Tainan's Student 'Resource Wizards' Tap into the Circular Economy

Tainan's Student 'Resource Wizards' Tap into the Circular Economy
Credit: REUTERS / Bobby Yip

What you need to know

One program at National Cheng Kung University is trying to push new concepts that go beyond recycling.

Since the first stone was whittled down into an arrowhead, production has followed a similar pattern; raw materials are pulled from the earth, formed into usable objects, used until they break and are discarded.

But this linear production model, especially for a small island nation like Taiwan, doesn’t work with industrial scale manufacturing. The old “take-make-dispose” model produces an almost unfathomable amount of waste.

Taiwan has so much existing resource management experience, and students can finally tap into this wealth of knowledge.

The circular economy (CE) concept, endorsed by the UN, the World Economic Forum and an alliance of business leaders, hopes to tighten up the waste stream and make products shareable or transformable. You probably recycle, but a circular or regenerative economy goes beyond that. Researchers define a circular economy as a regenerative system where resource inputs, waste, emissions, and leakages are minimized by slowing closing and narrowing material and energy loops. They achieve this through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishing, in addition to recycling.

For too long, designers, manufacturers, academics, and everyone across the waste stream stood at odds. But how does one make an economy circular? In Tainan, a group of dedicated individuals just launched Taiwan’s first circular economy program to train the next generation of resource wizards.

Student-powered design

Starting next month, National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) will begin a certificate program covering circular economy concepts.

Bart Van Bueren, a Dutch architect teaching at NCKU and a lead designer of the program, told The News Lens, "The project was assigned by the NCKU president (Huey-Jen) Su (蘇慧貞), but to also grow the program bottom-up, I gathered a group of talented students from different disciplines. We gathered weekly to discuss the circular economy and initiated some projects at NCKU. That generated a lot of interest.”

Bueren’s CE group started by creating a “library of things” on campus, a place where students could borrow tools and appliances. This helped cut down on waste, as incoming students didn’t need to buy all the same appliances only to dispose of them when they graduate. According to Bueren, “Besides learning from theory, we also experiment and see what works.”

Students have freedom in designing their curriculum. The professors hope that students outside the traditional recycling arena will join to round out their studies.

This makes it ideal for foreign exchange students who might come to NCKU for language. “We also decided to engage more actively with the international student community. As this Circular NCKU program can easily be obtained in one semester, we warmly welcome any foreign exchange students to join this program to obtain the certificate,” said professor Hsiao-wen Wang, also the Associate Vice President for International Affairs. Together with Bueren, professors Song-bing Chang and Pi-cheng Chen run this new interdisciplinary program.

As part of the program, students also work with companies and government agencies interested in the circular economy idea, including TaiSugar (台糖) and the planned circular industrial park in Tainan.

This program is largely in line with the direction laid out in the “5+2 Industrial Innovation Program” — the circular economy is part of the “+2.”

If allowed to flourish, programs like the one at NCKU will only grow in importance. Taiwan has so much existing resource management experience, and students can finally tap into this wealth of knowledge. With more programs hopefully developed in the future, this first step will help to transfer that knowledge from the field, to the classroom, and back into the public sphere to the benefit of everyone.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston