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What does the concept of the Circular Economy mean?

What does the concept of the Circular Economy mean?

Tessa Dunlop

The Circular Economy is attracting increasing attention from researchers, funding agencies, policy makers and industry. The European Union invested EUR 184 million in 2016 alone on green projects, almost half of which were on the Circular Economy. What is so special about the Circular Economy?

The Circular Economy first appeared in waste management policy, referring to the increased recycling of products. The reduction of waste is beneficial to the environment in terms of pollution, emissions reduction and of decreased resource use. An uptick in recycling necessitates the development of new business models, the emergence of different industries that can process waste and recycle products, as well as new markets for these products – this is where the economy part comes in. The Circular Economy has become a vision for resource efficiency, environmental concerns and economic growth. In one of the articles of this issue we ask, can the Circular Economy boost job creation?

The Circular Economy vision has grown beyond the issue of waste management. Given the potential benefits of a circular model for the economy and the environment, what could be achieved by expanding the Circular Economy to include agriculture, energy and other related industries?

There are also important caveats to take into consideration when looking at the policies and framing of circular economy goals. Firstly, it is important to consider how circular the economy actually is, and how circularity can be measured.  Some believe that the percentage of materials that are either reused or recycled is as low as 6% at the global level (Haas et al. 2015). This is because a great proportion of the products we use cannot be recycled, including energy resources and construction materials. For food and biomass to be effectively recycled by humans, our economy would need to depend on slow-moving ecological systems to produce materials we need – including wood, food and the regulation and replenishment of water, soil and gas resources. Furthermore, what are the risks and uncertainties linked to an increase in recycling? Research has shown that the treatment process to recycle many materials often involves the application of substances that are dangerous to human health and the environment.

Taking these issues into account, are circular economy objectives feasible, viable and desirable? We will let you make your own mind up when reviewing our selection of text and multimedia materials in this first edition of the Nexus Times. These include a video and an infographic on the circular economy as well as three articles that aim to shed light on some of the challenges that Circular Economy initiatives face globally.

We hope that you enjoy this inaugural edition, and that it is relevant to your work. Going forward, we will be tackling cutting-edge topics regarding the water-food-energy-land-use nexus including the limitations to the bioeconomy and the paradox of energy efficiency.

Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to The Nexus Times or provide comment on our articles.

» Read "The Nexus Times" Issue I - CIRCULAR ECONOMY (June 2017)

Can the Circular Economy boost job creation?

Can the Circular Economy boost job creation?

Zora Kovacic

The European Union’s Circular Economy plan needs to push circularity beyond waste management in order to realize its job creation potential.

The meaning of the term ‘Circular Economy’ can be interpreted in two different ways: (1) as an alternative economic strategy that includes the integration of agriculture, energy, and water policy and (2) as a specific policy goal that aims to improve the EU approach to waste management.

1. The first definition of ‘Circular Economy’ looks at the potential to change the way that resources are used within the economy. It involves shifting away from the current linear model in which resources enter and exit the economic process, towards a circular model in which resources are reused repeatedly in the economic process.

As a broader concept, the Circular Economy requires a re-organization of the economic process as a whole. Such an important change could have a significant impact on job creation. However, if the entire economic process is to be reorganized and restructured, how can we measure the potential impact that a Circular Economy would have on job creation? We need a more concrete idea of what a ‘significant’ potential impact could be – significant, because changes would incorporate the whole economy, and potential because we cannot be sure about how the economy will change, adapt, and what challenges may emerge.

2. The second definition of ‘Circular Economy’ applies specifically to the EU’s Circular Economy directive, which amends Directive 2008/98/EC on waste.

One of the main goals of the Circular Economy directive is employment growth. The directive reads: “Taking waste policy further can bring significant benefits: sustainable growth and job creation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, direct savings linked with better waste management practices, and a better environment”.

Job creation has been on top of the agenda in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Can the Circular Economy live up to its promises? Jobs in the waste management sector comprised 1% of employment in the EU28 in 2015 (Eurostat, 2017). According to the Eurostat Database, this 1% includes waste collection, treatment and disposal activities as well as in remediation and other waste management services.

The Circular Economy directive goal to boost jobs creation states that “More than 170,000 direct jobs could be created by 2035, most of them impossible to delocalize outside the EU”. 170,000 jobs equates to a 15% increase in employment in the waste management sector in the next 20 years, which corresponds to a mere 0.1% increase in total employment.

Given these low numbers, it is clear that in order to ensure that the Circular Economy really does boost job creation, the strategy must go beyond the waste management sector.


