Can the Circular Economy Really Make the World More Sustainable?

Imagine that 100 percent of the recyclable materials that are currently headed for landfills are captured and re-processed into new products. This dreamy vision of the future is often referred to as “the circular economy,” and we aren’t there yet. Today, most countries with robust recycling programs have reached only around a 30 percent recycling rate (34.6 percent in the United States).

But let’s say it could be done. Would it really help the world become more sustainable? Johann Fellner and his team at the Technical University of Wien in Austria are skeptical. They calculate that even if the world achieved 100 percent recycling, our total carbon footprint would be reduced by less than 1.6 percent (from 9,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per person annually to 8,856 kilograms). Considering that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “safe” scenario for 2050 requires a more than 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, this can seem like a drop in the bucket.

Other researchers have similar doubts about the success of the circular economy. Nancy Bocken, a professor at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, mined 10 years’ worth of press releases from 101 companies listed on the S&P 500 stock index to identify their priorities for materials management. Her research team reviewed more than 90,000 documents and counted ‘recycl-‘ (meaning: recycle, recycled, recycling, etc.) a total of 4,326 times. In contrast, terms such as ‘refurbish’ and ‘remanufactur-“ appeared 392 and 80 times respectively, and ‘reduce waste’ and ‘material reduction’ had counts of 126 and 3. Clearly, the corporate world has chosen to approach the “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy in the reverse direction.

Both of these studies were released in a June 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Industrial Ecology entitled “Exploring the Circular Economy.” The issue contains 25 articles written by university and institute-based researchers from around the world. Bocken, who also served as editor of the issue, writes in the introduction that the compilation was motivated by a need to develop standard language and metrics around the circular economy, to prevent its further co-option as a buzzword.

At least two clear messages emerge from “Exploring the Circular Economy.” First, there is a need to undertake a serious examination of the validity of the circular economy as a framework that contributes to global sustainability. Many authors point to the hidden realities of recycling, material efficiency, and other concepts that people have been trained to think of as contributing to sustainability. These include the “rebound effect” and the importance of social dynamics, such as the cultural value of resources and materials. Second, the current performance of “circularity” is poor, and it will not get better without an emphasis on shrinking and slowing material loops, rather than simply closing them.

The Circular Economy’s Validity Challenge

In a third study, researchers Fenna Blomsma and Geraldine Brennan classify most of the circular economy’s history as either preamble or excitement phases, noting that the circular economy is just entering its validity challenge phase. They write:

“A plurality of definitions, a lack of tools, and the existence of different indicators surface during this stage, raising questions regarding the nature of the binding capacity of the umbrella concept.”

 Blomsma and Brennan’s biggest recommendation for reaching a new phase of coherence (see Figure) is to incorporate social dynamics into the literature, through partnerships with communities of “law, ethics, economics, system dynamics, and sociology and organizational studies.” Social dynamics are a missing variable in much of the circular economy rhetoric, which ignores the role that culture and community play in how materials are treated throughout their life cycle.

Timeline of the circular economy’s development as a relevant sustainability concept.
Included with permission from the Journal of Industrial Ecology and Dr. Fenna Blomsma.

Another missing variable in the popular conception of the circular economy is the so-called rebound effect, which occurs when increased resource efficiency leads to an overall increase in consumption. The rebound effect shows up in four articles in this issue and is a growing concern that researchers and practitioners cannot continue to ignore.

Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer, in their article, “Circular Economy Rebound,” describe a criteria for testing the rebound effect: asking, does total production rise as a result of a given Circular Economy intervention? If so, then you have rebound. This simple question puts many growth-oriented scenarios into perspective. If the point of the circular economy is to enable increased material throughput, in the form of increased, more efficient, production, then it cannot credibly claim to be reducing impacts at the planetary scale.

