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A review on circular economy: The expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems



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Accepted Manuscript
A review on circular economy: The expected transition to a balanced interplay of
environmental and economic systems
Patrizia Ghisellini, Catia Cialani, Sergio Ulgiati
PII: S0959-6526(15)01228-7
DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.09.007
Reference: JCLP 6095
To appear in: Journal of Cleaner Production
Received Date: 3 September 2014
Revised Date: 26 August 2015
Accepted Date: 1 September 2015
Please cite this article as: Ghisellini P, Cialani C, Ulgiati S, A review on circular economy: The
expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems, Journal of Cleaner
Production (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.09.007.
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Authors’ affiliations
Patrizia Ghisellini, Alma Mater Studiorum – University of Bologna, Department of Agri-Food Science and
Technology, Bologna, 40127, Italy;
Catia Cialani, Dalarna University, School of Technology and Business Studies, Economics Unit, 791 88
Falun, Sweden;
Sergio Ulgiati (two affiliations):
(1) Parthenope University of Naples, Department of Sciences and Technologies, Naples, 80143,
(2) School of Environment, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China.
In the last few years circular economy (CE) is receiving increasing attention worldwide as a way to
overcome the current production and consumption model based on continuous growth and increasing
resource throughput. By promoting the adoption of closing-the-loop production patterns within an economic
system CE aims to increase the efficiency of resource use, with special focus on urban and industrial waste,
to achieve a better balance and harmony between economy, environment and society. This study provides an
extensive review of the literature of last two decades, with the purpose of grasping the main CE features and
perspectives: origins, basic principles, advantages and disadvantages, modelling and implementation of CE
at the different levels (micro, meso and macro) worldwide.
Results evidence that CE origins are mainly rooted in ecological and environmental economics and industrial
ecology. In China CE is promoted as a top-down national political objective while in other areas and
countries as European Union, Japan and USA it is a tool to design bottom-up environmental and waste
management policies. The ultimate goal of promoting CE is the decoupling of environmental pressure from
economic growth. The implementation of CE worldwide still seems in the early stages, mainly focused on
recycle rather than reuse. Important results have been achieved in some activity sectors (e.g. in waste
management, where large waste recycling rates are achieved in selected developed countries). CE implies the
adoption of cleaner production patterns at company level, an increase of producers and consumers
responsibility and awareness, the use of renewable technologies and materials (wherever possible) as well as
the adoption of suitable, clear and stable policies and tools. The lesson learned from successful experiences
is that the transition towards CE comes from the involvement of all actors of the society and their capacity to
link and create suitable collaboration and exchange patterns. Success stories also point out the need for an
economic return on investment, in order to provide suitable motivation to companies and investors. In
summary, the CE transition has just started. Moreover, the interdisciplinary framework underpinning CE
offers good prospects for gradual improvement of the present production and consumption models, no longer
adequate because of their environmental load and social inequity, a clear indicator of resource use
A review on circular economy: The expected transition to a balanced
interplay of
environmental and economic systems.
1. Introduction
Over the last decade growing attention has been paid worldwide to the new concept and
development model of Circular Economy, CE, with the aim to provide a better alternative to the
dominant economic development model, so called “take, make and dispose” (Ness 2008). The
negative effects caused by the latter are threatening the stability of the economies and the integrity
of natural ecosystems that are essential for humanity’s survival. (EC 2014a,b; Lett 2014;
Mazzantini 2014; Park and Chertow 2014; Su et al. 2013; Geng et al. 2012; UNEP 2013a;
Whaughray 2013; Ellen Macarthur Foundation 2012; Preston 2012; Stiehl and Hirth 2012; Feng
and Yan 2007; Yuan et al. 2006; Yap 2005).
So far many different CE studies (case studies, reviews, scientific reports, etc.) have been published
worldwide (Yap 2005; Andersen 2007; Feng and Yan 2007; Charonis 2012; Ellen Mac Arthur
Foundation 2012; Preston 2012; Su et al. 2013; Lett 2014; Naustdalslid 2014; Prendeville et al.
