buy-back offer (an interesting example could be that of Rype Office and Steelcase). From University dorms to classrooms, furniture makes up for the majority of costs which could easily be changed to a Product as a Service Model and thus ensuring the on-time repair of the furniture. When switching to the Product as a Service Model, the University could not only reduce costs but also reduce their impact on the Environment and create social value by creating local job opportunities.

3. Deposit Return System for Mugs and Food containers: The promotion of reusable mugs and food containers in substitution of takeaway food packaging would reduce waste generation and the associated environmental impacts. This would also serve as a vehicle to raise awareness and engage students and staff in sustainability practice by offering discounts and special offers, such as express ‘green line’ access to purchase food. DRS are one of the most efficient instruments to tackle plastic leakage into the oceans and the environment and are an exemplary way to implement the Extended Producer Responsibility principles. In Ecuador for example a refundable USD 0.02 deposit paid per PET beverage bottle (in 2011) led to a significant increase in PET bottle recycling, increasing from 30% in 2011 to 80% in 2012 when 1.13 million of the 1.4 million PET bottles produced were recycled. These systems are waiting to be implemented which pays off financially in no time at a university level.

4. Circular Appliances: The implementation of pay-per-wash for washing machines could also be applied for fridges and vacuum cleaners in student residences. There are many fridges and vacuum cleaners underutilised or not used at all in student residences. As a result, there is a mix of under-utilised old and new products. Accessing these products as a service could increase system efficiency with the corresponding economic and environmental savings. Data gathering on product performance over time through digital technologies can serve as a vehicle to offer students a better service and raise their sustainability awareness. Rheaply for example is an asset exchange platform that drives the visibility on stuff, across all of a client’s sites, enabling the transfer of idle equipment either within or outside an organisation.

5. Lighting as a Service: Lighting-as-a-service contracts, such as Philips’ LaaS installation at Schiphol Airport’s Terminal 2, could play a big role in helping the circular economy take off in the lighting industry especially at a university level. Philips CE business model is quite novel and creative with the potential to bring significant energy and cost savings to the university. Accessing such a service could also enhance space comfort. It can also support the design of mechanisms for personalised charging of students for energy use in residences. The University does no longer have to finance the asset as such. One could finance the cash flow that is generated via the project.

6. Financing Circular Innovations on Campus: A revolving fund for students and researchers to start their projects based on a circular economy could serve as an incubator for sustainable enterprises. Repairing facilities for goods such as electronic items could motivate students. This could provide an area for small repairs to be performed by students for students. At the University of Washington, students lead projects through the Campus Sustainability Fund with awards between $250 and $100,000. This resulted in 8%. Reduction in CO2 and a 19% reduction in commuters driving alone to campus. Additionally, a 59% increase in sustainable foods and thereby diverting around 58% of waste that otherwise went to landfills.

7. Develop an Innovation Hub: A specific hub within the University could help bring together researchers and practitioners (within the University and from business and other external organisations) to exchange ideas and expertise, and showcase innovation. The hub could contribute new product designs, new business models, and showcase ways of working together to solve problems. The MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) is committed to designing out waste and finding ways to reduce waste and feed the circular economy. MIT has developed a range of solutions all contributing to changing the waste system on campus. By partnering with a data-driven waste hauling company, they can use the data to help make upstream decisions that help design out waste, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

8. Teaching and Research: Providing the necessary knowledge, evidence-based, solutions, technologies, pathways and innovations to underpin and support the implementation of the Circular Economy by the global community – through both traditional disciplinary approaches and newer interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and sustainability science approaches; providing capacity building for developing countries in undertaking and using research; collaborating with and supporting innovative companies to implement CE solutions; improving diversity in research; and student training for sustainable development research. Many universities are using a circular economy as a focus for both teaching and research. There may be opportunities to develop specific programmes such as an MSc degree in the Circular Economy, which could potentially bring together students from design, business, environmental and other backgrounds. A Circular Economy Professorial Chair could potentially be appointed to provide academic leadership and to champion the integration of the theme across disciplines. Also, numerous Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been introduced on CE for free across the globe. They assist in enhancing the competitiveness of a student in this era of rapidly changing careers while ensuring sustainability. Here is a list of some of the MOOCs that are offered for free by premier universities across the Globe.

9. Industry Linkages: Universities are centres of innovation, invention, and discovery, and have played a role in the development of almost every major technology of the twentieth century. As such, universities can expand their role as hubs of innovation to support and host businesses – such as start-up high tech companies located near university research programs – that provide technologies and services for sustainable development. At a local level, universities can also start partnerships with local businesses that would enable benefits to be shared and two-way support with implementation and financing. Local circular partnerships can be mutually beneficial cutting material costs or providing a new income flow. Promoting new circular economy enterprises on campus could enhance student skills through involvement and portray sustainable commerce as a real business opportunity.

10. Collaborate and Recognize: To promote university-wide thinking, seminars could be integrated into the existing speaker series. A high-profile Circular Economy conference could facilitate knowledge exchange and lead to collaborations. Capacity building through education is found to be an efficient way to work on the challenges faced by a developing economy. Universities have extensive links to several developing countries through international students and alumni, international campuses, academic exchange programs, study tours, and partnerships with universities in developing countries. CE Awards could specifically recognize circular economy champions and evidence case studies that can be picked up and shared by other groups.

About the Author

Piyush Dhawan (LinkedIn) is the co-founder of the Circular Collective was awarded the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship last year to work on the topic of Circular Economy. He has for the past decade been working with Bilaterals and Multilaterals on a range of topics including business and biodiversity, Vision 2030 SDGs and Future of Indian Cities


Blomsma, F., Brennan, G., 2017. The Emergence of Circular Economy: A New Framing Around Prolonging Resource Productivity. Journal of Industrial Ecology 21(3): 603– 614

Bocken, N.M.P., Olivetti, E.A., Cullen, J.M., Potting, J., Lifset, R., 2017. Taking the Circularity to the Next Level: A Special Issue on the Circular Economy. J Ind Ecol 21(3): 476-482.

Carbon Trust, 2012. Further and higher education: training colleges and universities to be energy efficient. London, UK

Ferrer-Balas, D., Lozano, R., Huisingh, D., Buckland, H., Ysern, P., Zilahy, G., 2010. Going beyond the rhetoric: system-wide changes in universities for sustainable societies. J Clean Prod 18: 607–610

Mendoza, J. M. F., Gallego-Schmid, A., & Azapagic, A. (2019). Building a business case for implementation of a circular economy in higher education institutions. Journal of Cleaner Production, 220, 553-567.

Nunes, B. T., Pollard, S. J., Burgess, P. J., Ellis, G., De los Rios, I. C., & Charnley, F. (2018). University contributions to the circular economy: professing the hidden curriculum. Sustainability, 10(8), 2719.

Schaltegger, S., Lüdeke-Freund, F., Hansen, E.G., 2012. Business cases for sustainability: the role of business model innovation for corporate sustainability. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development 6(2) 95-119

University of Edinburgh, 2015. Circular economy thinking and action at the University of Edinburgh. Accessed: July 2021.

Witjes, S., Lozano, R., 2016. Towards a more Circular Economy: Proposing a framework linking sustainable public procurement and sustainable business models. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 112: 37-44

1,751 views0 comments
bottom of page