A survey and analysis on public awareness and performance for
promoting circular economy in China: A case study from Tianjin
Qian Liu, Hui-ming Li*, Xiao-li Zuo, Fei-fei Zhang, Lei Wang
College of Environmental Science and Engineering, Nankai University, 94 Weijin Road, 300071 Tianjin, PR China
a r t i c l e i n f o
Received 8 November 2007
Received in revised form 31 May 2008
Accepted 6 June 2008
Available online 25 July 2008
a b s t r a c t
The main objective of this study is to create a better understanding of public awareness and performance
in the promotion of a Circular Economy (CE) in Tianjin, China. The data and information used in this
paper were collected by distributing questionnaires randomly in 6 urban districts and interviewing 600
respondents. The results indicate that the residents have limited awareness and a poor understanding
about the CE program. However, they hold a positive attitude toward garbage sorting while most of the
residents simply classify the garbage into categories that can be sold, reused or exchanged for new ones.
People’s awareness of the CE program has a positive correlation to their educational level, whereas their
pro-environmental and resource conservation behavior has a positive correlation to the age of the
? 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1.1. Research background
China’s rapid industrialization has engenderedserious problems
with the depletion of natural resources, degradation of major
ecosystems, and pollution extending far beyond its borders. China’s
leadership, inspired by Japanese and German Recycling Economy
Laws, has formed a Circular Economy (CE) initiative in order to
decouple theeconomic growthfromenvironmental degradation, as
well as build an environmental-friendly and resource-saving
The concept of CE was first proposed by scholars in China in
1998 and formally accepted in 2002 by the Central Government as
a new development strategy aimed at environmental protection,
pollution prevention and sustainable development . So far, the
research of CE was conducted in two different layers which could
be simplified as ‘‘the CE in practice’’ and ‘‘the CE in theory’’. ‘‘The CE
in practice’’ aims at realizing waste minimization, environmental
simultaneously, so it equals to a package of the all-round, system-
atic strategies and tools approaching the goals mentioned above.
‘‘3R’’ principle – reduction, reusing, and recycling of materials and
energy – are often cited to describe the three possible approaches
in practice. However, ‘‘the CE in theory’’ belongs to the field of
ecological economics which owns the theoretical premise that the
economic system is an open subsystem of the earth’s ecological
system with limited resource and environment capability. As the
unbalanced material exchange between the ecosystem and the
socioeconomic system have taken place on the stage of in-
dustrialization, the circular economy defines its mission as solving
the problems from the perspective of reducing the material flux
and making the material flow balanced between the ecosystem and
the socioeconomic system.
The driving forces behind the dramatic development of a CE can
be attributed to both (1) changes in governance philosophies of the
Chinese Government and (2) the severe situation thatoureconomic
growth has created with an excessively high cost of resources and
the environment. Due to such a unique background, the concept of
the circular economy in China has its own understandings and
focuses of practice compared with the relevant concepts and
activities found in other countries such as Germany and Japan .
China is just reaching the mid-industrialization stage, meanwhile
facing compound environmental issues including various cases of
pollution and ecological degradation as well as global environ-
mental problems, which result from a compressed process of
industrialization, urbanization and disharmonies between urban
and rural districts. Such a situation determines that mitigating the
industrial pollution and consumption intensities of resources and
energyconstitute the overall picture of circular economy practice in
China, rather than the waste-based focus in Germany and Japan at
the early stage of circular economic activities.
* Corresponding author. Tel./fax: þ86 022 2350 0557.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (Q. Liu), firstname.lastname@example.org
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Journal of Cleaner Production
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Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009) 265–270
The 11th Five-year Planning Outline for National Economic and
Social Development set up two mandatory targets. Compared to
2005, energy consumption per unit GDP should be reduced by 20%,
and the total volume of SO2and COD released should be reduced by
10% by 2010. Since then, administrations in the hierarchy have paid
more attention to CE and relative planning which were imple-
mented in various regions of the whole country. In December 2005,
the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC),
China’s top economic planner, as well as the central government
agency to promote CE, announced eight initiatives for the formu-
lation of circular economy policies. These include the initiation of
the legislation process, the launching of pilot projects, the
development of economic instruments, research and development
of technology, industrial restructuring, studies on measuring
indicators, financing key pilot projects by using funds raised
through state bonds, and training and education.