2014; Club of Rome 2015; Resource 2015). A large number of these studies concern the
implementation of CE in China. This country seems strongly committed and attracted by CE
because of the huge environmental, human health and social problems posed by its very rapid and
continuous economic development pattern (Yap 2005; Fang et al. 2007; Feng and Yan 2007; Geng
and Doberstein 2008; Geng et al. 2012; Mathews and Tan 2011; Mazzantini 2013; Su et al. 2013;
UNEP 2013a). Circular economy is seen as a new business model expected to lead to a more
sustainable development and a harmonious society (Feng and Yan 2007; Geng and Doberstein
2008; Ness 2008; Mathews and Tan 2011; Europesworld 2014; Lett 2014; Naustdalslid 2014).
Sustainable development requires balanced and simultaneous consideration of the economic,
environmental, technological and social aspects of an investigated economy, sector, or individual
industrial process as well as of the interaction among all these aspects (FAO 2002, Ren et al. 2013).
Circular economy contributes positively to reconcile all the elements, thanks to its underlying
rationale, mainly rooted in environmental and political (Birat 2015) as well as economic and
business aspects (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation 2012). CE promotes a more appropriate and
environmentally sound use of resources aimed at the implementation of a greener economy,
characterized by a new business model and innovative employment opportunities (Ellen Mac Arthur
Foundation 2012; Stahel 2014), as well as by improved wellbeing and evident impacts on equity
within and among generations in terms of both resource use and access: “A world in which poverty
is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes” (World Commission on
Environment and Development 1987).
CE has most often been considered only as an approach to more appropriate waste management.
Such very limited point of view may lead CE to fail, in that some recycling, reuse or recovery
options may either be not appropriate in a given context while instead fitting other situations and,
more than that, some conversion options based on green chemistry and biotechnology may end up
being much more expensive and impacting than the conventional technology addressed, which calls
for prevention more than treatment. All in all, the challenge ahead towards a preventative and
regenerative eco-industrial development (Geng et al. 2014a) is not a “more of the same” approach,
calling for increased implementation of “green” technologies, but instead requires a broader and
much more comprehensive look at the design of radically alternative solutions, over the entire life
cycle of any process as well as at the interaction between the process and the environment and the
economy in which it is embedded, so that the regeneration is not only material or energy recovery
but instead becomes an improvement of the entire living and economic model compared to previous
business-as-usual economy and resource management. CE has the potential to understand and
implement radically new patterns and help society reach increased sustainability and wellbeing at
low or no material, energy and environmental costs.
Finally, it should not be disregarded that sustainability patterns (such as CE) not only require
innovative concepts but also innovative actors. In fact, due to the complexity of the sustainable
development vision, most often its implementation needs to be supported by innovation designers
and intermediaries who provide services and designs towards appropriate radical changes in both
practices, policies and decision making tools (Golinska et al. 2015;
Küçüksayraç et al. 2015).
Our primary aim in this review is to summarize and evaluate the literature pertaining Chinese CE
implementation experiences and compare them with the European and Japanese as well as other
worldwide experiences, to grasp similarities and differences among these geographical areas. We
also provide a brief theoretical overview of CE, its origins, its underlying or foreseen economic
models and its relationship to steady state and degrowth patterns that until now have challenged the
present models of economic development. Our final purpose in this regard is to understand to what
extent CE could be a solution to the need for reducing the environmental impacts of business-as-
usual economic systems.
