Want to help build a circular economy? NYU Tandon is teaching students how
With increasing numbers of students considering a school’s commitment to the environment when deciding where to study, NYU Tandon is landing at the top of many aspiring engineers’ lists.
Whether it’s because of the university-wide pledge to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the next decade or the chance to earn a “Green Grant” for an idea that improves the school’s sustainability practices, NYU is attracting more and more students concerned with making the world a cleaner, more livable place.
Our efforts are being noticed
NYU recently won recognition from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization launched in 2010 to encourage a worldwide transition to a circular economy. The group, which learned of Tandon’s efforts when Associate Professor of Innovation, Design and Organizational Studies Anne-Laure Fayard participated in one of their workshops last year, sees higher education as a key sector in enabling the transition to the circular economy at scale and has established the first global community of higher education institutions who are focusing on their circular economy activities.
They explain that the transition to a circular economy requires rethinking entire systems and transforming the way we create products and services, and institutions of higher learning can play a crucial role by incorporating that new way of thinking into their teaching, student-led activities, campus management, and community engagement.
Is circular just another word for sustainable?
The concept of a circular economy rests on three pillars:
- Designing out waste and pollution right at the start of a project; if they’re never created in the first place, they won’t need to be mitigated later on
- Reusing, repairing, and remanufacturing products and materials so that we don’t keep wasting resources
- Regenerating natural systems so that in addition to protecting the environment, we actively improve it; a regenerative mindset calls for doing good—not just “less bad.”
While it sounds simple, the term is still surrounded by misconceptions. It doesn’t mean better waste management, because in a circular economy, waste is never even created; it’s not just about recycling more, because the focus of a circular economy is on maintaining products, components, and materials at their highest possible value for the longest possible time; it isn’t all about efficiency, because that can only go so far; and it’s definitely not just a buzzy new word for sustainability, which can inspire valuable individual-level action but doesn’t truly encompass the need for total transformation and system-level change.
What’s going on at Tandon
In lauding Tandon and NYU for their efforts, officials at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation pointed out several specific initiatives, including:
- The Design Lab @ NYU MakerSpace, where design, making, and technology meet to innovate with purpose. At the Lab — which is overseen by MakerSpace Founding Director Victoria Bill; counseled by Fayard, the Design Lab Faculty Advisor; and managed by Design Lab Manager Christina Lafontaine — creative technologists, responsible makers, critical thinkers, and social innovators can take workshops, discover funding opportunities, and find mentors. Sustainability and circular design are central to the Design Lab and NYU MakerSpace’s mission, as illustrated by the multiple sustainability-related projects they are supporting:
- The Urban Food Lab, an aquaponic vertical farming class in which students learn about sustainability and farming by running their own projects connecting their specific fields to the farm. One past project includes making cosmetics out of fresh farm-grown flowers. ( The Urban Food Lab is a spin-off of We Are the New Farmers, a vibrant venture that specializes in healthful spirulina.)
- The Circular Design @ the MakerSpace initiative, a plastic shredder and recycling system that combats 3D print waste, which was created with the support of an NYU Green Grant.
- The NYU FREEdge, a food-sharing initiative redirecting food waste from individuals, clubs, and events to members of the community that may be struggling with food insecurity. This project was launched in 2016 by Design for America (DFA) of NYU, a student club advised by Fayard that uses human-centred design to tackle social issues in their communities. (In 2019, NYU FREEdge became part of the NYU MakerSpace while still co-run by DFA NYU.)
- The Prototyping Fund, a collaborative initiative between the Design Lab @ NYU MakerSpace and the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, which regularly supports student projects with a green focus, including the NYU FREEdge and We Are the New Farmers.
- The Design Week, an annual event including talks and workshops focused on a critical aspect of design, free and open to the public. For the last two years, The Design Week focused on sustainability: “Sustainability, Design and the Circular Economy” in 2020 and “Designing Waste Out” in 2021.
- The Design Lab also runs an ever-growing series of hands-on workshops and talks dedicated to sustainability and circular design throughout the year, including such topics as Composting at Home, Plastic Identification and Recycling, Food Waste and Cooking Smart, and Sustainable Design.
- Education programs that provide students with skills to engage with the circular economy and sustainability issues:
- For example, the Technology Management and Innovation Department has launched a cross-school minor on Technology, Management and Design with Sustainability and Systems-thinking as two core underlying principles.
- It also offers a graduate course, Design Thinking for Creative Problem Solving, which explores the design innovation process and introduces students to system thinking. Over the last few years, students in the course have been working on sustainability projects around food waste and recycling. One of them evolved into a successful social food venture, RISE Products, which upcycles the waste from breweries into nutritious flour.
- A vigorous green entrepreneurial ecosystem which, in addition to We Are the New Farmers and RISE Products, nurtured LostBytes, which uses proprietary bio-digester machinery to produce organic fertilizer for plants and Sunthetics, which is revolutionizing the chemical-manufacturing industry.
Fayard points out that not every student who learns about circular economies necessarily wants to launch a start-up, but that in recent years increasing numbers of employers are creating positions that require capabilities in the area. More importantly, she notes, “It is essential to increase awareness of sustainability issues and shift to circularity and system thinking. Our students know the future of the planet rests in their hands. They’re the ones who’ll be changing our take-make-waste linear economy into a circular one.”
In March, as part of Circular City Week New York, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation convened a workshop aimed at higher education institutions. Participants from 30 universities gathered virtually to discuss ways in which the circular economy can help build a resilient economy and aid in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fayard was among the featured speakers, and building upon her work with the Design Lab @ NYU MakerSpace, she discussed how to create a space for students to learn, experiment and create impact.