The Circular Economy: Breakthrough or Distraction?

Our material footprint is expanding (Wiedmann et al., 2015), in-use stocks are growing (Müller et al., 2013), and so are greenhouse gas emissions from material production, like cement (Andrew, 2017). The rollout of renewable energy and efficient technology hinges on ample supply of a vast array of materials and chemical elements (Graedel et al., 2013), many of which are considered critical due to their supply risk or the vulnerability of industry to supply restrictions (Graedel et al., 2012). Substantial change of current, unsustainable material use patterns is needed. To guide policy and industry development we need not only a wide array of strategies but also a powerful concept to frame the development towards a state of lower environmental impact and continued prosperity (industrialized countries) or increasing prosperity (industrializing countries).

Many candidates for guiding concepts exist, including sustainable development, the performance economy, green growth, industrial ecology, the blue economy, or the bioeconomy, just to mention a few. There are also a number of specific strategies for decoupling prosperity from throughput, including energy efficiency, material and resource efficiency, industrial symbiosis, the 3R concept (reduce, reuse, recycle), the 6Rs (reuse, recycle, redesign, remanufacture, reduce, recover), biomimicry, or cradle-to-cradle design. The circular economy, originally conceived from many different inspirations (Winans et al., 2017), then first implemented in China (NPC, 2008), and now big in Europe (European Commission, 2015), is one of the later additions to the spectrum of guiding concepts.

It is hard to keep track of all these concepts and strategies, many of which have buzzword character and very broad meanings and scope. As a scientist, it is sometimes a bit funny to see yet another concept popping up but and also frustrating to see little substantial change happening regarding the problems lined out above.

An important question that arises, is thus: Do we actually need the circular economy (CE) concept*) on top of all of the other ones? Aren’t the Sustainable Development Goals both comprehensive and detailed enough to also address the current wasteful way of resource use in industrialized nations? Aren’t there enough waste management and eco-design directives already?

Here are some possible answers to that question:

Pro circular economy:

  • CE explicitly addresses the importance of closing industrial material cycles and puts material cycles into the centre of attention by political and corporate decision makers.
  • With its ‘economy first’ approach the CE better fits to corporate thinking than the broader concepts sustainable development and industrial ecology.
  • CE fully embraces systems thinking and is radical in its ambition (BSI, 2017).
  • CE does not mean to supersede or replace the above-mentioned concepts; it simply comes with a new twist that may help society move in the right direction.

Contra circular economy:

  • Closing material cycles are already core messages of 3R and industrial ecology. Having yet another term can be a distraction from working towards real change.
  • Detaching material cycles from the broader avenues of sustainable development by relabelling them as CE may backfire, as the economic growth promoted by the CE proponents may actually lead to more material use and growth of in-use stocks.
  • Due to unavoidable losses the ‘circular’ notion of the physical economy is an in principal unattainable state, like a perpetual motion machine (Cullen, 2017). Naming something after a borderline case that is practically out of reach seems like wishful thinking and unsound. Nobody would call engineering the science of perpetual motion machines, even though the creation of ever more efficient processes is the job of many engineers.
  • The often-cited divide between a linear and a circular economy is misleading, because a) reuse and recycling have a long-standing tradition and significant contribution to resource savings already, e.g., for steel (Pauliuk et al., 2013), and b) a large part of material consumption is devoted to growth of in-use stocks, and not their replacement (Haas et al., 2015). Stock accumulation is crucial for industrialisation and development, and you can only ‘go circular’ once you have a stock to reuse/remanufacture/recycle from. So far, the CE proponents haven’t paid much attention to stock growth.

While thinking about these points, I started getting the impression that the CE is both: a breakthrough and a distraction at the same time. Putting material cycles, resource efficiency, and 3R into a dedicated framework clearly is a breakthrough, and the CE proponents deserve all the credit for not only creating that umbrella but also lifting it to the level of attention that the concept is receiving now, mainly in China and the EU. At the same time, the concept, with its focus on economic growth and deliberate disconnection from sustainable development, may distract from focussing on core missions of the 21st century as specified by the Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2017), lead to rebound effects (Zink and Geyer, 2017), and give a false sense of security that reducing and redirecting waste flows is a good proxy for sustainable development.

As scientists we should be tolerant regarding the need for catchy phrases in political and business processes. At the same time, we shouldn’t throw our own principles over board while trying to hang on to the CE wave. In my view, these principles include: (i) a comprehensive and transparently communicated systems approach to CE or sustainable development strategy development and assessment, (ii) the separation of positive knowledge (accounting) from normative claims as to how the system should change, and iii) modesty and clarity regarding the claims made from our analyses.

I don’t think that all of the academic research currently tagged with CE is actually necessary, and, instead of getting distracted by framework and business model development, we should put more resources into enhancing our database of industrial systems and into honing the established methods material flow analysis and life cycle assessment. The latter two methods will play a major role in assessing CE strategies at all levels and in providing the quantitative basis of CE strategy assessment (Pauliuk, 2018).

Consequent application of these tools to CE strategies at all stages will not only help us get the numbers right but also quantify synergies and discrepancies between CE and sustainable development strategies and thus enable decision makers at all levels to understand whether or not the different CE strategies also contribute to the wider societal goals. Unfortunately, the new standard for the circular economy in organisations offers no concrete guidance for how to use industrial ecology tools to monitor CE business model implementation in organisations (BSI, 2017; Pauliuk, 2018). That lack of specific guidance places the burden of indicator development entirely on organizations, which then may cherry-pick results that fit their corporate message and do ‘circular-washing’. To avoid massive overselling of actual or alleged CE benefits the integration of industrial ecology tools into CE strategy development, rollout, and monitoring should be the central ambition of CE-related quantitative systems research.

Now let’s get our hands dirty!


*) Here and below, I refer to the CE concept as defined by the CE standard BS 8001:2017 (BSI, 2017), namely as “economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles”, where ‘restorative’ refers to spent resources being fed back into new products and services, and ‘regenerative’ refers to the enabling of living systems to heal and renew the resources that are consumed. Value is defined as “financial and/or non-financial gain”. The broader meaning of the CE concept appears to be much less clear, though (Korhonen et al., 2018).



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