Teaching circular economics

| 27th September 2019
Education must nurture young people who are aware of the problems that our world faces and who are armed with ideas on how to tackle them.


Education is our most effective tool when it comes to shaping our future.  Take schools during the industrial revolution, they gave children approximately standardised skills in reading, writing and arithmetic that would help to drive a rapidly growing economy and ultimately raise living standards.

The challenges we face today are not simply supplying an industrialising economy with labour, they are environmental - climate change, biodiversity collapse, plastic pollution. 

There have been a number of recent calls to introduce the teaching of climate change into the mainstream curriculum. Currently only secondary geography and chemistry touch upon the issue, but campaigners would like to see it become a core subject, possibly even constituting part of the primary curriculum. 

New system

Children care about what is happening to our planet. Earlier this year, the YouthStrike4Climate protests saw over 15,000 children march in more than 60 towns and cities across the UK.

But just like climate change has caught the attention of children, so has plastic pollution. Schools up and down the country have engaged in the issues by writing letters to politicians and business urging them to take action. 

The images from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series made the whole world sit up and take notice, but the biggest impact has been on young people. Children feel strongly about this issue and we should help them to tackle this problem.

However, taking on the issue of plastic pollution in schools should not merely be limited to extolling the virtues of recycling. We need to be more dynamic, and this is where circular economics comes in. 

A circular economy is one that seeks to establish a system of consumption where materials continuously flow, being used and then reused, with as little waste and negative environmental impact as possible. Biological materials are returned to the environment and technological materials are utilised in a ‘make – use – repair/upgrade’ cycle.

Circular economics is seen as a breakaway from our current linear economic system, whereby resources are used in a ‘make-consume-dispose’ model, with high waste and significant negative environmental impact. It seeks to make our societies less wasteful and more resourceful.  

Understanding impact

So, how would this theory be used in the curriculum? The teaching would begin by looking at our current linear system of consumption, and dealing with the first objective of circular economics, making us less wasteful.

This is not as complicated as it first sounds: it means giving children an understanding of the true cost of making things. For example, the typical pair of jeans requires over 15,000 liters of water in their manufacturing process; plastic bottles take at least 450 years to biodegrade; and, many multi-material objects, such as coffee cups (which are made of both cardboard and plastic) are never recycled.

Properly understanding the impact our consumption has upon the world will help our young people make more sustainable choices when they are older. 

Secondly, the teaching would look at how circular economics can help us to be more resourceful. Children would be taught how to better recycle things they have used themselves, or to upcycle things for others to use.

An interesting example of this came earlier this year: the North London Waste Authority has held a series of ‘Repair Cafes’, where people took along worn and damaged items, such as clothes and bikes, and had them repaired by trained specialists.

The participants were then given tutorials on how to undertake future repairs themselves. If we could transfer workshops such as these into schools, children could learn valuable skills whilst doing their bit for the environment. 

Creative and collaborative

Teaching circular economics in schools could encompass projects that would lend themselves to the design curriculum. For instance, in Scotland circular economics research and advocacy body, Ostrero, has been running the ‘Making Circles’ initiative, which has sought to get children thinking about reusing waste materials.

The project saw children taking part in a Circular Economy Design Challenge’, where participants submitted designs for items made from disposed objects.

Last year a large number of schools in the Netherlands took part in the Clean2Antarctica project, which saw children collecting and sorting plastics that would be used to make a vehicle that will eventually travel to the South Pole.

What’s more, projects such as these also develop children’s creative and collaborative skills – two of the 4Cs of twenty-first xentury learning (areas identified as being essential to the future of education).


The potential impact that circular economic thinking could have on our education system is profound. It could help us to nurture future generations with more sustainable mindsets, and the tools with which to help our planet. But its potential will not be unlocked unless we want it to be. 

We should not omit key world challenges from our curriculum, and merely hope that some children find a vocation in tackling them sometime later in their life. We should actively engage young people in the problems our planet faces. 

Children care greatly about the problems facing our environment, as we have seen this year with the schoolchildren’s climate protests across the UK and Europe, and with their thousands and thousands of letters campaigning against plastic pollution. 

They want to do something; they certainly have the passion; and, they undoubtedly have the potential to make a real difference.

As teachers it is our job to empower them to take on the great challenges of their day.  

This Author 

Matthew Murray is a teacher from the UK and the creator of the primary teacher blog 2 Stars and a Wish.

If you would like to learn more about Circular Economics please visit The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s website where you can also find lesson resources that you could use with your class.