University drives circular economy of the future

The severity of the threat posed by climate change and the consequences of inaction are made plain in the latest assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC).

The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world, with an increase in extreme weather events leading to loss of life and livelihoods and to significant financial costs. Climate change is also inextricably linked to the global nature crisis and to the rapid depletion of finite resources upon which our economy depends.

The good news is that we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change and simultaneously seize new opportunities if we act swiftly – a circular economy is a key part of the solution.

A circular economy is an economic system in which everything has value and nothing is wasted. It takes a regenerative approach to the way goods and services are produced and consumed, by designing out waste and keeping resources in use for as long as possible.

With 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions arising from industry, agriculture and land-use as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation reported in 2019, transitioning to a circular economy is as crucial for tackling the climate emergency as it is to resource and biodiversity loss.

There are many exciting commercial opportunities in the circular economy. These include business models that maximise the use and lifespan of products (for example by leasing), the remanufacture of products and components, and technological solutions to optimise efficiencies (such as the use of data and digital technology to reduce waste in food supply chains).

Universities have an important role to play in the transition to a net zero, circular economy through knowledge, educational opportunities, leadership shown in their own operations, and the wider influence they can have in addressing the underlying causes of contemporary global challenges.

The University of Edinburgh is committed to using its knowledge, influence and scale of activity to be a positive force for change. As Dave Gorman, director of social responsibility and sustainability said: “We recognise our responsibility to help lead on finding solutions to climate change, which includes making a clear institutional commitment to become a net zero carbon, circular institution by 2040.

“We are developing and pioneering new approaches on campus to help us achieve this. For example, we collaborated with leading industry and public sector organisations to deliver a project for the Scottish Funding Council, which used our campus as a test-bed for data-driven innovation to improve how buildings are designed and constructed in the future. We are also designing out waste from our operations through projects like our PC Reuse Scheme.”

The university offers its students a host of sustainability-related learning opportunities, in the lecture theatre and out in the real world. We support students to develop commercial solutions that deliver social and environmental benefits.

One such example is Alison Wood, an award-winning entrepreneur and graduate of the university, who established Lilipads to bring an environmentally-friendly sanitary product to the British market.

Our wide-ranging research expertise means that we are ideally placed to understand complex challenges associated with the transition to a more regenerative economy and to work with others to develop innovative solutions.

For example, scientists at the university have developed a new approach to extract sustainably rare and valuable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium, from waste electronics. In collaboration with industry partners, university researchers have proved the feasibility of this filtration system that is manufactured using a whisky co-product.

We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead of us as we continue to focus our efforts on becoming a leading hub for net zero, circular economy innovation and as we work with together with others to have a positive impact locally, regionally and globally.

Charlotte Lee-Woolf is business development executive, social responsibility and sustainability at Edinburgh Innovations

Partner Content in association with University of Edinburgh