The founder of a company delivering the first programme for schools to become zero waste has called on the Scottish government to include education in its Circular Economy bill.

Mary Michel, co-founder of Ostrero, said: “We have been campaigning for education to be included in the Circular Economy bill and we are disappointed that it’s not. Northern Ireland has a circular economy strategy which makes direct provision to, 'embed Circular Economy principles at all levels of education' and identifies a lack of knowledge and skills as direct barriers to circularity .”

The circular economy, said Ms Michel, can sound complicated and many still don’t understand the term. Yet, when Ostrero delivers its workshops to children and young people “they get it immediately”.

“We see the circular economy as an excellent practical framework for approaching the problems of the climate crisis, but there is a gap in understanding from people both young and old about what the Circular Economy is. The vast majority of young people we work with have never heard of it before. Businesses and creative organisations we work with might have heard the term but not necessarily know much about it or how it can be applied in a practical sense to their own organisation.”

Ostrero, which is working on a pilot with five Scottish schools that will take place over three years and see them generate their own transition to zero waste, has been running circular economy workshops in schools since 2018.

Set up in 2016 by a creative industries professional, Ms Michel, and a lawyer, Marian Brown, Ostrero was inspired by a radio interview with Ellen Macarthur.

The famous yachtswoman had been speaking of the epiphany she had following her round-the-world sailing trip, in which she saw how Earth was finite like the supplies on her boat. This realisation led her to set up the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and promote the idea of the circular economy.

“We saw this idea,” said Ms Michel, “as a good, practical way for dealing with the climate crisis and all the problems that go with that. But we thought that there was a massive gap in terms of people not having even heard of the circular economy, never mind understanding it or how they could apply it to their own business or lives or school.”

The Herald: Mary Michel, co-founder of OstreroMary Michel, co-founder of Ostrero, Image: Colin Hattersley

There was they felt, “a real gap to be filled” in terms of telling people about what the circular economy is and how it can help tackle the climate crisis.

“We wanted especially to work with young people, who we feel are coming out into this different world and yet a lot of our education system is still not equipping them for that change."

“We’ve now worked with children from P2 up to S3 and we do essentially the same presentation whatever the age, and they understand it right away. The concept isn’t difficult. Resources are becoming more scarce, we are wasting huge amounts in the way that we use things now, there are going to be another 3 billion people on the planet in the next thirty years, and there is not enough to go around for everyone if we keep using materials like this.”

The same response is not, however, always there when workshops are done with adults.

“You’ll get,” she said, “some adults saying, ‘You just don’t understand how the economy works, love.’ But what I like about the circular economy is that it makes sense.”

The Herald: Participants in an Ostrero workshopOstrero workshop, Image: James Robertson

At the heart of Ostrero’s approach are highly practical workshops – delivered by skilled craftspeople, including silversmith Bryony Knox and ceramicist Mella Shaw.

“Through the act of designing and making themselves," said Ms Michel, "young people are using circular design principles. They are making things that are easy to take apart again so that you can update them and fix them and at the end of their life you can get all the bits out and reuse them.”

The workshops also use only waste materials – though, far from being the contents of the average home recycling bin, these are materials thrown away by industry: end-of-line remnants from the woollen mills, “things that have got maybe a tiny fault or are last year’s colours”.

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Ms Michel believes that one of the positives about the circular economy is that it offers young people something optimistic and galvanising.

“There’s so much bad news out there,” she said, “about the climate and eco-anxiety. But with the circular economy, there are loads of opportunities to do things differently. There are loads of new business models around sharing and leasing things, and designing things. And for young people that’s quite exciting.”

The Herald: Bryony Knox, Ostrero workshop designerBryony Knox, silverrsmith, and teacher of Ostrero workshops

Ostrero’s new zero waste pilot begins with these craft and design workshops and develops out from there. The schools involved are Strathyre Primary, Castleview Primary, Echline Primary, Portobello High School and Barrhead High School.

“The first year," she said, "looks at the big picture:  why we need to change and how you can design out waste. The second year looks at everything that comes into the school and everything that goes out and where it comes from, why and where it goes. The third year is all about influence and advocacy. So young people will investigate who makes the decisions on each of these things and what are the things that we can do to influence them to get what we want, which is to cut down on waste?”

It's hoped that after the three years of the pilot, not only will the schools have had their own immersive experience, but they will also have created a blueprint for becoming zero waste that can be used by other schools. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scotland’s existing circular economy strategy Making Things Last recognises the importance of education, and Zero Waste Scotland provides a range of resources to support teachers and lecturers embedding the circular economy into the curriculum.

“Scotland’s curriculum is not prescribed in detail on the face of statute, however children and young people can learn about the circular economy as part of the cross-curricular theme Learning for Sustainability which is an entitlement for all learners.”