Authors: Diana Adela Martin (University College London), Suleman Audu and Jeremy Mantingh (Engineers Without Borders The Netherlands). 

Topic: Circular business models. 

Tool type: Teaching. 

Relevant disciplines: Chemical; Biochemical; Manufacturing. 

Keywords: Circular business models; Teaching or embedding sustainability; Plastic waste; Plastic pollution; Recycling or recycled materials; Responsible consumption; Teamwork; Interdisciplinary; AHEP; Higher education. 
Sustainability competency: Integrated problem-solving; Collaboration; Systems thinking.

AHEP mapping: This resource addresses two of the themes from the UK’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this resource to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.  

Related SDGs: SDG 4 (Quality education); SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities); SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production); SDG 13 (Climate action); SDG 14 (Life below water). 
Reimagined Degree Map Intervention: More real-world complexity, Active pedagogies and mindset development, Authentic assessment, Cross-disciplinarity.

Educational level: Intermediate. 


Learning and teaching notes:   

This case study is focused on the role of engineers to address the problem of plastic waste in the context of sustainable operations and circular business solutions. It involves a team of engineers developing a start-up aiming to tackle plastic waste by converting it into infrastructure components (such as plastic bricks). As plastic waste is a global problem, the case can be customised by instructors when specifying the region in which it is set. The case incorporates several components, including stakeholder mapping, empirical surveys, risk assessment and policy-making. This case study is particularly suitable for interdisciplinary teamwork, with students from different disciplines bringing their specialised knowledge.  

The case study asks students to research the data on how much plastic is produced and policies for the disposal of plastic, identify the regions most affected by plastic waste, develop a business plan for a circular business focused on transforming plastic waste into bricks and understand the risks of plastic production and waste as well as the risks of a business working with plastic waste. In this process, students gain an awareness of the societal context of plastic waste and the varying risks that different demographic categories are exposed to, as well as the role of engineers in contributing to the development of technologies for circular businesses. Students also get to apply their disciplinary knowledge to propose technical solutions to the problem of plastic waste. 

The case is presented in parts. Part one addresses the broader context of plastic waste and could be used in isolation, but parts two and three further develop and add complexity to the engineering-specific elements of the topic.  


Learners have the opportunity to:  

Teachers have the opportunity to include teaching content purporting to: 


Recommended pre-reading: 

Part one:

Part two:


Part one: 

Plastic pollution is a major challenge. It is predicted that if current trends continue, by 2050 there will be 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste, and almost half of this is expected to be dumped in landfills and the environment (Guglielmi, 2017). As plastic waste grows at an increased speed, it kills millions of animals each year, contaminates fresh water sources and affects human health. Across the world, geographical regions are affected differently by plastic waste. In fact, developing countries are more affected by plastic waste than developed nations. Existing reports trace a link between poverty and plastic waste, making it a development problem. Africa, Asia and South America see immense quantities of plastic generated elsewhere being dumped on their territory.  At the moment, there are several policies in place targeting the production and disposal of plastic. Several of the policies active in developed regions such as the EU do not allow the disposal of plastic waste inside their own territorial boundaries, but allow it on outside territories.  


Optional STOP for activities and discussion 


Part two: 

Impressed by the magnitude of the problem of plastic waste faced today, together with a group of friends you met while studying engineering at the Technological University of the Future, you want to set up a green circular business. Circular business models aim to use and reuse materials for as long as possible, all while minimising waste. Your concern is to develop a sustainable technological solution to the problem of plastic waste. The vision for a circular economy for plastic rests on six key points (Ellen McArthur Foundation, n.d.): 

  1. Elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models is a priority 
  2. Reuse models are applied where relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging 
  3. All plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable 
  4. All plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted in practice 
  5. The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources 
  6. All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals, and the health, safety, and rights of all people involved are respected 


Optional STOP for group activities and discussion 


Part three: 

The start-up SuperRecycling aims to develop infrastructure solutions by converting plastic waste into bricks. Your team of engineers is tasked to develop a risk assessment for the operations of the factory in which this process will take place. The start-up is set in a developing country of your choice that is greatly affected by plastic waste. 


Optional STOP for group activities and discussion 


Acknowledgement: The authors want to acknowledge the work of Engineers Without Borders Netherlands and its partners to tackle the problem of plastic waste. The case is based on the Challenge Based Learning exploratory course Decision Under Risk and Uncertainty designed by Diana Adela Martin at TU Eindhoven, where students got to work on a real-life project about the conversion of plastic waste into bricks to build a washroom facility in a school in Ghana, based on the activity of Engineers Without Borders Netherlands. The project was spearheaded by Suleman Audu and Jeremy Mantingh. 


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. 

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters. 

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