Learning about the Circular Economy with Ostrero co-founder Mary Michel

Photography by James Robertson

Photography by James Robertson

Founded in 2016 by Mary Michel and Marian Brown, Ostrero champions the Circular Economy in Scotland.

As a research and advocacy body, Ostrero works with a wide range of organisations and businesses to implement the Circular Economy in their operating model, and raise awareness of the environmental, social and economic benefits that it can bring.

We spoke to co-founder Mary Michel about Ostrero, the Circular Economy, how makers can adopt it and how it can help their practice.


What is the Circular Economy, and what are the benefits for makers? 

The Circular Economy is all about keeping materials at their highest value for as long as possible - essentially, it’s about designing out waste.  

We currently live in a Linear Economy which is based on a straight line: we take things out of the ground, make something from them, use them (often only once or twice) and chuck them away without giving too much thought as to where they end up. In contrast, in a Circular Economy, the whole lifecycle of every material is considered right from the design stage. As in nature, there is no waste as everything feeds into something else. 

There are long-term, softer and immediate, practical benefits to makers in adopting a Circular Economy approach in their practice. Firstly, you are taking an active and practical stance against the climate crisis. This is important for your own wellbeing and something that more and more customers and suppliers are asking about. The Circular Economy also gives you the opportunity to rethink how and why you design and make things. I would highly recommend the book, “Cradle to Cradle” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough for makers who are interested in finding out more about this. Secondly, on a more practical level, maximising the use of resources makes your practice more materials efficient, thereby also saving money. 

Primary pupils creating circular fashion garments,

Primary pupils creating circular fashion garments, photography by James Robertson


Can you tell us more about Ostrero’s touring workshopMaking Circles? 

Making Circles tours to schools all over Scotland. The half day workshop includes an introduction to the Circular Economy, followed by a half-day session in which children from P2 to S3 work in groups to design something along circular principals. For example, they will transform waste to value, being inspired by nature, being multi-functional or being powered by renewable energy.  

The workshops are run by me and a maker, who helps transform the designs into prototypes. We have been lucky to work with the wonderful ceramicist Mella Shaw and silversmith Bryony Knox.  

Last year the designs were shared through a display at the National Museum of Scotland. This year, due to Covid-19, the display has gone online

Making Circles came about as a solution to two different problems. Firstly, we wanted to change mindsets away from the consumerist behaviours that we are all encouraged to adopt, to a more thoughtful way of living and working that doesn’t damage the environment. Secondly, in my work with the Incorporation of Goldsmiths and Craft Scotland, I was seeing that the hand skills we all used to take for granted such as sewing, hammering, knitting, tying a bow, were being lost in schools. Not only are these skills important and valuable in themselves, but they will be essential in a Circular Economy, where we need to know how to look after and repair our things. In Making Circles, we decided to tackle both issues at once by exploring the potential of circular design and giving children a hands-on experience, using these skills.  


What have been some of the best responses from pupils and teachers to the Making Circles sessions? 

We have had an unanimously positive response from both teachers and pupils, but the best response is when we get pupils so caught up in the making process that they don’t want to do anything else. We had one P6 boy who said this was the best thing he had done at school, and teachers often comment that it is the children they least expect who get the most out of the workshops. Those who can have trouble focussing on traditional classroom learning become completely absorbed in making.  

From a Circular Economy point of view, it’s been great to see children becoming inspired to write to companies or their local council to protest about the use of single-use plastics or set up their own school gardens.  


The Circular Economy also gives you the opportunity to rethink how and why you design and make things. 


Who is inspiring you in the world of circular economy?  

Dame Ellen MacArthur is my Circular Economy hero. She was an incredible sailor - she set a record for the fastest solo nonstop voyage around the world on her first attempt, and while doing so had a moment of epiphany. She realised that in order to complete the attempt, all the resources on the boat had to last for the long months of the journey, and that this was a parallel to our world’s resources – too often we live and buy as if the world’s resources were infinite, when of course they are anything but. When she got home, she gave up professional sailing and set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is all about the Circular Economy and a great place to go for more information. 

 Maker Mella Shaw gives a workshop, photography by James RobertsonMella Shaw, photography by James Robertson

Finally, what is your hope for the future for the circular economy in Scotland? 

I feel hugely excited about the potential for the Circular Economy in Scotland. It’s inspiring to look at countries like the Netherlands or Finland, who are really leading in this area, and using circular design throughout everything they do, from their school systems to their buildings to entire cities.  

My hope for Scotland is that the Circular Economy be embedded in the school curriculum, so that all young people come into the world with an understanding of the urgency of the issues, and the imaginative and physical skills needed to transform our country and lead it into a healthier and brighter future. The current lockdown is showing us that transformative change is possible. As part of the Making Circles display, we asked children to share their experiences of lockdown and how it could help us build back a better society afterwards. They chose Fresh Air for All, Making Things Last and a Mindset for Change as the 3 best things to come out of lockdown – change is happening, let’s design and make for it to last! 

Interviews have been lightly edited or answers condensed.  

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