What is decoupling and why nudge towards absolute decoupling?

Dr. Purva Tavri (Researcher and Chartered Waste Manager) investigates decoupling and nudging towards absolute decoupling to support a circular economy.

It was Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who introduced the concept of decoupling to break the link between ‘environmental bads’ and ‘economic goods’ (UNEP, 2011, p.4). OECD defined decoupling as “the process of separating economic growth from associated negative environmental impacts. In other words, it is to do things more efficiently” (UNEP, 2011, p.4). For implementing this concept into practice, decoupling is divided into (UNEP, 2011, pp.4–5):

  • Relative decoupling – “relative decoupling of resources or impacts means that the growth rate of the resources used or environmental impacts is lower than the economic growth rate, so that resource productivity is rising.”
  • Absolute decoupling – “Absolute reductions of resource use are a consequence of decoupling when the growth rate of resource productivity exceeds the growth rate of the economy.”

The paper intends to present differentiation between relative and absolute decoupling while establishes the premise that currently the waste and resource industry contributions and focus is primarily limited to achieving relative decoupling, whereas, absolute decoupling, which is defined as ‘no waste growth’ (Sgostrom and Ostblom, 2010, p. 1550) has a limited focus.

Within the waste and resource management sector, recycling, recovery, remanufacturing, reverse logistics, product service systems (PSS), and closed-loop supply chains (CLSC) are among the key examples of technological environmental solutions that are contributing to relative decoupling. However, in the current challenging climatic environment, relying on technological solutions alone is not enough. Instead, moving towards absolute decoupling (such as reuse, upcycling, reclaim, repurpose) is one of the essential requirements for the modern economy, which was indeed evident on the 2021 Circular Economy Week London that brought together a wide range of organisations to celebrate and share progress to a circular economy.

The need to adopt non-technological activities such as reuse, upcycling, reclaim, repurpose for achieving absolute decoupling is emphasised by Sgostrom and Ostblom (2010) in their study on decoupling waste generation from economic growth. They contend that achieving absolute decoupling is a way of unravelling the current unsustainable connection between the opposed forces of conventional economic development and the reduction of waste growth and fostering a more positive relationship between the two.

The UNEP report (2011) on decoupling specifies that one way of achieving absolute decoupling is by increasing resource productivity to alleviate the problem of scarcity. In essence, in absolute decoupling, the impact on the environment is less than the economic growth rate, which means that resources are being used more wisely and cleanly. Fell et al. (2010) in similar terms describe absolute decoupling as the process of separating economic growth from the associated negative environmental impacts.

In ‘The Myth of Decoupling’, Jackson (2009, p.67) argues that ‘the situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms is called “absolute decoupling”’. This latter situation is essential if economic activity is to remain within ecological limits. Similarly, Chatterton and Style (2001) describe absolute decoupling as a means of achieving a middle ground or consensus between conventional economic growth and waste reduction to protect the environment.

Giljum et al. (2005) study of strategies and instruments for developing absolute decoupling shows that achieving relative decoupling through material inputs and energy use is an insufficient solution to the increasing burden being placed on the environment and resources. Therefore, absolute decoupling must be an overarching goal to decrease existing environmental pressures.

Gertsakis and Lewis (2003) and Mazzanti and Zoboli (2008), both of which consider waste management techniques and policies, similarly argue that just achieving relative decoupling (through recycling and waste to energy recovery) is inadequate for tackling the contemporary unsustainable situation. They further suggest the need for deliberate and decisive human action solutions (such as reuse, repurpose, upcycling, reclaim) for the prevention of waste or prolonging the life of materials.

In their study on decoupling waste generation from economic growth, Sgostrom and Ostblom (2010) observe that all economic growth carries with it a concurrent increase in waste production. They note that stakeholders in the waste management sector have focused on reducing the negative environmental impact of waste through technical means. However, there has been very little attention to the efficient management of resources and decreasing consumption. The study indicates a need for focussing on achieving absolute decoupling to tackle the current waste and consumption problems.

Jackson (2009) describes a system for achieving absolute decoupling through a structural change in society brought about through policy changes that promote a sustainable lifestyle. He comments that “our technologies, our economy, and our social aspirations are all misaligned with any meaningful expression of prosperity. The vision of social progress that drives us – based on the continual expansion of material wants – is fundamentally untenable…. In the pursuit of the good life today, we are systematically eroding the basis for well-being tomorrow.” (2009, p.2)

Wijkman and Rockstrom make a similar point in their work on the magnitude of the global environmental challenges and resource constraints, arguing that “there is much in society that needs to grow and develop, such as culture, education, and research, investment in environmentally friendly technologies and infrastructure, health and social care for children and the elderly. But it must be done within a framework where the throughput of energy and materials in the economy is not constantly increasing. If the economy could develop in this direction, it could mean an inevitable end to the throw-away mentality and wasteful practices that dominate consumption pattern and business model today” (2011, p.18).

Reuse, reclaim, upcycling, repurpose are among the ways that aim to decouple organisations need for resources from their economic growth, allowing for the necessary economic expansion while reducing the need for newly sourced materials, thus contributing to the movement towards an absolute decoupling.

Absolute decoupling is a no-waste-growth solution that endeavours to discover a middle ground or consensus between conventional economic growth and waste reduction to protect the environment (Chatterton and Style, 2001). We, as the waste and resource industry should start taking the step towards achieving absolute decoupling by ‘rethinking the problem rather than solving it’ (Pearce & Barbier, 2000, p.250).


  • Chatterton, P. and Style, S. (2001) ‘Putting sustainable development into practice? The role of local ‘policy partnership networks’, Local Environment, 6(4), pp.439-452
  • Fell, D, Cox, J., and Wilson, D.C. (2010) ‘Future waste growth, modelling and decoupling’, Waste management and Research, 28(3), pp.281-286.
  • Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity without growth. London and New York: Earth scan.
  • Gertsakis, J. and Lewis, H. (2003) Sustainability and the waste management hierarchy. Retrieved on January, 30, 2008.
  • Giljum, S., Hak, T., Hinterberger, F., and Kovanda, J. (2005) ‘Environmental governance in the European Union: strategies and instruments for absolute decoupling’, International Journal for Sustainable Development, 8(1/2), pp.31-46.
  • Mazzanti, M., and Zoboli, R. (2008) ‘Waste generation, waste disposal and policy effectiveness: evidence on decoupling from the European Union.’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 52, pp.1221-1234.
  • Pearce, D., and Barbier, E.D. (2000) Blueprint for a sustainable economy. London: Earthscan.
  • Sgostrom, M., and Ostblom, G. (2010) ‘Decoupling waste generation from economic growth- A CGE analysis of the Swedish case’, Ecological economics, 69, pp.1545-1552.
  • UNEP, (2011) Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. Nirobi/Kenya: UNEP, (DTI/1388/PA).
  • Wijkman, A., and Rockstrom, J. (2011) Bankrupting nature: Denying our planetary boundaries. London: Earth Scan from Routledge.
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