China’s first law on CE is expected to be launched in January
2008. On October 27, 2005 the NDRC announced the list of entities
to be the first (model) entities in China to develop CE; the list
included 56 enterprises, 13 industrial parks, 7 provinces, 5 cities,
and 1 town. In 2007, the Report at the 17th Party Congress
announced that China will have a large-scale circular economy.
Then the NDRC announced the list of the second (model) entities,
and so far, the total number of model entities is 178.
The implementation process of the CE envisions a combination
of positives and negatives. Stringent enforcement of a set of poli-
cies for energy saving and pollution abatement in China certainly
creates an environment for implementing a more sustainable
development strategy. Yet, since there are still traces of the central-
planned economy, the CE is taking a top-down approach which
implies that both market-based solutions and public involvement
have not been adequately integrated into the whole blueprint of CE
on a regional basis. For example, the plans were nearly all reduced
to rigid solutions in some cases, such as company to company
waste or byproduct exchange, rather than maintaining a broader
view . For example, some of the local governments pay too
much attention to the inter-linkage between the companies. They
ignore the regulation of the energy input or pollution of the up-
river or downriver enterprises, or they regard the formation of
‘‘circular’’ as the key characteristic of CE and fail to assess the so-
cial, economic, or environment benefit of the EIP. Meanwhile, al-
though the bottom-up mechanism for the promotion of a CE in
China was on the agenda, scant attention has been paid to the
public awareness and their involvement strategies. Therefore
nearly all the CE plans included relevant content, but most of them
were rarely implemented due to the lack of scientific support from
1.2. Previous studies and need for further studies
The realization that people’s choices, behaviors and lifestyles
will play a vital role in achieving sustainable development is one of
the (relatively few) points of agreement to have emerged from
international environmental policy debates over the last decade or
so . The question of how to examine individual attitudes and
behavior or, more significantly, how to introduce meaningful poli-
cies is particularly problematic in the realm of sustainable de-
velopment. Valuable researches started in the 1970s, and in recent
years a number of researchers in the UK, Sweden and Japan in-
creased research in this area. Topics investigated include: profiles of
the green consumers ; determinations of the household waste
reduction, reuse, recycling and green purchasing behavior [6–8];
diversity and change in consumption patterns and the policy op-
portunities for behavior change [4,9].
Most consumer behavior research in China is carried out for
marketing purposes, rather than identifying how consumption can
be increased, than how it can be made more sustainable. Many
policy and research-based groups, as well as NGOs, are also
conducting research that can be qualified under this category.
However, this research is typically narrower in scope and often
commissioned for specific purposes not directly related to
sustainable consumption. In the least developed regions, this kind
of research does not exist at all. Although there are many surveys
focused on people’s general environmental knowledge, attitudes
and their relative impacts on environmentally sensitive behavior in
1990s, few empirical studies have specifically examined people’s
attitude toward CE and the involvement conditions in the
This survey will provide initial insight into the awareness and
behavior of Tianjin residents in the promotion process of CE. The
research results will provide both information for Tianjin’s CE
promotional strategies and inspiration for further normative
research on CE’s social level. All of the information ultimately
facilitates decision-makers, environmentalists, educators, and
businessman in planning for the overall development of CE and
social sustainable development.
The paper consists of five sections. The next section explains the
research design and data collection in detail. The research findings
and analysis process are presented in Section 3. The final section
contains the main conclusions, a discussion of the limitations of
this survey and potential for further research.
