When the EU and China signed a treatise on the circular economy (CE) in July, the world took another step towards a radical change in the way materials are used, processed and reused.
Since it was launched eight years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) has pushed European governments towards a CE and has been successful in putting its case across. Europe’s CE package has now been officially adopted and the UK is, for now at least, fully signed up.
Politicians and many parts of the industry may be on board, but Peter Hopkinson, professor in CE at the University of Exeter, says universities are lagging behind. Without agreeing on a proper context for the CE, university research and development projects, syllabus modules and academic papers risk going off at tangents to each other – and there is no point if everyone is paddling about in their own circles.
Hopkinson has been working with the EMF since its inception, and he is now collaborating on setting up a series of symposiums in order to address the issue. The first event, a partnership between Exeter University and the Foundation, was billed as the first international symposium on the CE and it drew together around 100 academics from 30 countries. Hopkinson believes it could signal the start of a new discipline.
“The Foundation has been setting such a fast pace that I think universities have been a bit slow out the blocks,” he says. “Some academics would claim there is nothing new and ‘we’ve been doing this all our lives’. But there is a bit of a mismatch between what the academics are doing in some areas and what the Foundation and others have been doing.
“We are starting to see a groundswell of academic projects and publications in which the CE is the focal point rather than, say, a specific recycling technology. We are interested in how this all works as a new type of material system. In academia we are often pushed into ever-more detail – it’s harder to step back.”
“We don’t want to create an academic movement where people are going off in endless directions.”
A call for academic papers on the CE to support the two-day Exeter event surpassed expectations and more than 160 abstracts were submitted. The event covered a wide range of subjects, including urban mining, renewable energy, development of a bio-based economy, sustainable fashion, waste picker co-operatives and new business models.
Higher education is a particular concern for the EMF. Its Pioneer University Network currently has a membership of eight institutions, including Exeter, Arizona State University and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Hopkinson says universities play an essential role in technological development but, for the CE, these developments need to be considered as part of a wider system.
“They are important as a source of research and development, proof of concept and evaluation of outcome,” he says. “An individual piece of equipment might sound great but we would look at the systems perspective – is that the right solution for the problem? Every man and his dog loves their individual example. I run an MBA on the CE and students pour out ideas. But we need to pull back and say, ‘if this scales up, what does it do to the system?”
Hopkinson says there is currently a “chicken and egg” situation where inventions are needed to create a system that does not yet exist: “We need criteria through which we can make judgments and evaluations on particular innovations to see which ones need support and encouragement – those that need to flourish.
“A great example is Ecovative in the US, which is creating mycelium packaging to replace styrofoam and polystyrene.”
Mycelium is the structure of filaments branching from a fungus. Ecovative grows these structures into complex shapes that can be used for packaging. But the recycling industry is often wary of bio-based products – they may sound like wonder materials but in practice they cause more problems than they solve.
“You have got to be thinking about the collection systems so it doesn’t contaminate the plastics stream,” says Hopkinson. “We want to make sure in the marketing and branding that we are very clear and have worked out the collaboration to bring the material back and not screw up the plastics recovery system.”
Hopkinson and the EMF want to see the symposium form new collaborations and build an understanding of what the CE really means. There are plans for further meetings, a focus on apprenticeships and getting the right skills into the workforce.
“We don’t want to create an academic movement where people are going off in endless directions and calling anything that moves ‘circular economy’,” he says. “We’ve been there before with ‘sustainability’ and ‘eco’.”