Top Nav Breadcrumb

Educating towards a circular economy

We asked experts in a variety of STEM disciplines about their area of work and what skills they consider the most important for IB science students to acquire. Here, Dr Mats Linder, Project Manager at the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shares his thoughts. 

Tell us about your area of work

Along a seemingly winding path, my previous work in theoretical chemistry and management consulting has led me to my current preoccupation with plastics project managing ‘moon-shot’ innovation for the New Plastics Economy Initiative. My work includes working with a broad range of experts to identify how to mobilize radical new innovations that could help accelerate the transition to a plastics economy built on circular economy principles. I’m realizing more and more that having a mixed experience from different disciplines is a huge asset.

Dr Mats Linder, Project Manager at the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Plastics may look dull but it is a fascinating and important subject. Beneath the smooth, shiny surface, plastics make up an immense diversity of different materials with countless functions. Imagining a world today without plastics is hard if not impossible – there are so many things that plastics do today. Yet, the nature of plastics means that they cause a number of environmental challenges. It is difficult to make the recycling economics work, so plastics have a high likelihood of ending up in the environment. They don’t break down in nature for hundreds of years and because of this, these materials can cause a lot of damage before they disappear.

The New Plastics Economy team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to mobilise momentum towards a new vision of a plastics economy, where plastic packaging is regarded a valuable resource and used as such, instead of—which is the case today—ending up as permanent waste after only one short use cycle.

plastics-2What is the most important skill that you think senior IB science students should have by the end of their studies?

Since the plastics subject is so complex, both from an economic and a materialistic perspective, it is very helpful to be able to draw on my various experiences as a chemist and a consultant. As I continue my own journey of learning, I’m more and more grateful for having studied mathematics and getting a solid understanding of engineering. But I also realise how limited the worldview of a traditionally educated engineer and scientist is, especially when it comes to understanding economics and market dynamics. In science, we tend to constrain the complexity of systems until we can discover an absolute truth. However, the world rarely works like that, and it was a bit of a shocker to realise that outside the ivory tower of science there is rarely a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but different opinions about almost everything. Similarly, it would be useful if more economists and businesses incorporated more scientific perspectives in their worldview.

My point is that many jobs today require us to be “T-shaped” – having a combination of breadth and a depth of skills and knowledge. Many challenges require a multidisciplinary response, considering science, but also understanding human behaviour and politics; economics, but also maths. As a senior science student, you should definitely be well-versed in mathematics, basic physical and chemical concepts such as thermodynamics, and in applying the scientific method. But you also need to understand basic economics and the behaviours of complex adaptive systems.

Does this mean students of today need to study harder and longer? Maybe, I don’t know. I do think there are more things we need to know and understand to be effective agents and learners today than 50 years ago. But we might also need to learn differently, engaging more in real-world problems and actively respond to the challenges businesses and societies are facing. In the process, we’d hopefully also be able to learn more effectively.


You will be taking part in the IB’s first Science Symposium, what is the key area of focus for your presentation?

My presentation will dive deeper into these arguments, using the lens of a circular economy and the special case of plastic packaging. I will discuss the important skill sets for science students who want to be part of creating an economy that works in the long-run, and importantly how to get equipped for perpetual learning.

In October 2016, we welcomed experts from a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to join us at our first IB Science Symposium. With expertise in areas like genetics, plastics and the circular economy, tackling complexity, and communications, discussions were broad and engaging. The symposium explored essential science skills and major themes in science education. Watch out for our student reporter’s account. How do you think the future of science education will look in the next 50 years?

  • mikemikemikemikemike

    FWIW, I dump my garbage in the ocean where it can become part of the natural ecosystem again.

    People think about plastic as this evil thing, but I’ve literally seen a family of fish living in a plastic bottle that I’m certain was mine. I also saw a turtle using a plastic coke ring (possibly mine) as a some kind of turtle necklace.

  • jelder

    The first link (“Ellen MacArthur Foundation”) is a 404. The first image does not expand when clicked, and the second image actually gets smaller when clicked. Nice.

  • Sky

    Thanks for the heads up. All links and photos adjusted – they should expand for detail. Enjoy!

  • Andy Mayes

    An interesting article that brings together many facets of STEM, but when we drill down, when we consider what a scientist is, does that mean that they are by default STEM graduates? I don’t think so. True STEM graduates are not only able to draw from their learning in Science, but also in mathematics, technology and engineering. The IB Diploma Programme typically allows students to study up to two sciences and mathematics, which does create a foundation for further development in students’ STEM education, however, we often forget that the IB does offer a single course of study that brings together learnings not just from all aspects of STEM or STEAM, but also the subjects included in Individuals and Societies (or the humanities as sometimes called). What is this subject? Design Technology.

    Design Technology has done all of the things that STEM, STEAM and HAMSTERS champions have been trying to do, but Design Technology and Design education has a long history of doing so. Why is the subject so ignored?
    During Mats’ presentation at the recent Science Symposium, he declared that “Design is Critical!” when discussing the new Plastics economy. If Design is so critical, why isn’t it treated as such in our education model? Design technology is considered a Science for the purpose of groupings in the IB Diploma. In the MYP, it has an elevated status in that it forms its own subject group, but it is also an elective for final assessment in year 5 of the programme (along with PHE and Arts, the three poorer relations of the five ‘traditional’ subject areas). Do WE consider Design as critical? I suspect we know it is, but we simply don’t want to admit it.
    Consider Mats’ discussion of the new plastics economy – Designers created the plastics mess that we are in, developing countless new plastics and plastics products following the material shortages during World War II. Designers will get us out of this mess – just look at the student designers trapping floating plastics in our world’s oceans, design strategies such as design for disassembly and design for materials (which aim to make re-using, repairing, re-engineering, reconditioning and recycling easier and therefore more cost-effective), and organisations such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation developing models of a circular economy. The systems, the products and the mind-sets needs to be redesigned.

    Drawing from words from John Zobrist, Head of DT at UWCSEA, when we look at the big ideas in big business and education, we’re essentially looking at what design education has been for the last 50, 60, 70 years. We have to be careful not to get caught up in the buzz-words of the moment without looking at where they came from, and what is happening to the one subject area that is being degraded by national systems, championed by few, and often ignored by the many.

    These words are STEM, STEAM, HAMSTERS, Design thinking, MakerSpaces, Coding, Problem-based learning, Project –based learning, Interdisciplinary learning, transdisciplinary learning, multidisciplinary collaborative team working, convergent and divergent thinking, abductive reasoning, creativity and critical thinking to name a few.

    None of this is new to Design technology teachers – it’s all old stuff that we’ve been doing for decades that has been re-packaged and re-branded by those who want to make a few bucks and build a name for themselves. STEM teaching and learning is old, and it is called Design technology.

    Design technology is getting a hammering at the moment in the UK, which is rather odd when you consider the STEM initiatives and funding appropriated by Science and Mathematics departments in order to implement STEM. Elsewhere, DT is growing. DT is a quickly growing subject in the IB Diploma, with first examination in 1991, 11 students from UWC Atlantic College and 2 from Sevenoaks. This year, we have 2145 candidates sitting examinations in English and Spanish in schools from over 190 countries in all three IB regions.

  • ib elite tutor

    Plastics may look dull but it is a fascinating and important subject-i really appreciate the way you look at the things