7 ideas to promote the circular economy and mitigate climate change

Around 30 students took part in the pilot version of EPFL’s Climate and Sustainability Action Week, working in cross-disciplinary groups to outline circular economy solutions. It was an intense five days of teamwork to build a brighter future.
Students' working on the pilot of the CSAW. © Nicola Banwell 2021 EPFL

A 30-strong group of EPFL students came up with an impressive array of inventive ideas during the pilot Climate and Sustainability Action Week (CSAW), with the goal of making our campus – and society – greener and cleaner. Their ideas included an “Eco-Score” to rate the environmental impact of meals served at EPFL restaurants, a new digital currency and platform called Karma for exchanging goods and services within the EPFL community, and a web browser add-on called Web Citizens to combat misinformation and encourage critical thinking.

The event was organized by a team of around a dozen students along with representatives from EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Academic Affairs, Vice Presidency for Innovation, Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation, ENAC and College of Humanities. During the five-day event, students from different disciplines worked in groups to develop systems in line with the circular economy. Because today, our economies are anything but circular – supply chains are pretty straight and then hit a dead end. Raw materials are extracted from the Earth and processed into a consumer good, which is packaged, shipped, used up and thrown away. In some cases a handful of materials are recycled, but most of the used products end up in a landfill. And since around 45% of global CO2 emissions come from producing everyday consumer products (according to a 2019 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation), we can do a lot to save our planet by extending products’ lifetimes and recycling them to a greater extent.

Challenging the problems

The student groups were called on to think creatively about sustainable, actionable solutions that have a positive impact on the climate, the environment and our society. “We want our event to foster collaboration and cross-disciplinary thinking, which is why we didn’t make it a competition,” says Michka Mélo, CSAW coordinator. “The goal was to encourage cross-fertilization among different projects, leverage synergies with existing technology and encourage participants to form networks whether in academia, the non-profit sector or the companies. This pilot version went very well and we’re really pleased – most participants were actively involved right up to the end.” He adds: “We weren’t sure how it would go since it was held just before the start of the semester, included a weekend and was entirely online. It was hard to find the right format so that participants could interact smoothly and effectively.”

The groups consisted of two to five Bachelor’s and Master’s students from different EPFL sections. Participants first had to learn the fundamental concepts of sustainability and the circular economy, before then thinking about how they could best put their architectural and engineering skills to work. “We wanted students to focus more on the problems that need to be addressed than the solutions to develop,” says Eric Domon, a project officer at EPFL Sustainability and one of the CSAW organizers. “So we allocated a substantial amount of time to helping them understand the problems through a systemic approach.” Mélo adds: “The idea was to prompt students to challenge the problems put in front of them and how those problems are formulated.”

The event included talks from EPFL professors and outside speakers who discussed concrete projects they have worked on related to the circular economy. By the end of the event, the student groups had created seven “pretotypes” of their inventions.

Projects to be explored further

One such invention was Plast’Impact – a machine that can be installed at food shops for customers to scan products and find out how much microplastic they contain. The data would be displayed through an application, helping to draw consumers’ attention to the prevalence of these plastics. “In an ideal world, the government would pass a law requiring food producers to list the microplastics contained in each of their products. But for now our system can be designed to use averages,” says a member of the Plast’Impact team. The machine would work in tandem with a reward system for customers who purchase the least microplastic. An awareness-raising approach similar to the Eco-Score idea, which is based on calculating carbon footprints but also factors in the conditions under which meal ingredients were produced.

Several of the students’ projects related to reducing waste and encouraging the reuse of old objects through sharing. One group had the idea of creating an object library for the Vortex dormitory, which would be run by the Maison de la Durabilité. Another group imagined an app that lets users swap clothes they don’t wear anymore and coordinate community events, such as for giving new life to old outfits. And a third was behind the Karma platform, which “could one day become a feature included in the EPFL Campus app.”

Building awareness about the circular economy was the goal of one group, which designed a board game called Circle It. The game is intended to familiarize all age groups with the concept of the circular economy in a fun, educational manner. In a similar vein, the Web Citizens add-on aims to make internet users aware of misinformation and train them to think critically about what they read, such as by looking at the comments at the bottom of an article, checking several different news sources and seeking out diverse viewpoints. Digital citizens could contribute to the initiative as volunteers.

“All the student groups thought about how their ideas could be taken further once the week was over, through either a semester or Master’s project or EPFL educational programs. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes,” says Mélo. “We also plan to debrief participants on this pilot version and get their feedback on the format, the cross-functional skills they acquired over the five days and what we can do to improve at the next CSAW, in September, which we hope to be able to carry out in person.”