Sustainability Education through the entrepreneurial recycling of glass bottles: Oseng-Rees Reflection

HES Case Study

Reception desk, UWTSD. Photo: T. Oseng-Rees.

Being brought up in 1980s Norway, “environmental awareness, frugality, creativity, independence and empathy for everything and everyone” is fundamental to Dr Tyra Oseng-Rees, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales Trinity St. David (UWTSD). Like many entrepreneurs, she hails from an entrepreneurial family and in 2017 it came as no surprise when she founded her own award-winning business, Oseng-Rees Reflections (osengreesreflection.com). What is surprising, perhaps, is that she did so in Wales, where she has lived and studied since 2003.

Before she joined the final year of a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design at Swansea Institute of Higher Education, Tyra had studied Arts, Craft, and Design at Bodin College in Norway, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Bergen and the first two years of a bachelor’s degree in Product Design at Oslo Metropolitan University. As part of her final year dissertation in Swansea, she developed a paving slab for the blind in recycled glass, which subsequently became the research focus for her doctorate at Swansea Metropolitan University (now part of UWTSD). This had had the title “The Physical and Aesthetic Properties of Fused Recycled Bottle Glass” and on gaining her Ph.D in 2009 she embarked on a career in academia, before relaunching her glass up-cycling business in 2017. Since then, she and the business have gone on to triumph as a finalist in the Great British Entrepreneur Award in the category Creative Industries Entrepreneur 2019, and as the winner of the Sustainable Business Award, 2019, in the Sustainable Academy Awards of the same year.

There is no doubt that glass recycling benefits the planet. Not only does it conserve natural resources (primarily sand, soda ash, and limestone), but remelting waste glass saves energy, prolongs the life span of glass furnaces, reduces the carbon footprint, and avoids being landfilled. Glass can be 100% recycled infinitely without any loss in purity, which is the goal of a circular economy, keeping the material within a closed loop. Nevertheless, around half of all household glass does not get re-melted back. Instead, it is downcycled into aggregate, filter beds or mixed in with concrete, resin, or asphalt. As a designer attentive to the circular economy approach, Tyra’s concern was to develop a new, sustainable, and aesthetic material from recycled bottle glass that does not contain any other inorganic binder so that it can go back into the recycling stream once more. At the same time, as a designer, she wanted the material she produced to have aesthetic features that draw people to the glass, desire to touch it, and want it to feature in interior design. In this way, she wants to “inspire people to make sustainable conscious choices of the material they want to use in their homes and projects”. Accordingly, the business makes bespoke artisan sustainable glass panels, each with a story attached to the product, for interior and architectural installations.

Tyra with a semi-transparent recycled glass panel. Photo: J.B. Skre.

In addition to making artisan sustainable glass material for the interior environment, however, her business has an important educational mission. In 2015 Tyra was invited to participate in an interdisciplinary pilot project led by UWTSD in partnership with Aberystwyth University and the National Botanic Garden in Wales (https://crosspollinationartsciencecollaboration.wordpress.com/). Entomology researchers (Prof Scott McArt and Dr Peter Graystock,now at Imperial College, London) from the prestigious McArt Lab in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University, New York also participated. The project was intended to bring art and science together to develop a greater understanding of the importance of pollination. As part of the project, Tyra created, in recycled glass, six different identifiable bumblebees that are found in Britain and invited the public to identify them and experience their fragility and vulnerability through her artistic expression.

White tailed male bumblebee in recycled glass. Photo: T. Oseng-Rees.

At the end of the project, she expanded her skills and developed a teaching project so that children and young people could:

  • Learn about pollinators and bumblebees and the importance of protecting them
  • Learn about and reflect on environmental issues and recycling
  • Be introduced to the concept of the circular economy, how glass can be used repeatedly, and the importance of recycling
  • Practice observation skills and hand-eye coordination through sketching and painting
  • Carry out design processes from idea generation through planning to the end product
  • Develop mathematical skills through measurement and the weight of glass in the manufacturing process.

The project, which focuses on understanding the connectivity of the ecosystem and how decisions made today can create long-term consequences, is divided into four phases. The learners:

  • Observe the bumblebees in their natural habitat and learn about them and their diversity.
  • Plan, sketch, paint and make an identifiable bumblebee.
  • In their homes, collect, clean, and colour-sort glass bottles and containers which are then processed ready for recycling.
  • Use the recycled glass, plaster moulds and modelling tools to make their own recycled glass bumblebee.
Using the recycled glass, plaster moulds and modelling tools to make their own recycled glass bumblebee. Photo: T. Oseng-Rees.

Learning “through” entrepreneurship in this way is often overlooked but it is as important as learning “about” and “for” entrepreneurship, the two more frequent objectives of Entrepreneurship Education. It is particularly relevant in learning about Sustainability, as this project demonstrates. Indeed, according to one parent, her seven-year-old daughter had remembered an incredible amount of what she had been taught and had spent about 20 minutes teaching her and her brother about the variety of bumblebees.

School children with their own identifiable bumblebee in recycled glass. Photo: Casliwchwr Primary School.

It is not just in schools and with young children that this approach is valuable. As Lackeus (2015) has acknowledged, teaching “through” entrepreneurship is relevant to all students at all levels and Tyra has used her business and production of sustainable fused recycled glass to provide work experience and knowledge about the circular economy for six final year students at Business Management at Swansea University, while at UWTSD she has developed an interdisciplinary project for undergraduates (Oseng-Rees et.al 2018). This involves students from architecture, art glass, environmental conservation, mechanical engineering, and project and construction management, the aim being to break down the silo mentality and encourage “collaboration, long-term thinking and the involvement of all sectors” to facilitate social wellbeing and a healthy society.

Accordingly, as part of its social responsibility pledge, Oseng-Rees Reflection does not just recycle glass bottles but offers workshops on arts, science, sustainability, and the entrepreneurial journey, as well as lectures and motivational talks. Recently it has become a role model for Big Idea Wales, promoting its mission to stay true to sustainable development and strive towards zero carbon emission. The venture is not just about economic growth and wealth creation while protecting the environment, but, in keeping with the principles of Harmonious Entrepreneurship, is about human well-being and addressing social and cultural issues, including the provision of sustainability education that recognises the need to protect profit, people and the planet.

References

Lackeus, M., (2015). ‘Entrepreneurship in Education: What, Why, When and How’. OECD.

Oseng-Rees, T., Standen, I., Ferris-Papi, J. (2018). An interdisciplinary project using recycled glass as an aesthetically pleasing architectural material. University of Salford Institutional Repository – USIR (https://user.ac.uk/id/eprint/57309/).

Oseng-Rees, T. (November 11, 2020). Recycling – Upcycling. From empty bottles to sustainable business. Retrieved from Norwegian Centre for Arts and Culture in Education, Nord University, Norway November, 11th (https://kunstkultursenteret.no/ressursbase/recycling-upcycling/).

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