This study is structured as follows: Section 2 (Materials and Methods) provides details about the
method used for literature mining and key characteristics of the studies selected for this review. The
same section also provides an outline of CE origins, principles and models, as well as its relation
with steady state, growth and degrowth patterns. Section 3 (Results) summarizes the
implementation of CE worldwide on the basis of the published experiences at micro (company or
consumer level), meso (eco-industrial parks) and macro (nations, regions, provinces and cities)
levels in production, consumption and waste sectors as well as decoupling achievements, in China,
Europe, other OECD (Japan and USA) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa)
countries. Section 4 (Discussion) discusses the main results emerged from literature and suggests
directions for future research. Finally section 5 (Conclusions) highlights the key findings of the
2. Material and Methods
The selection of published studies was performed according to several integrated criteria: (1)
chronological order (from 2004 to 2014), (2) topics of interest (circular economy origins, principles,
implementation at different scales (micro, e.g. company or consumer level; meso, e.g. eco-industrial
parks level; macro, e.g. city, province, region, nation), (3) comparison to present economic growth
and alternative patterns (steady state economy and economic degrowth), (4) problems and
challenges. The literature search was performed in all web of science
databases and Sciencedirect
by means of keywords such as “circular economy(758 papers), “circular economy and cleaner
production” (64 papers), “circular economy and eco-industrial park” (85 papers), “circular economy
and zero waste” (26 papers), “circular economy and decoupling” (11 papers), “circular economy
and rebound effect” (2 papers), “circular economy and sustainability” (85 papers). Duplicate papers
in more than one category were excluded, totalling 1031 papers. A first selection was made based
on the content of abstracts, the representativeness of which was also weighed on the basis of the
authors’ names (by excluding papers with similar content) and geographical area. In so doing, 155
most representative articles were selected and grouped according to the different topics of interest
for our review. Figure 1 provides a snapshot of the different groups of topics, focusing first on two
conceptual groups (CE Models and CE principles) and then on how these concepts are investigated
across three main “scales” (micro: single processes; meso: eco-industrial parks; and macro: local,
regional and national economies). The main conclusions of the reviewed studies are reported in the
Results section. As it can be seen from Figure 1, a large part of selected articles deals with case
studies of CE’s implementation at different scales while only a few studies address the business
model embedded in CE concepts and the need for decoupling resource use and economic growth. In
a like manner, only a small number of published studies design or discuss CE indicators, therefore
calling for additional research. Figure 2 classifies the case studies on the basis of the investigated
geographical proximity, with China (41 articles reviewed) showing the largest number of published
articles about CE transition.
2.1 Origins of circular economy
The concept of circular economy traces back to different schools of thought. The environmental
economists Pearce and Turner (1989) primarily introduced the concept of circular economic system
building on previous studies of ecological economist Boulding (1966). Boulding’s idea of economy
as a circular system is seen as a prerequisite for the maintenance of the sustainability of human life
on Earth (a closed system with practically no exchanges of matter with the outside environment). In
their theoretical framework, Pearce and Turner (1989) explain the shift from the traditional open-
ended economic system to the circular economic system as a consequence of the law of
thermodynamics (Georgescu-Roegen 1971) that dictate matter and energy degradation. According
to these authors, three economic functions of the environment can be identified: provision of
resources, life support system, sink for waste and emissions. Similar to other economic functions,
these three basic functions should have a price. Most often, however, there is neither a price nor a
market for environmental goods (such as air and water quality, public goods) even if they have a
clear value or utility for individuals and societies. Diverse policy mixes, including regulations,
economic instruments (e.g. environmental taxes) or voluntary measures aimed to fully internalize
the externalities (e.g. producers responsibility) into the price of products, services or activities were
designed to encourage a better use and conservation of resources, mitigation of environmental load
as well as promotion of a transition to CE patterns (Andersen 2007; Ren 2007; Nuti 2010; UNEP
Roots of CE are also found in General Systems Theory (Von Bertanlaffy 1950, 1968) and Industrial
Ecology (Preston 2012).
Beyond the Newtonian view of “organized simplicity”, Von Bertanlaffy (1950) proposed all
organisms be considered as systems, the main characteristic being relationships among their
components (Laslo 1972). In particular, the relationship between organizations and their
environments can be seen as the main source of complexity and interdependence and often the
whole has properties that cannot be known from analysis of the constituent elements in isolation
(Laslo 1972), as the whole determines the behavior of the parts and not vice versa (Capra 1995). As
a consequence, the behavior of an economic agent or organization should be investigated within the
systems of economic relationships of other agents in the economy (Delli Gatti and Gallegati 2001).
General Systems Theory (GST) therefore promotes holism, system thinking, complexity,
organizational learning and human resource development (Capra 1995, Odum 1996, Swanson R.A.
2001, Jackson 2003, Senge et al. 2010), all to be considered important premises of CE.