Slowing and Shrinking the Circle

In their introduction to the circular economy, Bocken and her co-authors state:

“The basic premises of the [circular economy] appear to be closing and slowing loops. Closing loops refers to (postconsumer waste) recycling, slowing is about retention of the product value through maintenance, repair and refurbishment, and remanufacturing, and narrowing loops is about efficiency improvements, a notion that already is commonplace in the linear economy.”

Based on the collected observations of the authors in “Exploring the Circular Economy,” it seems we should add shrinking loops to the list of circular economy premises. Many authors, in citing rebound effects and the historical failure of recycling initiatives to reduce aggregate global impacts, stress the need to shrink material throughput. As Zink and Geyer note, “it is necessary that circular economy activities either have no effect on or decrease aggregate demand for goods.”

In this sense, a circular economy worthy of the term “sustainable” is not a set of rules for more efficient operation of the economy, but rather an economy that is smaller, both financially and materially. Shrinking and slowing loops may just be the circular economy’s key to passing the validity test.

NOTE: This blog post describes only a few of the articles published in “Exploring the Circular Economy.” You can read the entire issue here. All articles are currently provided free on the Journal of Industrial Ecology site.


 John Mulrow is a PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, specializing in industrial byproducts and sustainability metrics. He is a former Worldwatch Institute research fellow.

5 thoughts on “Can the Circular Economy Really Make the World More Sustainable?”

  1. If proponents of the ‘circular economy’ are either consciously or unconsciously trying to prop up an eternal growth paradigm it is doomed to fail. We have to think in terms of ‘limits to growth’, ‘carrying capacity’, and ‘planetary boundaries’. I am fond of the ecological footprint as a guiding framework whilst I recognize that carbon sequestration is a problematic element of the land demand. I would also prefer using words like ‘regenerative economy’ rather than ‘circular economy’. This preference is from a lakoff perspective. I enjoyed this piece and believe this conversation needs to be more widespread.

  2. Hi John,

    I really appreciate your article on the circular economy, especially your conclusion when you say ”an economy that is smaller, both financially and materially”.

    I was wondering if the sharing economy could lead to that result and support the deployment of the circular economy in a more ”sustainable” way?

    I would appreciate to have your view on this thought.



  3. Dear John,

    Your article captures one of the biggest challenges to the term Circular Economy, which is the lack of a clear and coherent definition accepted by all.

    What I mean with this is that the definition or understanding of Circular Economy by the author determines the analysis, the type of sources to take into account, and the conclusions that can be drawn.

    We do need, sooner than later, to come to a common understanding of what Circular Economy actually is, before we can further our collective research in validating it.

    Please join us at to further this conversation with counterparts from the American Continent and help define what it is and how can it be of value to our communities in the region.

    Kevin de Cuba
    Worldwatch Senior Fellow
    President, Circular Economy Platform of the Americas.

  4. While I do agree that there is a lot of hype around the circular economy . and that we need to define much more clearly what we mean by the terminology used – I would like to object to the general tone of the blog post. It is questioning whether a move towards more circular material flows is of any value. It even quotes a study claiming that 100% recycling would only reduce our carbon footprint by less than 1,6 per cent. A nonsense figure in my view. All depends of course how the recycling is being done – and, in particular, how the materials collected are being used. If they are all incinerated – so called energy recovery – I agree that the benefit is very small. But recycling and reuse could be so much more – provided products were designed for recycling. Then the carbon footprint would be reduced significantly.
    Material use has been more or less absent from the climate discussion. Few
    climate mitigation strategies – if any – give priority to material use. Yet we know that the production of steel, cement, aluminium and plastics amount to roughly 20 % of all carbon emissions. And demand for these materials are incresing as we speak.
    If we could change policy frameworks in favor of design for recycling and greater standardisation – so as to improve the possibilities to reuse materials and components of products – the carbon emissions would be signifiacntly reduced. If this is not happening we can forget about the Paris Agreement. The basic materials alone will consume the available carbon budget to stay below 2° degrees of warmin!
    Anders Wijkman, co-president Club of Rome, chair Climate-KIC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *