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Commentary

Global Environmental Issues and the Circular Bioeconomy

Since the first World Environment Day in 1974, society has struggled with increasing the standard of living at the expense of our environment. All civilizations have advanced by capitalizing on their natural resources, either physical or human. In most instances this has been a win/lose scenario, with consumers improving their lifestyles without regard to the cost to Mother Nature.

In recent years, an alternative economic scenario has risen to the forefront: Societies increase their prosperity while simultaneously reducing their impact on the environment. This new economy is based on the idea of using and reusing natural, renewable materials to meet society’s material and energy needs (i.e., clothing, packaging, transportation fuels, energy, and housing). Things we enjoy in a modern society doesn’t always have to be unsustainable or contribute to global warming and/or biodiversity loss.

This concept goes by a variety of names—bioeconomy, circular economy, renewable economy, green economy, sharing economy—which has complicated its path forward by creating misunderstandings or limited understanding by the consumer. Strictly speaking, each of these terms hold different meanings and represent different perspectives; however, they also have common underpinnings. All the terms offer perspectives on the common idea of how to move away from the current linear, short-term profit focused economy to one that is low carbon, efficient, prosperous and circular. While the definitions of these terms are still evolving, circular bioeconomy may be emerging as the umbrella term encompassing two key sustainability concepts— the shift to renewable resources and keeping all materials and products in use longer.

With proper planning in the design, manufacture, use, and reuse of products, we can dramatically reduce environmental impact, energy consumption, and demand for raw materials. A principle shared by these terms is that all products have additional “lives” after their initial use. Used material should not be discarded in landfills, but instead developed into new products or used for other purposes; the final option of burning for energy should occur only after all product “lives” have been exhausted. The principle of transitioning away from fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive, nonrenewable resources and toward bio-based alternatives, is imperative for sustainability and applies across all the different emerging sustainable economy concepts.

Students are commonly interested in and excited about how they can participate in the emerging circular bioeconomy and help create a sustainable future. What should I study? How do I make a difference? How am I going to get a job that leads to a better future?

How then do high school teachers prepare their students for this future? One response is that the circular bioeconomy is something that applies to most fields in STEM and business. Sustainability and the circular bioeconomy cannot be relegated to their own fields of study. For instance, by first understanding its principles, a student can quickly understand how the study of chemistry can focus on subfields that can lead to new bio-based chemicals that replace petroleum in plastics. The technologies we choose matter. Education in the circular bioeconomy incorporates STEM disciplines into our renewable natural resources.

In physics and math classes, one way to contextualize lessons is to investigate how a mass timber building offers natural insulation by focusing on the heat losses of bio-based and non-renewable building materials. Lessons might also be interdisciplinary, combining fields of biology, chemistry, environmental science, engineering, statistics, and entrepreneurship, such as 3-D printing a bio-based plastic created from potato starch. Lessons can support the emerging field of biomedicine where designer chemotherapy drugs are being created to attack only specified organisms in the body. However, before pointing out applications to specific fields, teachers should provide a proper introduction to the key concepts, which go far beyond simply recycling.

Preparing high school students

A superb example of expertly developed teaching materials aimed at high school students has emerged from Finland and is publicly available. Finland, consistently a globally top-ranked educational system, already focuses on sustainability and active citizenship—themes that are elevated in the development of these circular economy classroom tools. Dr. Leyla Acaroglu is a bit of a rock star in the sustainability design and education world by (among other things) being named the 2016 Champion of the Earth (Science and Innovation) by the United Nations Environment Program. She led the development of this educational resource that integrates circular thinking into the classroom in a rigorous, compelling way. The materials include three modules (Linear to Circular, Systems and Sustainability, and Design and Creativity) with accompanying workbooks, videos, and other supporting materials, which can be accessed for free at www.circularclassroom.com.

Preparing high school students in traditional fields of knowledge with a circular bioeconomy perspective will be a great step forward. However, to address the needs of the circular bioeconomy, multidisciplinary education and research must move forward to raise awareness on how peoples’ decisions impact all aspects of consumption. Part of the impetus to move forward will be supplied by the students’ expectations and demands. Students educated in the principles of the circular economy are expected to demand dedicated programs and applications of traditional disciplines to the circular economy.

Our educational systems (high school and university) must also adopt circular thinking and move away from traditional silo-based training where education is linear. We need to move toward more cross-pollination of classes in which students can see the interrelationships between the basic disciplines of math, chemistry, biology, business, and environmental science. To tackle the issues of tomorrow, we cannot continue to use the methods of the past. Only this multidisciplinary approach to education will prepare students to deal with the challenges of the future and be able to work in the circular bioeconomy.

Robert Smith (rsmith4@vt.edu) is Associate Dean for Engagement and Professor of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Mark Rudnicki (mrudnick@mtu.edu) is Professor of Practice in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI.

Topics

Climate Change Teaching Strategies

Levels

High School

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