Industrial ecology, IE, emerged in opposition to the current conception that environmental impacts
of industrial systems should be studied by keeping separate the source “industrial system” and the
receptor of the impacts, “the environment”. Industrial Ecology introduced a different perspective by
analysing the industrial system and its environment as a joint ecosystem characterized by flows of
material, energy and information as well as by provision of resources and services from the
Biosphere (Erkman 1997). Thus, IE consists of three pillars (Chiu and Geng 2004): the first two are
analytical and methodological, mainly aiming to grasp information on: how the industrial system
works, how it is regulated, and its interaction with the biosphere (Erkman 1997) and about its
industrial metabolism (Ayres 1980), while the third one is proactive (Van Berkel et al. 1997), as IE
can be used by companies to improve their performances or alternatively by policy makers for
developing a roadmap to a more sustainable development (Graedel and Alleby 1995; Chiu and
Geng 2004). At the basis of such improvement, in addition to a better conservation of virgin
materials, a central role concerns appropriate waste management and its integration into the
industrial production network as both material and energy source (Frosch 1992). Industrial ecology
promotes the transition from open to closed cycles of materials and energy thus leading to less
wasteful industrial processes (Frosch 1992; Erkman 1997; Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chiu and
Geng 2004; Andersen 2007). The circular economy builds on IE’s concepts for the analysis of
industrial systems operation (industrial metabolism) and optimization (Iung and Levrat 2014),
scaling them up to an economy-wide system to establish a new model of economic development,
production, distribution and recovery of products (Chiaroni and Chiesa 2014). In CE, products and
processes are redesigned to maximize the value of resources through the economy with the ambition
to decouple economic growth and resource use (UTS 2015).
It should be pointed out, however, that the research on CE implementation has been and still is
mainly rooted on the IE idea of the analysis of benefits in terms of physical rather than monetary
flows (Andersen 2007; Mathews and Tan 2011). It is important to mention that the benefits from
recycling of materials tend to decrease until a cut-off point is reached where recycling could be
environmentally or economically too expensive to provide a net benefit. In fact, CE cannot ensure
100 per cent recycling (Andersen 2007), as also pointed out by H. Daly (1977) who suggested the
impossibility for an economic system to be fully circular with products and energy turning back to
raw materials forever, due to the entropy law. Zhu and Wu (2007) point out that CE should be
embedded in a steady state economy framework. Focusing on China’s economic dynamics, these
authors support their claim based on the critical natural capital availability in China since the
beginning of Chinese’s industrial development. On the contrary, developed countries did not face
natural resources restrictions during their initial stage of industrial development, and this is why
neoclassical economics was the leading concept in these countries while it does no longer appear
the be adequate for China and the World in the near future.
Finally, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013) attributes to more recent theories such as
regenerative design, performance economy, cradle to cradle, biomimicry and blue economy an
important contribution for the further refinement and development of the concept of circular
2.2 Principles and implementation of Circular Economy worldwide
Circular economy mainly emerges in the literature through three main “actions”, i.e. the so called
3R’s Principles: Reduction, Reuse and Recycle (Feng and Yan 2007; Ren 2007; Sakai et al. 2011;
Preston 2012; Reh 2013; Su et al. 2013; Lett 2014).
The Chinese CE promotion Laws define CE “a generic term for the reducing, reusing and recycling
activities conducted in the process of production, circulation and consumption
CCICED 2008).
This definition does not seem, however, consistent with China’s practice of steady growth of
production and consumption patterns within a national dimension. On the contrary, other countries
such as Europe, Japan, USA, Korea and Vietnam seems to identify CE and its founding principles
(3R) in more sectorial initiatives mainly related to waste management policies (see Sakai et al. 2011
for details). Their broader goal is the achievement of synergistic effects with national strategies
towards landfill prevention, procurement of resources, reduction of GHG emissions and
management of hazardous waste following circulation of materials (Sakai et al. 2011; Resource
2015). On the other hand, because of trade-offs among policies, an integrated political approach
(that could be built around CE) is required for addressing persistent, systemic environmental
challenges (European Environment Agency 2010; 2015).
