Educating Scotland’s schoolchildren for a circular economy

13 Jul 2020

By Mary Michel

This blog is published as part of the Scottish Environment LINK project: A Circular Economy for a Fairer Footprint.  

The recent lockdown has been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that mindset and behaviour change can be positive. Look at what’s happened in just a few short weeks – transport down by 60%, air pollution reduced by 50%, we’ve been buying less, fixing more and sharing tools, toys, books and time with our communities. Let’s leverage that change to prepare Scotland’s schoolchildren for life in a resilient and buoyant Circular Economy.  A circular economy (CE) is an alternative to a linear economy. A linear economy, which has increasingly characterised our economy in recent decades, follows an extract, make, use, dispose pattern. In contrast, a more circular economy aims to keep resources and materials in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them whilst in use and recovering products and materials from them at the end of each service life.

In a Circular Economy we will think, design, buy and work differently. We will understand that we need to take care of the world’s resources and keep them at their highest value for as long as possible to ensure that there is enough to go around. This will be reflected in the jobs we do, the holidays we take and the clothes we choose to buy.

The problem is that our current education system simply doesn’t equip us for life in a Circular Economy. We have all been educated to accept that economic growth is good and that the environmental and social costs of this do not concern us.  Both our formal education and the structuring of our economy have formed us to crave and consume more and more things, while stripping away our ability to look after them.

So what needs to change? Firstly, and most fundamentally, we need a mindset change that enables us to understand the crushing impact of our current way of life and to commit ourselves to a world in which we can choose to consume less, share more and make things last. Instead of learning subjects in silos, we need to learn in a way that cultivates  whole systems thinking, so that we can join up the dots and see the effect that buying a pair of jeans in Dundee might have on a woman in Dhaka; or getting a new smartphone in Glasgow could have on the rivers and wildlife of Pica. Secondly, we need to be trained in the new jobs and skills that a Circular Economy will bring – a 2015 report by WRAP estimated 205,000 new CE jobs by 2030 across a range of sectors. These will include jobs in re-use and remanufacture, and crucially, in design. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimate that, “80% of environmental impacts are determined” at the design stage, so just imagine the impact if we could transform from linear to circular design.

How can we make this happen? We are lucky in Scotland that our Curriculum for Excellence, in which students are taught to make connections across the curriculum, rather than to learn subjects in silos and by rote, is the perfect bedrock for a successful CE education. We are lucky also to have a group of organisations dedicated to bringing about the Circular Economy working in schools across Scotland, including Young Enterprise Scotland, the Ellen McArthur Foundation, Veolia and Ostrero’s Making Circles design and making workshops.

However, what we really need is a national strategy for Circular Economy education – one that integrates a circular approach into the Curriculum for Excellence to ensure that every schoolchild in Scotland finishes school with a mindset in which making things last is the norm. To do this we need joined up thinking across all sectors and input from Education Scotland, the Scottish Government and Zero Waste Scotland, using evidence and experience from those already working on delivering the CE in Scotland’s schools. We need hands-on training centres to ensure we are learning the relevant skills, we need to stimulate circular design and circular business models – but the first and most essential step is to achieve true mindset change for all learners, which will in turn lead to the behavioural change required. A similar approach in Finland has resulted in the hugely successful Circular Classroom.

The National Museum of Scotland has an online display capturing the experiences of Scotland’s children through lockdown, and which aspects of lockdown they think can help us build back an economy that respects the environment. Their answers show that a major mindset change is possible, and indeed, has already happened in lockdown. One nine year-old wrote: “When schools went on strike for climate action, lots of people said we wouldn’t be able to get people to change how they live. The lockdown is proof that we CAN change how we live to help our planet. We can live without shopping for joy and we can travel less or in a pollution-free way – and we can still be happy!” Children wrote about how neighbours are sharing tools, plants, books and toys; how the reduction in pollution has meant they can hear the birds singing more clearly and see more wildlife; how technology is enabling them to keep in touch with friends and family without them having to travel; and how, because it’s harder to get to the shops, they are repairing their clothes and toys instead of buying new ones.

Education is not all about what children learn from their teachers. Let’s make sure we all learn from the experiences of Scotland’s children during this extraordinary time, and ensure that we respect their ideas for growing the Circular Economy in Scotland.


Mary Michel is the Co-Director of Ostrero, which works to grow the Circular Economy in Scotland through a variety of projects, including Making Circles, a series of circular design and making workshops for schools and universities across Scotland. She is a Trustee of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland and Vice Chair of Craft Scotland.



Share this post

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.