2. Research design and data collection
2.1. Research area
The city of Tianjin is one of the four municipalities directly
under the central government. The other three are Beijing,
Shanghai and Chongqing. Tianjin covers a total area of 11,919.7
square kilometers (Fig. 1a,b). Lying near to Beijing, it is a port
through which products from a vast area of North and Northwest
China are exported. The permanent registered population of
Tianjin was 9.39 million in 2005 (4.66 million female and 4.74
million male). It had a population of 3,937,300 living in the ur-
ban environment in 2005 from six urban districts (Nankai,
Hongqiao, Hedong, Hexi, Hebei and Heping; Fig. 1c). The domi-
nant income per capita (urban residents) is 14,283 Yuan in 2006
(see Table 1).
Its GDP was 4,337.73 hundred million Yuan in 2006. The per
capita GDP was 40,171 Yuan in 2006. As a commercial port with
a long history, Tianjin has developed more rapidly in commerce,
catering and services. Of the top 500 enterprises in the world, 22
have developed business in Tianjin. The retail sales of consumer
goods reached 107.405 billion Yuan in 2003.1
According to the outline for the 11th Five-Year Plan for the
National Economic and Social Development of Tianjin, in the
coming five years, the main targets are energy intensity (energy
consumption per unit GDP) should be reduced by 15%, and water
resources consumption should be increased by less than 10%.
Therefore, the city pushed forward some programs including the
development of an ecological industrial park and fostering the pilot
of a recycling industrial park authorized by the central government.
In 2006, the city set a new goal; that is to build Tianjin into an eco-
city. The Nankai research center for CE, authorized by Tianjin
Academy of Social Science, undertakes a series of researches and
investigations, so as to put forward a report involving the unique
overall plan to realize the goals of eco-city by promoting CE in
1Tianjin Statistics Bureau, Statistics bulletin on Tianjin national economy and
social development in 2003, 2004.
Q. Liu et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009) 265–270266
2.2. Questionnaire design
A questionnaire composed of questions with pre-selected
answers was used as the main tool of this research. The question-
naire was divided into three sections. The first section evaluated
people’s attitude toward CE. The questions are as follows:
1-1 Have you heard of the circular economy?
1-2 Would you buy green goods consciously?
1-3 What is your opinion toward garbage sorting?
1-4 Would you like to buy a camera, toy or rent it?
The Second part was designed to uncover people’s behavior,
which included conservation behavior in daily life, green purchase
behavior and their behavior after purchase. The questions are as
2-1 What kinds of products have you ever bought?
2-2 Do you pay attention to saving water and electricity in your
2-3 Do you maintain your durable machine?
2-4 How do you dispose of the packaging from goods?
We also asked the respondents to provide some demographic
information including age, gender, education, and income.
2.3. Questionnaire distribution and results
The preliminary survey was carried out from October 20th to
October 25th, 2006. In the preliminary survey, we distributed 40
surveys to two communities through the community resident
committee (CRC), while the other 50 surveys were distributed at
the front door of the largest supermarket in Nankai district.
We found that many questionnaires brought in from the CRC
were completed by just one person (telling by the handwriting).
Many respondents left several questions unanswered and most of
the respondents were retired people (possibly they have more
spare time and are more cooperative). The surveys from the
supermarket were relatively more usable.
at each district, and distributed questionnaires at the front doors or
the resting-places of these six supermarkets in the formal survey.
We also adjusted two misunderstood questions and eliminated the
open-ended question. In order to attract potential respondents to
take part in our research, we decided to give a little toy or notebook
(1.5 Yuan each) to the respondents. The investigators read the
in the questionnaire according to their answers.
The formal investigations were carried out from November 18th
to November 28th. Two investigators went to one supermarket
each time, and distributed the questionnaires at the front door or
the resting-place of the big supermarket in Nankai, Hongqiao,
Hedong, Hexi, and Hebei districts. Since Heping district is the
shopping center of Tianjin, we distributed questionnaires at the
marketplace. All the samples were selected randomly.