Japan implemented CE since 1991 with the Law for Effective Utilization of Recyclables (IES 2015)
and, later on, the Japanese CE initiative (He et al. 2013; UNEP 2013a). In Europe, CE primarily
emerged in Germany in the early 1976 with the Waste Disposal Act, while at European Community
level CE was promoted much later, by means of the Waste Directive 2008/98/EC (He et al. 2013)
and more specifically with the Circular Economy Package (EC 2014a, b).
United States seem still
lacking of a relevant federal policy CE initiative, in spite of past regulations as the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (EPA 2013) and the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990
(EPA 2014, He et al 2013). Most US States have also adopted since 1980s a solid waste
management hierarchy placing reduction and reuse at the top of the hierarchy (Park and Chertow
2014). Schemes for used oil, selective landfill bans on specific materials, minimum content laws,
labelling laws, beverage containers recycling, and green labelling were also implemented (Davis
and Hall 2006; He et al 2013). Other Asian countries as Korea and Vietnam have promoted
important 3R policies. Korea issued the Waste Management Act (2007) and the Act on Promotion
of Resources Saving and Recycling (2008)
as the basis for material reuse, for a fee system for waste
treatment, regulations on the use of one-way packaging and goods, a Food Waste Reduction Policy
(EC 2014c) and the Extended Producers Responsibility, EPR (Sakai et al. 2011). Vietnam has
amended in 2005 the Environmental Protection Law and the National Strategy on Integrated Solid
Waste Management with targets to 2025 and 2050 (Sakai et al. 2011), while Australia and New
Zealand are now evaluating and accelerating an action agenda for the CE (Jewell 2015; Sustainable
Business Network 2015).
The Reduction principle aims to minimize the input of primary energy, raw materials and waste
through the improvement of efficiency in production (so called eco-efficiency) and consumption
processes e.g. introducing better technologies, or more compact and lightweight products,
simplified packaging, more efficient household appliances, a simpler lifestyle, etc. (Feng and Yan
2007; Su et al. 2013). Eco-efficiency is mainly a business concept, focusing on the economic and
environmental dimension of sustainability and disregarding the social dimension. On the contrary,
the “resource efficiency” concept implies resource reduction and increasing economic and social
well-being at the same time (Ness 2008). On the production side, Figge et al. (2014) point out two
The new version of the Package under study of the new European Commission compared to the original package
should be more concerned on supporting CE as a new business strategy other than a waste management strategy, with
the purpose of gaining more political success and aligning EU at the forefront of worldwide circular economy
development (Resource 2015).
basic ways in which companies can increase their eco-efficiency in production processes, i.e. keep
or increase the value of products whilst also reducing their environmental impacts. This can be
achieved by using fewer resources per unit of value produced and by replacing more harmful
substances in favour of less harmful ones per unit of value produced.
The so-called Zero Emission Strategy (Tan et al. 2005; Mair and Marti 2006; Jenkins 2006;
Schnitzer and Ulgiati 2007; Figge et al. 2014) pursues the maximization of the value of goods
coupled to zero (or decreased) environmental impacts.
The Reuse principle refers to any operation by which products or components that are not waste
are used again for the same purpose for which they were conceived” (EU 2008). The reuse of
products is very appealing in terms of environmental benefits as it requires fewer resources, less
energy, and less labor, compared with the manufacture of new products from virgin materials
(Castellani et al. 2015; WRAP 2011) or even recycling or disposal. Castellani et al. (2015) showed
that reuse of products avoids the emission of noxious substances as well as many other
environmental impacts in the case of different items (clothes, books, furniture, glass, sideboard), by
means of an LCA approach. The diffusion of reuse involves an increase of consumer demand for
reused and remanufactured products, the design of durable products for multiple cycles of use as
well as incentives for companies to favour take-back of products and the marketing of
remanufactured products (Prendeville et al. 2014).
The Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR, Lindhqvist 2000) was firstly proposed in Germany’s
legislation on packaging (1992), then in the Waste Directive of European Union (2008) and in the
Korea Act on Resource Recycling of Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Vehicles (2008). It is
an economic tool and a modern version of the polluter pay principle, that aims to enhance the
circularity of products and materials (e.g. their reuse and recycling) acting on the producers side
(Mancini 2011; Bilitewsky 2012; Sakai et al. 2011; Manomaivibool and Hong 2014). This principle
states that the costs of disposal and recovery must be transferred to the producers who will therefore
have a strong incentive to reuse, recycle or dispose of waste materials. Additionally, Connet et al.