  • European Commission, 2015. Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste. Brussels, 2.12.2015
  • Eurostat, 2017. Employment by sex, age and detailed economic activity (from 2008 onwards, NACE Rev. 2 two digit level – 1000.
  • European Union, 2017. Quality report of the European Union Labour Force Survey 2015, 2017 Edition. Luxemburg, Publications Office of the European Union.

Acknowledging risk migration in recycling

Acknowledging risk migration in recycling

Maddalena Ripa

How can science and policy deal with the uncertainty of the potential risks the recycling poses to human health and the environment?

The main idea behind the Circular Economy is that materials are reused for long periods of time; much more than is already the case. In the current system, recycling undergoes a process of downcycling. This means that materials and products are designed to have one single life, so that when they are recycled, they lose valuable properties such as quality and functionality every time they are reused. The problem is that chemicals need to be added to recycled products to improve their quality each time they are reused. This process is polluting, and recycled materials often contain more additives than the original product. It is no surprise then that recycling reduces the quality of the materials, as it is difficult to manufacture the same product again and again.

With plans to recycle more as part of new Circular Economy initiatives, closing the loop on a global scale presents new uncertainties. An increase in recycled products including plastic, paper and cardboard, lubricants and other products can cause unpredictable health and safety problems. This is important when considering that the recycling of products contains toxic chemicals. If waste re-enters the economy as either new products made with recycled materials or as secondary raw materials to be traded, it may create a double exposure to toxic substances.

Take Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) as an example. These chemicals are commonly found in furniture and building materials, and are increasingly seen in electronics as metal components become replaced by plastic. BFRs are almost entirely banned in countries across the European Union, as they can lead to health problems such as lower mental, psychomotor and physical development. Nevertheless, they are still persistent on the market. BFRs appear in products imported from countries such as China, where e-waste is on the rise and recycling regulations and policies are less stringent. Plastics recovered from electronics contain PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers), one of the most commonly used BFRs. PBDEs generally end up in recycled plastics because these toxic, bio-accumulative and persistent substances cannot be easily separated from plastic waste streams. In addition to direct migration of BFRs from waste materials, there is evidence that higher brominated flame retardants can undergo degradation and de-bromination during waste treatment. In some instances, this may lead to the formation of more toxic and bioavailable compounds. In effect, PBDE would be released into the environment and wildlife, endangering human health, two times during a product lifecycle.

Similar risk migration concerns have been raised for paper recycling. Several studies have demonstrated that paper, cardboard and waste paper potentially contain a significant number of chemicals, some of which have been classified as ‘critical’. This is because they are likely to remain in the solid matrix during paper recycling and end up in new products where their concentration may be even higher when compared to virgin fibre-based products (for example in case of phthalates and phenols). One of the most controversial examples refers to the detection of small quantities of BPS (bisphenol-S) in paper products. These are often made with recycled content such as napkins, flyers, and magazines. Bisphenol A and S are chemical compounds used as strengtheners in polycarbonate plastics, epoxy resins in water pipes, coating on the inside of food and beverage cans and in making thermal paper (used in sales receipts, for example). These compounds are toxic to human health, due to their hormone disrupting properties, and potentially to the environment. The amount of BPA released during recycling can vary widely, depending on the processes used, but recent studies suggest that BPS, like BPA, is transferred from thermal paper that has been recycled and accumulates in the recycled products.

The uncertainties created by the Circular Economy have to be acknowledged both by policy and by science. With regard to policy, the European Commission is issuing new regulations regarding the use and recycling of these toxic compounds. This approach can be seen as a precautionary approach to policy making.

But what is the response and responsibility of the scientific community? One possible answer to this challenge is uncertainty assessment, which Jeroen van der Sluijs is developing together with the Health and Environment Surveillance Committee of the Netherlands Health Council. The purpose of this work is to conduct a quality check in terms of uncertainty on potential side-effects of policy measures in order to alert the authorities to important links between recycling, the environment and human health. The role of science in this case is not only that of producing facts, but also that of communicating uncertainty.

From the MAGIC Nexus Project we will keep investigating how governance in the context of uncertainty leads to the emergence of new roles for science and for policy.


