The circular economy is an alternative to the linear economy, in which natural resources are extracted, used and discarded. Circularity involves recycling, increasing product durability, creating repair and restore cultures, sharing economies, and many more ideas. Natural resources enter the economy and are re-used for as long as possible, reducing both the need for resources, and waste and emissions. This general definition, however, refers to a blurred picture: many of the concepts and ideas that compose the circular economy are not well defined, and some are in contradiction with each other. The circular economy is best understood through three main ideas: the circular economy is a policy in the making, it is an imaginary about the future, and it is far removed from what is known about the economic process in biophysical terms.
The circular economy was reformulated in 2015 with the specific aim of supporting the economic recovery after the 2009 financial crisis and the economic crisis that ensued, especially in Southern Europe. As the circular economy policy was being developed, the European project itself entered a severe legitimacy crisis, which has manifested in the rise of extremist parties, anti-immigrant and separatist discourses. The post-crisis context has played a significant role in the framing of the circular economy and in the negotiation of its stated aims. Defining characteristics of the circular economy are the focus on win-win narratives, synergies, and moderation – in the policy realm, the circular economy is not a revolutionary idea!
Our analysis is based on Quantitative Story-Telling (QST), a hybrid qualitative and quantitative tool, proposing a new way of using scientific information in the process of decision-making. It is an alternative to the concept of evidence-based policy. The general iterative schema of QST includes several steps: the first step is to identify narratives about situations, problems and solutions (through text analysis and interviews); then selected narratives, validated though meetings with policy-makers, are quantitatively represented with MuSIASEM. Lastly, the results are presented and then the feedbacks received are used to eventually run another cycle of QST.
Three narratives were identified for the QST analysis:
- Imaginary of the Circular Economy. "The CE offers new business opportunities to change from the consumption model to repair & reuse cultures, increased recycling, and a service-based economy, all of which have the potential of generating jobs, economic growth and yielding environmental benefits including GHG emission and waste reduction." (This is a collection of multiple narratives on different aspects and potentials of the CE, combined to obtain a ‘big picture’). The analysis of the imaginary of the Circular Economy allows us to engage with the development and assembly of the circular economy concept, and to understand how this concept is being negotiated and shaped in European policy.
- Indicators for the Circular Economy. "There is a big challenge in measuring the circularity of the economy and monitoring progress towards the Circular Economy." Interest in indicators was signalled by many policy makers we contacted, drawing attention to the role that indicators have in stabilizing the circular economy as a policy concept, and in creating new concepts and “things” in need of governing (e.g. secondary raw materials, as discussed in the results section below).
- Critiquing the Circular Economy. "The narratives that define the benefits are partly incomplete, incoherent and in tension with existing knowledge. Accordingly, the monitoring framework is likely to demand reinterpretation and specification of policy goals in order for indicators to be meaningful." Our stakeholders were interested in the critiques to the circular economy concept that could be articulated using the social metabolism approach.
For more information about the selected narratives, see this report.
The full report on ‘Narratives behind the Circular Economy concept’ is available as Deliverable 5.7. The main findings are summarized below:
Imaginaries of the circular economy
What is interesting to note in regard to sociotechnical imaginaries and the elements that these imaginaries assemble, is that they implicitly assume that a transition towards more circularity is a matter of improving product design and designing in more sustainable modes of production and consumption (eco-design). Such a model rehearses a techno-optimist understanding of innovation and problem solving in which a seemingly inevitable technological progress provides solutions for societal challenges. This model builds on and at the same time rehearses a classical innovation narrative that depicts innovation as necessary for the EU to remain competitive in the international market. Innovation and technological progress cannot be challenged. In the case of the circular economy, the narrative is used to promote investment in research, R&D expenditure, patent applications, as well as the number of programmes and graduates in mineral processing.
Find out more:
BOOK: Kovacic, Z., Strand, R., Völker, T. (2020), The Circular Economy in Europe: Critical Perspectives on Policies and Imaginaries. Routledge, London, 208 pp., doi: 10.4324/9780429061028, ISBN: 978-0-367-18358-5 (hbk). eBook ISBN: 978-0-429-06102-8, first published: 7 November 2019, freely available in open access.
VIDEO: Two narratives in the circular economy controversy.
The role of indicators
We argue that the monitoring framework and indicator development function as a site collective imagination in which desirable ‘circular’ futures are co-produced. These futures are imagined to provide novel opportunities for the private sector and to generate jobs and economic growth while at the same time improving the natural environment as measured by selected environmental indicators. When it comes to imagining the drivers of the transition to a Circular Economy the indicators show a clear emphasis on technological innovation. We may summarize that the indicators rehearse a collective European self-imagination that frames sustainability and environmental protection in terms of industrial activity and economic growth within Europe, a technology-centred idea of innovation, and a particular model of science-policy relations that promotes governing through monitoring, command and control.
Find out more:
POLICY BRIEF: Roadmap for the Circular Economy, assessment of the Monitoring Framework for the Circular Economy (Ares(2017)1830357).
POLICY BRIEF: Brief on the European Environment Agency (EEA) scoping study for indicators of the Circular Economy: EEA Report “Circular economy in Europe, Developing the knowledge base” 2/2016.
SCIENTIFIC PAPER: Indicator development as a site of collective imagination? The case of the European Commission policies on the Circular Economy.
SCIENTIFIC PAPER: The role of metrics in the governance of the water-energy-food nexus within the European Commission
EC 'HAVE YOUR SAY'': Feedback on Roadmap Ares(2019)7907872 - Circular economy: new action plan to increase recycling and reuse of products in the EU.
VIDEO: What will it take to close the loop?
OUTREACH: Post on Resource Nexus Platform
Critique of the Circular Economy
There exists a profound confusion around the conceptual definitions and interpretations of the term circular (bio)economy. The co-existence of diametrically opposite interpretations of the concept indicates lack of a serious discussion of its theoretical foundations. Two narratives on circular bioeconomy are explored in depth: (i) the new economic paradigm based on technological progress (the economics of technological promises) that seeks perpetual economic growth; (ii) an entropic (thermodynamic) narrative that reflects on the limits on economic growth imposed by nature. The latter narrative makes a distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary resource flows and helps to identify what can and cannot be re-circulated within the metabolic pattern of social-ecological systems. Adopting the biophysical view, it becomes clear that the industrial revolution represented a linearization of material and energy flows with the goal to overcome the low pace and density of biological transformations. The required level of productivity of production factors in contemporary developed economies (flows per hour of labor and per hectare of land use) is orders of magnitude larger than the pace and density of supply and sink capacity of natural processes. Relying on nature to ‘close the loop’ will simply slow down the economic process.
Find out more:
VIDEO: Is a circular bioeconomy possible?
SCIENTIFIC PAPER: On the Circular Bioeconomy and Decoupling: Implications for Sustainable Growth.
SCIENTIFIC PAPER: From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy.
EC 'HAVE YOUR SAY': Feedback on Roadmap Ares(2019)7907872 - Circular economy: new action plan to increase recycling and reuse of products in the EU