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Interested in a circular economy job? There's a Ph.D. for that

A new program at the University of Pittsburgh, funded by Covestro, will focus on design with an emphasis on decreasing global waste through the reuse of materials.

Students sitting at a desk in a university library with books and laptops in front of them

Image via GaudiLab on Shutterstock

As more secondary institutions adapt their curriculum to help students incorporate sustainable business principles in future careers, the University of Pittsburgh is partnering with plastics company Covestro to step up resources dedicated to advancing skills related to the circular economy.

"One of the reasons why this is so important is because when you look at issues related to climate change, one of the things that we think about is the consumption of all the goods that we as consumers buy on a daily basis. And not only that consumption, but where the waste happens," said Melissa Bilec, co-director at the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

The program will build on circular economy approaches such as Cradle to Cradle and Systems-Level Thinking, as well as current and past degree offerings from the university. For example, Bilec created a master's degree in sustainable engineering and there’s a certificate in sustainability that is offered to undergraduates university-wide. And the university, in the past, offered a Ph.D. program in sustainable engineering that was funded by the National Science Foundation. 

"We're building on all that expertise," Bilec said.

While the program — and a full list of course offerings — is still being developed, Bilec said it will cover a breadth of issues.

"When we look at the skills that are needed for designing for a circular economy, the students need to have broad expertise from thinking about supply chain issues, to thinking about economic decisions, to thinking about engagements of stakeholders, and even who actually owns the material so legal issues as well," she said, later noting that the program will also include a component about "designing products and systems that are just and equitable for all."

We can no longer think about solving one environmental — or societal — challenge in a vacuum.

Bilec shared two examples of technical challenges that students might try to solve: "How do we actually do chemical recycling in a way that's environmentally benign? How do we design bridges or buildings with circular economy principles, and what advances need to happen at the material level?"

We can no longer think about solving one environmental — or societal — challenge in a vacuum, Bilec said. "We really have to think about things from a transdisciplinary perspective. And I think this program will allow us to do that."

The program is being funded by Covestro, an advanced polymers and high-performance plastics producer that has its North American headquarters in Pittsburgh. It did not disclose how much money it’s investing.

Richard Skorpenske, head of sustainability and public affairs at Covestro, noted that in addition to the monetary gift, the company is investing in other ways. It is calling upon the expertise of Covestro staff, who also have Ph.D.s in areas such as polymer science engineering, synthetic organic chemistry and chemical engineering, and those with communication and marketing skills to help with program development.

In addition to that, Covestro is globally headquartered in Germany and has university engagements in Europe and in China that it hopes to leverage at some point in the future for joint partnerships and collaborations. For example, the company has an innovation academy with Tongji University in Shanghai that is focused on innovations in mobility and construction.

Skorpenske pointed to Covestro CEO Markus Steilemann‘s March 2020 announcement for the company to become circular as one of the motivations for investing to get the program off the ground.

As with many doctoral programs, students who enter in the same cohort of Ph.D. programs will graduate at different times. Bilec said she expects students will graduate in three to five years, depending on their educational level when they enter into the program.

And at the end of the program, Bilec and Skorpenske said they imagine graduates will go on to use their skills and expertise in industry in policy positions with NGOs and within governments.

"It's giving people the tools to be able to interact in various aspects of society in terms of helping us make this transition towards circularity," Skorpenske said. "We're not just necessarily training folks for the next plant job or laboratory job, but there's a lot of different ways this could go."

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