  • Arnika Association, 2015. Toxic Toy or Toxic Waste: Recycling POPs into New Products. Summary for Decision-Makers Brominated flame retardants from electronic waste are present in plastic children’s toys.
  • ChemTrust, 2017. No Brainer: The impact of chemicals on children’s brain development: a cause for concern and a need for action.
  • JRC-IHCP, 2010. European Union Risk Assessment Report. Environment Addendum of April 2008. 4,4’-Isopropylidenediphenol (Bisphenol-A). Part 1 Environment.
  • Leslie HA, Leonards PE, Brandsma SH, de Boer J, Jonkers N. Propelling plastics into the circular economy – weeding out the toxics first. Environ Int; 2016: 94: 230-4.
  • Pivnenko K, Eriksson E, Astrup TF. Waste paper for recycling: Overview and identification of potentially critical substances. Waste Manag; 2015: 45: 134-42.
  • Puype F, Samsonek J, Knoop J, Egelkraut-Holtus M, Ortlieb M. Evidence of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) relevant substances in polymeric food-contact articles sold on the European market. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess; 2015: 32(3): 410-26.

What type of complexities are involved in circularity?

What type of complexities are involved in circularity?

Luis Zamarioli

Circularity means different things in physics, biology and economics. But what do different narratives imply for European policy?

Closing the loop’ is the European Commission’s slogan for promoting the Circular Economy agenda. The choice encapsulates the idea that in order to improve certain economic and environmental standards, Europe must transition from an open-ended and linear economy to a closed one. From physics and biology, we learn that closed systems are never perfectly isolated, or really closed. This is because they lose energy to surrounding systems in thermodynamic processes and also mutually communicate and influence each other in biological autopoietic systems. The economy also can never be entirely closed. Matter will always change and lose functionality internally, energy will be lost at varying degrees and a ‘Circular Economy’ will always communicate, shape and be shaped by other economies through trade. Based on these considerations, this article looks at why a circular economy could not realistically aim to be considered as a static state, but rather as an aspirational process to be monitored, managed and improved.

Our current economy is still largely based on a linear get-change-consume-discard approach. If this linearity continues unchanged, we risk exhausting Earth’s limited resources with too much ‘getting’, and we compromise the availability of other resources through our current rate of discarding. A circular economy attempts to close that system, bringing the two loose ends together – of ‘get’ and ‘discard’. But does the Circular Economy mean that just any circularity would suffice? The answer is no. Simply transforming the economy into a circular one would not immediately improve efficiency and reduce resource use and waste. For example, if the energy necessary for transforming a material that has been disposed of is higher than obtaining a raw material, we must question whether this is a desirable solution. Also, does that process produce more pollution, such as in the form of liquid residues or CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change? This questioning brings us to the conclusion that even within circularity, some less energy intensive and less polluting processes are preferred over others.

A useful concept borrowed from waste management to address this issue is the ‘waste hierarchy’. The hierarchy states that processes that require less energy and less new material in order to maintain the cycle should be prioritized over others which involve high energy and material loss. That is to say that if we reduce the amount of waste we produce, through better design and packaging, the system will be more efficient than if we choose to reuse discarded materials. When comparing reuse with recycling however, reusing a material requires less energy than putting it through a recycling process that makes it a relatively new product again. Another step further down the hierarchy, recycling is more efficient than recovering materials by transforming them into something else, such as energy production through incineration. At the bottom end of the hierarchy, disposal is the least efficient, since it removes the possibility of closing the system.

Looking more broadly outside internal circularity processes, a circular economy also behaves as a biological autopoietic system due to constant communication and exchanges, continuously shaping and being shaped by other systems. In economic terms, this means that even if it were functioning according to the highest internal standards and efficiency, a singular economy will never be entirely isolated from other systems. The exchanges it makes with others will impact the system itself and will also affect other systems, mutually and continuously. Economically, this could mean that by reducing Europe’s raw materials usage, the costs of such inputs would potentially drop globally, creating an incentive for other markets to raise their consumption and resource-intensity. As a significant importer, such increases would mean that imported products would come with higher aggregated resource-intensity, raising the relative levels of materials and energy that Europeans absorb on the consumption side. This could happen even if Europe’s own production moves away from such unsustainable business types.


  • Loiseau, E., Saikku, L., Antikainen, R., Droste, N., Hansjurgens, B., Pitkanen, K., and Thomsen, M. (2016). Green economy and related concepts: An overview. Journal of Cleaner Production, 139, 361–371.
  • Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living. (R. S. Cohen & M. W. Wartofsky, Eds.), Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Vol. 42). London, Dordrecht, Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  • O’Hara, P. A. (2009). Political economy of climate change, ecological destruction and uneven development. Ecological Economics, 69(2), 223–234.

Infographic: Measuring circularity

VIDEO: What will it take to 'Close the Loop?'

01 June 2017