Shift to a Circular Economy: the role of education from youth to higher education

Circular economy (CE) has emerged as the new economic model that tries to overcome the current production and consumption based on a so-called “linear economy” (“take, make and dispose of model”). CE is aimed at a systemic transformation of our current economy wherein the value of products, materials and resources are maintained in the economy for as long as possible, the generation of waste is minimized and a sustainable, low carbon, green, resource-efficient and competitive economy is established. CE enables further development of the society to preserve the environment and resources for subsequent generations. The concept of circularity is fully in line with the target of our fundamental principle of education systems, i.e. to guide for the development of an integral and complete human. Education and awareness for circularity require interdisciplinary teaching, not just the transfer of theoretical knowledge, but, above all, for the development of socially and ecologically appropriate attitudes. Education forms the foundation of any society. It is responsible for the economic, social, and political growth and development of society in general (Bakken et al., 2017). School education is a crucial part of a person’s life as it promotes well-being at early childhood times, healthy development of transferable learning, help address adversity, and support resilience in growth. Investment at the respective education level with regard to the notion of sustainability is essential for the realization of the interdependence of human life and the environment. The education modules must impart a renewed level of environmental awareness, such as the use of everyday goods and consumer items (with less plastic), everyday electrical appliances (energy saving), judicious shopping (with minimum wastage of items like food), reuse and recycle of goods (upcycling and raw material savings), responsible transport (lower emissions), waste segregation and rational management of resources like water. Children may be introduced to the various frameworks of circular economy (7Rs- reduce, reuse, recycle, respect, repair, reflect and refuse) and explore how these principles may be attributed to the daily experiences. What is needed? The education system and culture have to move from a “lecture-based” to a participatory approach where discussion on sustainable consumption and production takes prime importance. Proper understanding of the impact of our (linear economy) consumption has upon the world will help young people make more sustainable choices when they are older. For example, making children aware of the non-biodegradability of plastic, the impact of multi-layered plastic, who recycles "own' waste and keeps the society clean, may help children to grow into reasonable citizens. It is relevant to integrate concrete examples so that children understand from small how they can contribute to sustainability. It is equally important that the examples are creative, facilitate understanding of the concepts and their possibilities for the benefit of the community. Being creative also helps children to experience happiness, curiosity, and develop teambuilding skills. The curricula need to be reformed with regard to CE and with a massive capacity building component for teachers and tutors. These education professionals have a key role in building up youth and learn innovative pedagogical skills to build a circular and sustainable society. The system of learning must have peer-to-peer educational programs, collaborative projects, encouragement of students to rethink existing systems, interdisciplinary learning techniques, thus transforming students as “creators” and “teachers”. The education policy has to become adaptive and receptive to the changes in the market and upskilling needed to develop the skillsets of students to aid them in future market scenarios. Going forward, upskilling will also require major investments in education. Students and educators must develop a global outlook with a local focus and knowledge. All these actions are essential for the integral development of an individual to stimulate ecological action and promote social and economic growth. Initiatives Finland is a global front runner in the field of “Sustainability and circular economy” principles embedded education system. Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund has recognised the importance of education in creating a new circular economy society. They highlight the necessity for creating a ‘new kind of expertise’ and facilitating collaboration between silos, with the aim of changing attitudes and methods of operation. In 2017, Finland has recognised the deeper need for education initiatives for students to study the circular economy which led to the development of study packages and communication materials (in a series of projects for circular economy education in 2017-2019). These resources include circular economy teaching materials for primary school, upper secondary school and vocational school. Ellen MacArthur Foundation is also pursuing global action for forcing education systems to change. Several programs are being framed and executed by the foundation. Recently, the Foundation has teamed up with Leadership in Global Change (LIGC) and Ryde School to run a circular economy summer school from 1st to 7th August 2021. This week-long programme targeted at 15-18 year-olds, will explore the role a circular economy can play in tackling global challenges like climate change and waste management by allowing products and materials to circulate, in our natural environment. Italy is another country where a policy has been created to inculcate sustainability and the climate crisis as a key subject in school. In the city of Tucson (state of Arizona), USA a dedicated programme for 10–13-year-olds to understand more about waste and recycling is also put in place in the schools. Funded by the City of Tucson Environmental Services, students get the opportunity to learn about how individual waste management can make a difference. In Netherlands, “Clean2Antarctica” was a project initiated in 2018 wherein a large number of schools had their children collecting and sorting plastics that were used to make a vehicle that will eventually travel to the South Pole (to show that it’s a waste to waste!). SmartPlaCE@schools- Serious game Platform for education on Circular Economy in high schools is an EU program supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) Raw materials Academy where scientists have developed creative teaching materials for secondary schools on the topics of a circular economy. SmartPlaCE @ schools is the follow-up project to FosterERM @ Schools, in which the circular economy educational game EcoCEO (https://ecoceo.vito.be/en) was developed. The teaching materials offer both an introduction and in-depth information on concepts and business models of the circular economy and are based on the curricula of secondary schools. They are developed in co-creation with teachers in the partner countries Belgium, Germany, Estonia and Italy and are tested by pupils from secondary schools. Conclusion Circular economy education must start in the kindergarten days where children start exploring society and engage with peers. It continues through primary and secondary (higher) school all the way to higher education as it becomes embedded in an individual’s way of living. Along the way, children learn about materials, waste leakage in daily life, business activities, personal skills and knowledge, collaborative action for change towards a circular economy society. Our improved curriculum must account for the world challenges and hope that the empowered children will find a vocation in tackling them sometime later in their life. It is important to note that for any system transformation, a major investment is required in the education sector supported by major policy reformations. Multiple stakeholders enriched with interdisciplinary thinking both now and in the future will play a decisive role in building a new economic system via the younger generation. 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Shift to a Circular Economy: the role of education from youth to higher education