The definition of a circular economy is ‘unclear and lacks substance’, according to a team of researchers from Lancaster University Management School, Lund University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
In a new study, published in Journal of Industrial Ecology, researchers say the circular economy risks becoming ‘counterproductive’, unless we stop referring to it as a ‘panacea for all kinds of environmental problems’.
While a circular economy has become a well-known and recognised model among businesses, regions, cities and NGOs worldwide – from China and Latin America to the EU and the USA – what is less discussed is that the model has received a great deal of criticism from both practitioners and researchers, the researchers say.
Academics from Lancaster University Management School, Lund University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden compiled their criticisms in the new study, finding that the concept of a circular economy is ‘so diffuse and sprawling’ that it is not possible to measure its impact – it includes everything from recycling systems, renting, replacing products with services, to developing apps for the sharing economy, etc.
The report suggests that advocates of a circular economy tend to ignore the ‘vast amount of materials and products that people have already accumulated’.
Clarity is required regarding precisely what type of circularity it applies and what the conflicting objectives are
The researchers says that the concept is reduced to a question of choosing between linear and circular products and disregards physical laws about the physical limitations of materials and the complexity of the waste; even though these issues are crucial if a circular economy is to become a reality.
They also found that some businesses only develop circular activities for parts of their operations. It says this may be due to the difficulty of scaling up pilot projects; often it is only a small part of the operation that is characterised by a circular economy, while the core activities ‘continue as usual’, the research suggests.
“In conclusion, criticism of the circular economy does not challenge the concept of circularity”, says Hervé Corvellec, principal author of the study. “Rather, it is a case of how the supposed benefits are based on inconsistencies, an incomplete picture, hidden assumptions, agendas and unclear consequences.
“These are the questions we have to ask ourselves: how do we know that a circular solution is good for the environment? Who benefits from it and who does not? Will it phase out the linear economy – extract, produce, consume, discard?
“Clarity is required regarding precisely what type of circularity it applies and what the conflicting objectives are.”
‘Modest circular economy’
The report also goes on to suggests there is poor knowledge about how a circular economy will affect the utilisation of resources and growth.
The researcher say this makes it difficult to measure the environmental impact, especially in the long term and over larger geographical scales. Some claim that a circular economy only ‘delays, rather than eliminates, the negative environmental impact of the linear economy’, they said.
The research suggests that some circular economy critics argue that the circular economy ‘depoliticises industrial and environmental policies’ while ‘advancing the power of the market and businesses’.
We recognise that the circular economy agenda has made significant impact, and this study aims to highlight the areas in need of research, policy and managerial attention to drive further progress
The report says it is an ‘enticing concept’ which promises that everyone will benefit from its implementation. It enables discussions about synergies, win-win and possibilities rather than about ‘compromises, problems and limitations’.
Within the paper, the team of researchers propose a ‘more modest circular economy’, which is not presented as a ‘panacea’ but as a r’eal solution to concrete problems’.
Co-author Dr Alison Stowell, from Lancaster University Management School, said: “We recognise that the circular economy agenda has made significant impact, and this study aims to highlight the areas in need of research, policy and managerial attention to drive further progress.
“We hope it will assist in the development of a more modest pathway to circularity that is concrete, transparent and inclusive.”
The full paper, ‘Critiques of the Circular Economy’, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology is available here.