A total of 580 questionnaires were returned from the 600
citizens, consisting of 524 completed questionnaires and 56 un-
completed. The effective response rate was 87.3%. The demographic
sample toward females (55.7%), 26–46 years old (51.9%) and junior
college diploma or higher degree (56.7%), possibly because these
people tend to be more interested in completing the questionnaire
or more sensitive due to the fact that we gave them a small gift for
listed in Table 2.
3. Research findings
3.1. Public awareness of circular economy
3.1.1. Public understanding of circular economy
understanding of CE available, we compared the public perception
of ‘‘CE’’ with that of ‘‘Environmental Protection’’ in this survey. The
results showed thatonly 13.1% of the respondents chose the answer
‘‘I understand circular economy very well’’, 58.2% had just heard of
it, and 28.7% had neverheard of the word ‘‘CE’’. The ‘‘Environmental
Protection’’ survey showed that 19.3% knew it vey well, 69.4% knew
the general meaning of it, and 11.3% said they didn’t know at all.
The investigators interviewed some of the people who consid-
ered that they understood CE very well. Nearly every one of them
stated that CE equaled to ‘‘recycling’’ or ‘‘garbage classification’’,
which represented a narrower concept than environmental
protection. As a matter of fact, CE not only targets the waste
no report specializingonthe public
Fig. 1. Sketch map of Tianjin: (a) China; (b) Tianjin; (c) Tianjin urban area.
Population from six districts of urban environment
DistrictNankai HongqiaoHedongHexi Hebei Heping
Percent of the
Tianjin statistic bureau 2006.3.
Q. Liu et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009) 265–270267
disposal in China, but also involves transformation in industrial
structure and allocation, urban infrastructure, environmental pro-
tection, technological paradigms, social welfare distribution, etc.
These transformations are based on system innovations of the
whole economy system.
In comparison,termssuch as environmental protection and eco-
city are better known. This situation was in consistent with the
developing phase and characteristics of a CE in China mentioned in
Section 1.1. As local governmental policy can’t be effective without
people’s support and involvement, a lot more attention should be
We divided the results according to the educational level of the
recipients. The residents own more awareness of CE as their
educational background gets better (Table 3).
3.1.2. Environmental consciousness in purchasing
Green consumption is the direct involvement of the public in
resource conservation and environmental protection. By un-
derstanding, recognizing, and purchasing environmentally labeled
products, the public can stimulate the production of the environ-
mentally benign products. In response to the question: ‘‘would you
buy green goods consciously?’’ up to 75.4% chose ‘‘yes’’, while in
a similar survey in Shijiazhuang less than 50% respondent chose
‘‘yes’’  and 24.6% chose the opposite. When being interviewed,
nearly all of them were suspicious of the green claims of the label,
and figured that there were fake environmental-sound products.
The same critics of the 1990s argued that the environmental
movement initiated pseudo-greening of many corporations and
undermined people’s faith in environmental strategies and green
3.1.3. Attitude toward garbage sorting
Waste generation is one of the most visible side effects of con-
sumption. The first years of the 21st centurysaw the introduction of
new garbage disposal methods in China. The first sorting pilot
programs were launched in 2000, then a collection charge in 2002.
There were pilot studies in eight cities including Beijing, Shanghai
and Hangzhou in 2000. In Beijing, by the end of 2002, sorting had
been introduced to residential quarters, office buildings and in-
dustrial districts; 200,000 households and 1 million people were
covered. However, onlyabout 10% of the garbage in those areas was
actually being sorted .
Therefore, one question in the survey was designed to get to
know local public opinion toward garbage sorting; another was to
uncover how the residents deposit their garbage in the daily life
(see Section 3.2.3). The results revealed a positive attitude toward
the sorting of garbage. In all, 52.3% people considered that garbage
collection was necessary. However, 31.7% pointed out that classifi-
cation was inconvenient, and 25.8% thought that there was
insufficient instruction or relevant knowledge.
