Closing the circularity gap via engineering education for circularity with a whole systems and biomimetic perspective

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Lee, Ross A.
Schmidt, Karl
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University College Cork
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As reported at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January of 2019 only 9% of the world is circular (defined as the annual percentage of materials that are returned to the system vs. discarded as waste). It is estimated that the 91% that is not circular contributes to over 60% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions along with an estimated 8 million tons of waste entering our oceans each year. Villanova’s focus on circularity in engineering education includes three graduate level courses: Sustainable Materials and Design, Biomimicry (defined as engineering solutions inspired by nature), and Sustainable Supply Chain, along with industry and grant sponsored class projects, MS and PhD level research. Four key fundamental learning themes emphasized include a whole systems STEEP (social, technical, environmental, economic and political) perspective; assurance that the performance and cost benefits of the incumbent linear solutions are understood, quantified, and rivalled in the circular solution; engaging the right subject matter experts, cross disciplines and stake holders; and ensuring that the right metrics are in place for the final recommended more circular systems. Specific examples in this paper will include highlight projects from the above mentioned courses, circularity focused industry-sponsored class projects, Master’s level research developing a closed loop system for converting food waste to a hydrochar material that re-enters the system for energy and other higher value uses, and PhD research on renewably sourced polymers for aircraft composites. The challenges we face to move towards the circular economy from our current linear economy are daunting. We believe, however, that through the described collaborative engineering educational learning experiences for today’s future leaders we will be able to make a significant impact.
Engineering education , Sustainability , Circular economy
Lee, R. A. and Schmidt, K. (2021) ‘Closing the circularity gap via engineering education for circularity with a whole systems and biomimetic perspective’, EESD2021: Proceedings of the 10th Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference, 'Building Flourishing Communities', University College Cork, Ireland, 14-16 June.