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Circular Economy narratives: What will we study?

The Circular Economy policy area will focus on three main narratives:

1. Imaginary of the Circular Economy:

The Circular Economy is currently entangled with a range of expectations and presented as something new, as “an opportunity to transform our economy” (Roadmap monitoring framework for the Circular Economy, 2017), as a means to “break down silos” (EC Press release, 2 December 2015), and at the same time the Circular Economy is seen by some not as a revolutionary initiative. In order to be able to engage meaningfully with the narratives linked to the circular Economy, we decided to analyse the imaginary of the Circular Economy, and to understand what is meant by CE. The narrative is summarised as:

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 Circular Economy is a new policy package, and the concept of circularity is not clearly defined. As we learned from one of the interviewees: “So I’m not sure circular economy was the right term to be coined but here we are, it is what it is.” Part of the work that this policy team will do is to explore the multiple meanings of circularity present in policy documents and activities surrounding circular economy. We want to do so by using the concept of socio-technical imaginaries, and we consider that the CE is an imaginary ‘in-the-making’.


2. Indicators for the Circular Economy:

A recurrent interest that was flagged to us by multiple actors from the policy arena is the current development of Circular Economy indicators. This issue came up in the interview, as a possible ‘policy window’ for MAGIC to get involved in the CE debate. One policy-maker asked us to produce a brief assessment of the indicators published in the EEA Report 2/2016 “Circular economy in Europe”.

Indicators for the Circular Economy.  There is a big challenge in measuring the circularity of the economy and monitoring progress towards the Circular Economy.

In January 2018, the Commission published a list of indicators that can help measure and monitor progress towards the circular economy. In response to this work in progress, the policy team will also produce an assessment of the indicators being produced by the Commission and other agencies (e.g. EEA) on the circular economy, using MuSIASEM.


3. Critiquing the Circular Economy:

Our contacts in the CE policy area are personally involved on the discussion around the creation of CE policies. A distinguishing feature of this policy is that the Circular Economy is a policy in-the-making. This means that there are ongoing negotiations in various institutions about what the Circular Economy will and should be (thus assembling and debating desirable futures to be actualized). As a result, the policy team has received specific requests for critical and alternative views of the CE and its assumptions, inputs that our contacts find useful to support the policy processes they are part of. There has been high interest in the work of MAGIC so far.

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.

The imagined transition from a linear to a circular economy violates the laws of thermodynamics. Energy cannot be produced, it has to be taken from the environment and once used cannot be recycled by processes under human control. The same applies to food, water and most other materials fit for human consumption. The reason is that economic activities are entropic processes that only can run at the expense of gradients provided by nature (resources and environmental services). We aim at discussing with policy makers some of the vulnerabilities of this policy proposal.