Similar surveys had been carried out in other Chinese cities. In
Panyu, Guangzhou, 85.5% of residents accepted the sorting of
household wastes . The figure in Shanghai was 69.9%, and in
Ningbo it was 60% . However, 72.2% of Shanghai residents
thought that sorting was inconvenient . The highest supporting
rate reported for sorting was 95.6%, by the university students in
Fuzhou, Fujian Province .
3.1.4. Attitude toward shared use
The substitution of energy and materials with efficiency ser-
vices may influence overall resource consumption. Increasing the
intensity of use by product renting, sharing, and pooling as al-
ternatives to traditional consumption based on ownership may
potentially minimize the total number of products and de-link
economic growth from environmental pressure. However, in
Tianjin, 72.7% of our respondents stated they would not rent
a camera, or toy for children, while only 5.5% would choose to rent
instead of buy. We interviewed some respondents when they
answered this question, and found that their attitudes toward
shared use were possibly related to the respondent’s economic
status. For the ones with relatively higher economic status, they
said they would buy these goods if needed. Some of them worried
that the rented toys or other articles for use could hardly meet
their health or other personal requirements. For the ones with
relatively lower economic status, many respondents said they
would buy the needed articles if they have enough money. People
with higher education and higher income, between ages 26 and
55, consider ownership of great importance. However, if the
choice is correlated to people’s income, maybe, the answer is
likely to depend on the cost to buy or rent, so there is much more
There is another aspect which should be considered. The mode
of shared use in China maybe different from that in the western
world. In China people share furniture, electronic products, electric
apparatus, and kitchenware with their relatives. As more and more
people spend life in the community, increasing their knowledge
and willingness of renting, sharing, and pooling in the community
is also an important research task.
3.2. Performance and behavior
Integrating sustainable consumption and production principles
into patterns of daily behavior is a major policy challenge for gov-
ernments seeking long-term sustainability. Therefore, it is neces-
sary to know more about public performance and behavior relating
to resource conservation and environmental protection at present
in Tianjin. The information and an understanding of the situation
will help the local government to provide a public policy, and adopt
the most feasible public educational measures.
The demographic composition of the samples
56 and above
Junior High School Diploma
Senior High School Diploma
Junior college diploma and above
Understanding of CE by educational degree
of it (%)
Do not care (%) Total
Q. Liu et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009) 265–270268
3.2.1. Green purchase behavior
More people showed that they had bought green merchandise
consciously to date (as concluded in Section 3.1.2), and a variety of
green products are now offered to consumers, ranging from laun-
dry detergents, household cleaning products to energy-saving
appliances. The results showed that more people chose to buy
goods which are harmless to their health, like green foods, while
fewer people chose products that are good for the local or global
environment. And more than half of the respondents would like to
buy energy or water-saving products (Table 4).
In a similar survey carried out in Ningbo in 2003, the results
illustrated that a higher percentage of the respondents gave pri-
ority to the environmental elements related to saving energy and
therefore gained some economic benefits, such as reducing elec-
tricity consumption. In addition, their survey also found that most
respondents considered the environmental elements from the
stand point of their own health and safety. The elements which
they focused upon most frequently were noise, indoor air quality,
radiation, etc. .
3.2.2. Conservation behavior in daily life
Question 2-2 was used to analyze conservation behavior. The
results showed that more than half of the residents paid special
attention to save water and electricity in daily life, only 5.3% never
notice or try to save these resources. The result was consistent with
our literature investigation, showing that the residents had a tra-
dition of conserving resource, especially saving water.
