Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Since the industrial revolution there have been waves of technology and innovation.  We all remember the movie “The Graduate” and that technology wave told to Dustin Hoffman in one word: PLASTICS.  The next wave came along in the chemical/petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries.  It also brought along the US Environmental Protection Agency, where, as many of you know, my career began.  Now, we all see the next wave coming with the Circular Economy.

What does this mean?  The three main areas considered in the circular economy are:

  1. Reusing the waste material generated as raw material or feedstock for the next process
  2. Feedstock substitution where plant based, and biomass substituting for petroleum-based products
  3. Changing the energy sources to renewable sources.

There are many, many articles written on these subjects. What interests me is how to teach these subjects so students and companies can effectively learn about the circular economy.

I collaborated recently with Professor Ugur Tuzun of the University of Cambridge on a Journal of Chemical Engineering & Process article entitled Self-Evaluation of Industrial Case Studies with Iterative Improvements to Support Chemical and Biological Systems Engineering and Sustainability Teaching and Learning.”

 Education around Circular Economy

Industrial case studies play an increasingly important role in the teaching of systems engineering and sustainability within an industrial ecological framework employing metacognitive and experiential learning principles. The principal classroom teaching tool of experiential learning, case studies develop student self-awareness and self-evaluation skills while they focus on providing optimal solutions to challenges provided by the industrial examples. The learning process here relies on students attempting iterative improvements to the industrial processes and plant operations. They work with a view to create a “best fit”: efficiently using resources at hand, aware of the specific ecological setting, and considering circular economy constraints regarding recycle, re-use, and regeneration of resources.

The Tuzun article shares two alternative approaches of iterative case study evaluations as well:

  1. Relying on the “bottom-up” approach to systems identification and development to enable the use of new material and energy resources
  2. Taking a “top-down” approach to evaluate and improve an existing system of complex and integrated process plant operations.

In each case, the student is challenged with complex issues and the self-learning and evaluation process requires the necessary deepening of the skills of core engineering and applied sciences.  The additional benefit of this student-centered approach to teaching and learning is the draw upon core scientific and engineering science in a “hands-on” manner as opposed to a more classic passive learning through lectures.

Our field is always adapting. This article is part of the process. While the journal article focuses on students, my hypothesis is that these approaches can also be applied within an operating company to address sustainability issues in a holistic manner.  Professor Tuzun and I would welcome the opportunity to assist you.  Please reach out to us.