Master’s students with an interest in the circular economy have taken matters into their own hands. They were not impressed by the coverage of this topic on Wageningen programmes and set up a working group to change that. Their activities are already bearing fruit. ‘People are really listening to us.’
Stefano Ingallina and Felipe Bucci (fourth and fifth from the left) consult other members of Circular Economy Wageningen on the plans for this academic year. Photo Bart de Gouw
They certainly do not lack ambition. Wageningen University & Research should become an international ‘hub’ for education and research on the circular economy, says Master’s student Felipe Stefano Ingallina of the Circular Economy Wageningen team. ‘Preferably with its own Master’s programme or track.’
Since it was launched in November 2015, the group has organized various activities to generate interest in their plans among teachers, researchers, organizations and companies. One example was a hackaton, in which students came up with uses for fisheries bycatch. And in round table sessions, they brought together university staff - including education director Tiny van Boekel -, students and representatives of companies and NGOs. They also talked to Gerlinde van Vilsteren, director of the Center for Biobased Economy, about the content of the new Master’s programme in Biobased Sciences.
It all started last year on the course in Closed Cycle Design, taught by agricultural economist Stefano Pascucci, who has since left Wageningen for Exeter University. This course had a lot of overlap with the concept of the circular economy, an economy with no waste and optimal use of resources, products and waste flows. It inspired the students to make their own contribution to a sustainable society. ‘But when we wanted to find out more about the circular economy we discovered that the university did not have anything to offer,’ says Ingallina, who is in the second year of an Environmental Sciences MSc. ‘The only chance to go into the subject was in a thesis,’ adds Bucci, who is doing Urban Environmental Management. Thomas Thorin, founding father of the working group, discovered to his astonishment that Wageningen still did not have a network or an infrastructure for the circular economy. He therefore decided to develop such a network together with fellow students.
‘We had a lot of momentum going,’ says Thorin. ‘It seems we started just as interest in the circular economy was picking up.’ The student of Management, Economics and Consumer Studies is proudest of the fact that this group of students has been able to make itself a significant stakeholder. ‘We managed to make our voice heard, for example on the way in which the degree programmes could focus more on the circular economy. We feel that practical skills are important for organizing a smooth transition to a circular economy within companies, organizations and society at large. Both external parties and teachers at the university really wanted to listen to us and valued our input.’
The efforts of the working group have now resulted in an expansion of the number of courses addressing the circular economy. For example, PhD researcher Aglaia Fischer runs an introduction to the circular economy and circular business models as part of the course on Environmental Management and Industry. And the course on Closed Cycle Design has been rechristened Circular Economy: Theory and Practice, as of the new academic year. It now has a broader coverage, says Fischer. She gives two lectures on the course on the circular economy, circular business models and funding. ‘I am also closely involved in the group assignment: a case study of a circular business.’ There will also be an evening session for students to discuss thesis ideas in the field of the circular economy and review the progress of ongoing thesis projects in the field.
The future continuity of Circular Economy Wageningen is a cause for concern in the group. The Master’s students who make up the group will soon be leaving for internships or thesis research. Thomas Thorin said goodbye back in May when he left for an internship outside Wageningen. ‘If we are to survive we need to look for new members and give them an induction every few months,’ says Stefano Ingallina. Fortunately interested students keep on coming, with Felipe Bucci as the latest recruit.
In September the students – seven of them at present – met up again to make plans for the new academic year. They would like to introduce themselves to students at relevant lectures and tell them a bit about circular thinking, says Bucci. They also work in close collaboration with another student group, Ibbess (International BioBased Economy Student SymbioSUM). Ingallina: ‘They are interested in the circular economy too and we have decided to join forces. We might merge into a single official student organization.’
A dedicated Master’s programme in the circular economy – high on the working group’s wishlist – does not look likely in the near future. ‘It would overlap too much with the MSc in Biobased Sciences which we are working on submitting for approval,’ is the view of Gerlinde van Vilsteren of the Center for Biobased Economy. ‘But the Biobased transition track on Biobased Sciences covers a lot of circular economy thinking.’ The working group will soon have the chance to discuss this again. What is more, all students on that new Master’s – the start of which is planned for the academic year 2018-2019 – take the course on the Circular Economy. Van Vilsteren; ‘There we shall lay the foundation for the track in Biobased transition, with circular thinking as the starting point.’
‘The biobased economy and the circular economy have a lot in common, and biological processes are a crucial component of a circular economy, says Ingallina in response to these plans. ‘But we do not agree with the way the university exclusively focuses on the green side of a circular economy. Why should they close the door on the technical side such as the reuse of plastics and metals? By doing that they close the door on new possibilities and collaboration.’ Thorin adds: ‘I think a clear recognition of the circular economy as an overall concept can help with the further integration of the technological and the social science departments at Wageningen University.’
Although the students regret that a dedicated Master’s programme is unlikely, they are continuing their energetic efforts to get the topic of the circular economy on the agenda. Bucci: ‘the main thing is for us to create a sustainable society, because that is needed to prevent our extinction. We need to make decisions now so as to realise changes in the coming 50 years. For us it goes way beyond a new Master’s programme or making Wageningen University more important.’