(2011) argues that if a product cannot be reused, recycled or composted, then the industry should
not produce such a product and consumers should not buy it. This last issue highlights the need for
a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, including consumers, to achieve more ambitious
results in terms of collection of waste to be reused or recycled. For example, contrary to European
systems (as in the WEEE directive), the Japanese system, for electrical equipment, includes an
enforced consumer’s responsibility for returning products for recycling (Resource 2015).
The Recycle principle refers to “any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed
into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the
reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into
materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations” (EU 2008). Recycling of waste
offers the opportunity to benefit from still usable resources and reduce the quantity of waste that
need to be treated and or/disposed of, thus also decreasing the related environmental impact ( Cagno
et al. 2005; Zhu 2008; Lazarevic et al. 2010, Birat 2015). However, if a company or the society is
able to recycle all its waste, it may not be interested in reducing the amount of waste
(Gwehenberger et al. 2003).
Although Circular Economy is often identified with the recycling principle, it must be underlined
that this may be the least sustainable solution compared to the other CE’s principles (Reduction and
Reuse) in terms of resource efficiency and profitability (Stahel 2013; 2014). It is limited by nature
(entropy law), material complexity and abuse (Stahel 2013). Some waste materials are recyclable
until a certain point or even unrecyclable. For example, cellulose fibers may be recycled 4-6 times,
contrary to metals which are “unlimited manifold recycling” (Reh 2013). Low levels of recycling
are achieved for Rare Earth metals as it is hard to develop economies of scale (UNEP 2013b;
Prendeville et al. 2014) while some types of plastic waste are not recyclable due to the presence of
contaminants as ink and metals (Prendeville et al. 2014). In this regard, some authors discuss the
risks associated to the recycling of materials (Bilitewsky 2012) and mixed materials (Stahel 2013)
and highlight the need for developing at global level an agreed-upon risk assessment for existing
and new developed chemicals and products, excluding additional animal testing (Bilitewsky 2012).
Finally reuse, repair and remanufacturing have a local or regional dimension and are able to avoid
or reduce packaging, transport costs and transaction costs through the maintenance of ownership,
while recycling has a global dimension and works following the “principles of industrial
production, such as economies of scale, specialization and employing the cheapest labor” (Stahel
2013). These three principles, with some modifications, are also included in the waste hierarchy of
European Waste directive 2008/98/EC (EU 2008) since 1989 as well as in United States solid waste
Agenda (Thomas and Birat 2013; Bakker et al. 2014; Park and Chertow 2014).
The 3R principles can be integrated by three additional principles developed within the Ellen
MacArthur Foundation Report (2012). The first one, appropriate design, stresses on the importance
of design stage in finding solutions to avoid waste discharge in landfills: “Products are designed for
a cycle of disassembly and reuse”. The second one introduces a reclassification of the materials into
“technical” and “nutrients”. The technical materials (as metals and plastics) are designed to be
reused at the end of the life cycle while the nutrients or biological nutrients, that in general are non-
toxic, “can return safely to the biosphere or in a cascade of consecutive uses”. The third additional
principle, “renewability”, places renewable energy as the main energy source for circular economy,
to reduce fossil energy dependence and enhance the adaptability (resilience) of the economic
system towards oil negative effects (increase in oil prices, lack of supply, etc.).
Table 1 summarizes the main limits and challenges to CE development, with reference to the above
mentioned CE principles.
