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How to Teach the Circular Economy

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

7 Tips for the Sustainable Classroom


1. Remove tape and glue as an option during STEM & Makerspace

Why? Learning to design for disassembly is a key component of teaching the Circular Economy. When products are assembled using "forever" methods, it makes it extremely difficult to disassemble for repair, reuse or recycling of materials. Learning to design for disassembly for the purpose of reusing materials is a valuable skill for students to learn. Constraints drive creativity and by removing glue and tape as an option, your students will come up with creative ways to design, construct, and secure using reusable materials.

How? To set this up in your classroom, provide a variety of materials that can be used during STEM and Makerspace that offer the same abilities as tape and glue but that are reusable. Such items include: elastic bands, legos, wire, pipe cleaners, string, sticky tack, brads, clothespins, paper clips, magnets. Download a free copy of the Designing for Disassembly and Reusability poster.

2. Start a worm bin or compost in your classroom

Why? A vermicomposting bin is a perfect example of the 5th principle of the Circular Economy, Renew Nature. Through composting, nutrients are returning to build soil in a closed loop cycle. Students can witness this process first hand and deepen their understanding of how nature recycles and how humans can design products to mimic this as well.

Learn More

How? A vermicomposting bin can be easily set up in your classroom. Click here to learn how.

3. Zero Waste Events & Parties

Why? We often teach amazing units on sustainability and conserving natural resources only to set a contradictory example during school events and classroom celebrations such as birthdays. This can be confusing to our students as we are teaching conservation of resources yet fail to model it. A great way to start modelling "zero waste" in your classroom, the 1st principle of the Circular Economy, is to put together a "Zero Waste Party Kit" for your classroom and share this with your parent community.

How? If you have a classroom fund and the desire to have matching dishes, you can buy a set of reusable bamboo dishes for your classroom to use. The thrift store is a great place to pick up extra spoons, forks, cups and plates as well. Another way to set up your Zero Waste Party Kit is to ask each student to bring a cup, plate, bowl, fork, and spoon from home to use for the year. If you are one of those lucky teachers that has a sink in their classroom, washing dishes after a party helps to teach responsibility and life skills. Fill up the sink with warm water and your favourite biodegradable soap and encourage each child to wash their own dish when finished. When creating a culture of zero waste within your classroom, communication with parents and your students is key to its success. Explain what you are doing and why and provide some helpful suggestions of what to bring for classroom events etc.

4. Remove the Trash Bin

Why? The 1st principle of a Circular Economy is Zero Waste to Landfill. A quick and easy way to bring attention to how much waste is being produced in your classroom is to hide the trash bin. Taking away the trash bin for a day or week will surely prompt discussions in your classroom as your students wonder what to do with their trash. If we have no trash bin to throw everything in, we suddenly become more aware of what we have and this can lead to further inquiry of the items we throw away. Is it a resource? Can it be reused? Composted? Recycled?

How? Take away the trash bin and see how long it takes your students to notice. Once they do notice it gone, encourage them to "tote their own trash" around for a day. You may need to provide them with a bucket or reused plastic bag to do this. Conduct a waste audit and see what items are ending up in the trash. Inquire if any of these items can be composted, reused or recycled and what items are left in the trash after this initial assessment. This leads us to Tip 5, setting up a Resource Recovery Station. However if you are not able to set up a Resource Recovery Station in your classroom, another way to increase recycling and reduce waste to landfill is to change the size of your trash bin entry point to only fit the non-recyclables.

5. Resource Recovery Station - From Waste to Resource

Why? Setting up a Resource Recovery Station in your classroom sends the message that natural resources are valuable and can be repurposed. A Resource Recovery Station is different than a recycling station as the focus is for repurposing the materials for use within the classroom as opposed to a recycling station that collects items to be hauled away and recycled outside of the school. Having a dedicated space to collect items that commonly make it into the classroom via school lunches and items commonly discarded at home will provide you and your students with free resources for all your creative designer needs for art, STEM etc. Changing our habits of mind to view an item as a resource instead of waste takes practice and creating a space for this in your classroom will foster the development of this mindset shift.

How? Begin with a trash audit by identifying the most common items that are being brought into the classroom and ending up in the trash bins. Tip 4, Removing the Trash Can will help speed this process up as well as start the discussion of what sort of procedures are needed to ensure items that make it to the resource recovery station are clean and desired. Not all items will make it into the Resource Recovery Station at first and that's OK.

As a classroom, discuss which waste materials hold the most potential for reuse and inspire the most creativity. Start small with a few items and grow your Resource Recovery Station as students become more aware and experienced with identifying materials for recovery and reuse. Easy items to start with include plastic yogurt cups, plastic juice box straws, aluminum foil, ziplock bags, paper towel tubes, tissue boxes. More difficult items include foil and plastic food packaging from granola bars, candy bars, yogurt tubes, and chips. These items can be repurposed in different ways and also work as a good provocation for

6. Assign a Value to Common Materials

Why? Children (and some adults) often don't understand the value of natural resources involved in the making of our materials such as the water used and non-renewable energy. Teaching your students to conduct product life cycle analyses is one way to expand their thinking, and another way to is simply give things a price. Children at an early age begin to understand that things cost money and assigning a monetary value to items will help students to be more mindful of the resources they use.


How? During STEM challenges, provide a monetary value to the resources your students will be using and encourage them to keep track of how much money they are spending and how many resources they are using. This is a great way to incorporate maths skills in STEM as well as keep students mindful of their resource use. Adding a monetary value to resources adds another fun element to their learning by giving them other design challenge considerations such as building to a budget and with limited resources.

7. Grow Plants!

Why? Regenerating nature is the 5th principle of a circular economy and to understand how to design products that add value back into nature, our students need to understand more of how nature works and this includes how plants grow. Planting seeds and growing anything, whether edible or not, helps students to build a connection with nature and with nature deficit disorder on the rise, this is very much needed.

How? If you yourself are new to gardening, start with something simple like growing bean plants from seed on the classroom windowsill. Take your students on a nature seed hunt and collect as many acorns and seeds outside as you can find and experiment to see what will grow. For teachers wanting to expand their classroom growing abilities, why not try growing mycelium to make biodegradable packaging, or starting small tree farm by growing acorns. There are many resources and funding available for classrooms wanting to grow food, have a search and see what you find.

I hope you found these 7 tips helpful towards your journey of teaching the Circular Economy in your classroom. The classroom is a great place to start teaching sustainable habits of mind and action.

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