Tianjin is one of many Chinese cities suffering from serious
water shortage. Meanwhile, it is also among the cities with long
histories and rich experiences of water conservation. The sus-
tained drought in the Haihe River drainage area since 1997 forced
the city to divert water from the Yellow River in 2000, 2002, 2003
and 2004. However, the city has released a string of regulations
such as the ‘‘Water-saving Enterprises Standards and Regulations
on Water Utilization Plan of Construction Projects’’ to prevent
enterprises from misusing water. The government is also pro-
moting public awareness of conservation through the mass media
and by starting programs identifying water-saving stars and
blasting the ‘‘wasters’’.
3.2.3. Behavior after purchase
Questions 2-3 and 2-4 were used to observe people’s behavior
after purchase. Data displayed that 26.9% respondents reused the
packing, 56.3% had the habit of collecting and selling them.
Meanwhile, 87.6% maintained their durable machines such as
washing machine and refrigerators often or once in a while, and
often repaired them to extend their life. But most residents of
Tianjin simply classified their garbage into categories which could
be sold, reused or changed for new ones if possible. This tradition
has developed since a well-organized waste take-back system was
established in the 1980s in Tianjin, when many second-hand re-
sources went back to the industrial system to foster industrial de-
velopment. This may explain why the residents exhibit a positive
attitude toward sorting garbage (see Section 3.1.3).
3.2.4. The residents’ behavior vs. age
The respondents’ answers to the above three questions
(Sections 3.2.2 and 3.2.3) were divided into four age levels. The
numbers and percents of residents in each age level who chose the
indicated choices were listed (see Table 5).
The results showed that the older people were more likely to
conserve water and energy, and maintain or repair electric equip-
ment. Most of them classified the garbage roughly at home, and
rarely threw away the materials which could be sold or reused. The
older people tended to think that they should not waste anything
that could be recycled. Similar research by Vining and Ebreo 
and Lansana both reported a positive relationship, indicating that
older residents are more likely to recycle.
4. Conclusions and recommendations
The findings from this study have important implications for
both the development and implementation of CE schemes and
campaigns to make householders aware of their responsibilities,
and for the future study of public policy underlying the
development of CE in social level.
4.1. Conclusions and discussions
understanding of CE. While the government sets an ambitious goal
and takes more responsibility in promoting CE, the public does not
have basic information on what role they should play. Most resi-
dents are not involved in the promoting CE.
Despite the 75.4% of people purchasing green goods, the results
illustrate that a higher percentage of the respondents give their
priority to the environmental elements related to saving energy
and gaining some economic benefits, such as reducing electricity
consumption. Most respondents consider the environmental ele-
ments from the stand point of their own health and safety instead
of caring for the regional and global environments. So at present,
these are economical consumption behaviors rather than conser-
vation-conscious behaviors. In addition, consumers need to be
provided with adequate information about the product/service in
the form of an eco-label or product declaration. Such labels/product
declarations need to be independently verified to be reliable.
Tianjin municipal residents have a positive attitude toward
sorting of garbage. However, most of the residents simply classify
in Tianjinhave limited awarenessand poor
What kind of products have you ever bought?
 Goods with simple packing
 Products with an environmentally-friendly label
 Electrical equipment with low radiation or noise
 Non-phosphor containing laundry detergents
 Energy or water-saving products
 Non-CFC air conditioner or refrigerator
 Green foods or organic foods
Conservation behavior by age level
Age level% Total
Question 2-2: Do you pay attention to saving water and electricity in your daily life?
Answer: Yes, everyday
10–25 51.3% (94)
26–40 45.9% (79)
41–55 71.2% (84)
Above 56 73.7% (42)
Question 2-3: Do you maintain your durable machine?
Answer: Maintained our durable machines often, and repair it to extend their lives
10–25 26.0% (46)
26–40 26.7% (46)
41–55 46.6% (55)
Above 56(57) 61.4% (35)
Question 2-4: How do you dispose the packaging of goods?
Answer: Throw away
Q. Liu et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009) 265–270 269