2.3 Circular economy, a new business and development model
Circular economy is defined by Charonis (2012), in line with Ellen MacArthur Foundation vision
(2012), as a system that is designed to be restorative and regenerative. This author considers CE as
an “alternative growth discourse” and not an “alternative to growth discourse” (2012). In his study,
Charonis also compared circular economy with degrowth (Schneider et al. 2010; Martinez-Alier,
2012; Demaria et al. 2013) and steady state (Daly, 2007) addressing key characteristics, similarities
and differences. In particular, Charonis (2012) makes reference to the degrowth concept as
proposed by Kallis (2011): a socially sustainable and equitable reduction (and stabilization) in a
society’s throughput where throughput denotes the materials and energy a society extracts,
processes, transports and distributes, to consume and return back to the environment as waste”, as
well as to the steady state economy description by Czech and Daly (2004): the one that undergoes
neither growth nor recession, resulting in a constant rate of throughput”.
Circular economy, degrowth and steady state share a number of important principles and goals, in
spite of the existence of non-negligible differences. These three frameworks share the request and
aim for human society to operate within the ecological limits of our Planet contrary to what
envisaged by business-as-usual, growth-oriented models. However, while the theoretical framework
of degrowth and steady state has been highly developed, circular economy concepts are very recent
and still require further refinement concerning the way they may affect population carrying
capacity, employment, international trade, role of institutions, etc.
Most studies aimed at explaining the theoretical background of CE make first a distinction among
neoclassical economics, steady state economics and circular economy. The mainstream economics
(neoclassical) assumes a linear economy pattern and has been the theoretical foundation for
economic development until recent. Neoclassical economics mainly focuses on efficient allocation
of resources in the market and fails to provide analytical tools that take into account the limited and
exhaustible nature of natural resources. The approach of steady-state economy seems to fill this gap,
by trying to keep the economic activities within the constraints imposed by nature (same rate of
resource consumption and resource use), while circular economy additionally suggests an economic
model regulated according to the laws of the nature (networks of interacting components, exchange
of material and energy flows, recycling patterns and, environmental mimicry).
CE operates around the neoclassical economy framework even if threats some of its key pillars; e.g.
CE proposes a rethinking of ownership (as also degrowth and steady state do) in favour of models
where products are leased to consumers, who become only users of a service. With regards to
degrowth and steady state, Charonis (2012) also highlighted similarities in policy proposals e.g.
employment, basic income, waste reduction, measures of progress, governance; he recognizes the
complementarity between each other framework towards a possible alternative to the present
economic growth model.
A comparison between steady state economics and circular economy theory was provided by Xia
and Yang (2007). In their study, these authors discussed the lack of a suitable tool and theoretical
framework in the mainstream economy for threating environmental and ecological problems.
Furthermore, Xia and Yang (2007) also presented the fundamentals of steady state economics as
steady-state economy represents the balance between two systems: material wealth system and
human system, which cannot keep self-constant. Only when these two systems are kept at a low flow
rate, a sustainable steady state may be achieved. As for the population system, a low flow rate
means a low rate of birth and death, i.e. high life expectancy; as for wealth system, it means better
commodity durability and less time spent on production as well as more leisure time”. The authors
also pointed out that both steady-state and CE approaches share the principles of justice in resources
use within and among generations implicit in the notion of sustainable development of the well-
known Bruntland Commission Report “Our Common Future” (World Commission on Environment
and Development 1987). Moreover, steady state interprets the environmental problem from the
point of view of matter and energy constraints imposed by the laws of thermodynamics, and
advocates that economics should change its focus from the traditional issue of production and
consumption to the problem of efficient circulation of biophysical resources, energy in particular.
A future steady state economy “with a relatively stable, mildly fluctuating level of consumption”,
preceded by a transitory degrowth where economy operates within the Earth’s ecological limits, is
very appealing to the degrowth proponents as confirmed by the final declaration of the First
International Degrowth Conference 2008. A degrowth pattern is looked at as a voluntary process, a
planned and equitable transition to a state of lower production and consumption (Kallis 2011,
Schneider et al. 2010). It is unlikely to be imposed externally as a policy imperative (Schneider et
al. 2010) even if it is claimed as an urgent need due to looming ecological limits including peak oil
and gas (Davey 2008). At the same time steady state or quasi steady state (Daly 2007) could be
challenged to deal with the continuous growth rate of population and by limited resources
throughput at the global scale where many developing countries could growth and reduce poverty
(Prendeville et al. 2014).
