What is (not) circular economy?

What is (not) circular economy?

To keep things simple, let me quote WRAP UK in their definition of circular economy (CE):

A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

The implications and set of changes necessary to implement CE are understated in this simple definition, but it is a good starting point. Unfortunately, there seems to be a point of confusion around CE. In posts on LinkedIn, comments on webinars, blogs, and even in scientific papers and government press releases, CE is presented as a token for sustainability that most stakeholders fail to differentiate from recycling. Moreover, CE is often portrayed as a solution to all our problems, some sort of goal that we all should aim for. This could not possibly be further from reality.

The idea of CE on a large scale is much bigger than a set of goals or a list of indicators. Instead of a goal itself, CE is "just" a mean, a path, and a set of guidelines, to achieve a much larger set of goals. The initial concept of CE, back in 1966 when it was first thought of by Kenneth Boulding, was closer to a framework for regenerative design. Soon after, CE turned into a model of production and consumption that aimed to keep resources in use for longer. While this set of design practices can be reduced to mass flows between production, consumption, and end-of-life cycles, they could be, in principle, the path (and not the goal) to a sustainable future.

Take the centre pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. Given that CE is so resource-centred, its value for environmental and economic sustainability seems clear, however, it is fair to wonder how CE can help us achieve social sustainability in local communities. Can social circular economy (SCE) become as important as its economic and environmental counterparts? In a more ambitious sense, can CE also be a path for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs)? All 17 of them?

One can argue that the answer to those is yes, however, the how of these ideas may take a bit longer to develop. I hope to spend some time hinting at some ideas about this in future posts. For now, let us close with one single message: circular economy (or circularity) is not a goal but a path.

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