My Circular Economy - the story of how I became a teacher of circular economy


Prologue, Autumn 2016

I have twenty minutes to polish up the materials for next lectures, so I´m rushing through the corridor of the A-building of Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences campus when my supervisor asks me if I have a minute to talk about next semester.

“We´ve been going through the courses in the spring semester 2017 and thought perhaps you´d like to organize this new course called “circular economy”. What do you think?”

“Ummm, sure… but what IS circular economy?”

May 2019

There is so much talk about climate change now that Europe needs to elect new MEPs. Even if the topic was discussed so thoroughly around the Finnish parliamentary election, it seems the debate over what should be done and by whom has only just started. A student posts a link to Greta Thurnberg’s TED talk to my “Xamk Circular Economy- Course” -Facebook group and some others comment. One students asks about how climate change is linked to circular economy. There are students from my lecture courses as well as virtual courses in this group, so I explain what I think circular economy is by writing some more about the wooly socks my grandmother used to knit. “The wooly sock diagram” is now a common expression among my circular economy students. It is a simplified representation of how I see linear and circular economy.

“Why don´t you ask a few friends or family members about what they think circular economy means. How many of them responded that it has something to do with recycling?”

In a way those who answered this are right, but only partly so. Circular economy is much more than recycling, even though recycling certainly plays an important role in it. It’s not a new invention either, even if the term itself is so very trendy right now. You might even say that it is a return to the “old days”, when the supply of products, energy and material was more scarce than today. Return to the time of our grandparents.

My grandmother used to knit socks of the yarn she had spun of the wool from sheep she had reared herself. You can imagine, that after all that trouble she would not toss away a sock as soon as the firt signs of wear and tear appeared. She´d darn worn out socks and after they were beyound mending, she´d take them apart to recover the yarn which she´d then use to darn other socks. What little she had no use of was put to the compost pile where it´d eventually turn to nutritious rich soil.

All of these childhood memories came rushing back as I started my journey towards teaching circular economy a few years ago. I very quickly found the EU Action Plan for Circular Economy, the system model by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as well as the roadmap published by Sitra. Studying these I realized that circular economy is something bigger than our previous attempts towards sustainable development. Something that would, hopefully, change how we operate as individuals, societies, even as a species and finally bring a stop to the consumerism of linear economy.

In comparison to my grandmother, my son tosses away -on average- two pairs of socks each month, which makes nearly fifty pairs in a year. The thought of mending them doesn´t even occur to him, or to me, to be honest. New socks are so easy to buy, and they´re not that expensive either. These thrown away socks end up incinerated, so their energy content is recovered but all the natural resources used in order to make them are lost in the process. We don´t think of this, since we didn´t have to put any effort into acquiring them nor do we see the environmental impacts of of production. These are not taken into account when the selling price of these socks is determined.    

The way I see it, the fundamental idea of circular economy is a way of life that enables sustainable use of the finite resources of this planet we inhabit. The finite nature of our resources has long been understood, it’s been nearly half a century since the “Limits to Growth” was published, yet action towards sustainability hasn’t reached the level that it should have. Why? People simply aren’t willing to reduce their standard of living and the rate of population growth means there is an increasing amount of people sharing the same resources. To be fair, it’s not just egoism. Even if people were willing to use resources in a more sustainable way, they aren’t always provided with the tools for doing so -or awareness of what the best alternative is. Yet, the simple fact is that we do not have another planet to use and the only resource we have a steady supply of (at least for now) is the energy provided by sunlight. Everything else has to be found on this planet. Our only planet.

On the other hand, we haven’t run out of food, even if the world population is closing in on eight billion people. How can this be? The human species is very good at coming up with solutions to the problems they identify (and, sadly, create). Finding new technologies to overcome difficulties and new action plans for continuous improvement. This is where our hope lays. Finding solutions starts with identifying the problem, and for this I’m doing what I know: teaching circular economy. Trying to get students to think about the difference between linear and circular economic models and to think of ways to help the transition back to circularity. At the moment still as a separate course offered to environmental engineering students. In the future, hopefully, integrated into every other course as an essential working life skill.

I have high hopes for my students and the solutions they will someday come up with. I’m confident they will take the action called for by Greta Thurnberg and her followers – not just for maintaining a climate favorable for our species, but for every aspect of sustainability. So, with this optimistic idea, I’ll start evaluating the last exams for this semester and planning for the next circular economy course in the autumn.


Senior lecturer Liisa Routaharju