An interesting point of view is shown by Odum and Odum (2001; 2006). Based on Lotka (1922)’s
maximum power principle, von Bertalanffy (1950, 1968)’s General Systems Theory and Holling
(1986)’s studies on resilience and oscillating systems, these authors advocate that general systems
principles of resource quality and availability force all kinds of organisms to program orderly
descent and decession that is followed later by growth and succession again” and claim that such a
pulsing pattern is found in biochemical reactions, weather systems, seas, geological processes,
ecosystems, relationships of stars, and appears to apply to human economies as well”. In particular,
they identify four main stages of the pulsing cycle, namely (1) growth on abundant resources, with
population and assets increase, low-efficiency and high-competition; (2) climax and steady-state,
when the system reaches the maximum size allowed by the available resources and increases
efficiency in order to take maximum advantage from them; (3) descent, with less resources
available, population decrease, more recycling patterns and much higher efficiency; (4) low-energy
restoration, with no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a
new cycle ahead (Figure 3). Within such vision, growth, steady state and degrowth appear as
different stages of the same pulsing cycle, an unavoidable pattern of a system development,
constrained by resource availability. The same authors claim that “it appears to be a general
principle that pulsing systems prevail in the long run…perhaps because they generate more
productivity, empower, and performance than steady states or those that bloom and bust”. (Odum
and Odum 2006)
The pulsing paradigm may help achieve a better understanding of the potential role of CE within an
economic dynamics. To some extent, it would be partially misleading to consider CE as a new
economic model similar to growth, degrowth and steady state, with focus placed on the trend of
economy’s size and performance. More than a trend-based model, CE may rather be considered a
way to design an economic pattern aimed at increased efficiency of production (and consumption),
by means of appropriate use, reuse and exchange of resources, and do more with less. In order to do
so, production and consumption systems need to be structured in such a way that their component
processes are capable to benefit from resource exchange and interaction among components. As a
consequence, according to Odum and Odum’s pulsing paradigm, focus should be placed on the
potential contribution of the CE framework to the different stages of the economic and societal
dynamics. Within a pulsing paradigm framework, efficiency is unimportant in the growth phase
(think of the low efficiency, around 3-4%, of the Watt’s steam engine coal-powering the UK
industrial revolution (Ayres 1989), while it becomes useful to extend the duration of the steady-
state phase, and crucial to allow a smooth descent in the perhaps unavoidable (although uncertain in
time) degrowth phase.
3. Results.
Circular Economy in China and worldwide seem to follow very different patterns. CE in China is a
direct outcome of the national political strategy (top down approach), and its implementation is
structured following both a horizontal and a vertical approach (Feng and Yan 2007). Chinese
national governmental policy aims to transform not only the industry but also the socioeconomic
organization of the society at all levels (Naustdalslid 2014). The top down approach of the Chinese
national strategy is also reflected on the instruments used, that are mainly of “command and
control” rather than market based (Friends of Europe 2014) as in the European, Japanese or
American policies (EU 2013; UNEP 2013a; EPA 2015).
On the contrary, the transition towards CE in Europe mainly seems to be occurring as a bottom up
approach, e.g. from the initiatives of environmental organizations, civil society, NGOs, etc. All
these economic actors call for greener products and adequate legislation try to involve both private
companies and public authorities in a virtuous cycle (Brown and Stone 2007; Naustdalslid 2014). In
Japan a comprehensive and close collaboration among the civil society, the public sector and
manufacturers characterize the CE transition (EC 2014c; IES 2015).
The vertical approach in China implies the shift of CE from the low level of analysis micro -
(company or single consumer level) to the higher hierarchical levels – meso (e.g. eco-industrial
parks) and macro (cities, provinces and regions) while the horizontal dimension implies a link
between “industries, urban infrastructures, cultural environment, and the social consumption
system” (Feng and Yan 2007). Several Chinese studies analyse CE implementation following both
horizontal and vertical approach (Yuan et al. 2006; Feng and Yan 2007; Ren 2007; Geng and
Doberstein 2008; Su et al. 2013) while the literature of other countries presents case studies of
application of CE at one single level only, most often the meso level.
3.1 Circular economy at micro level
CE implementation in production sectors: the emergence of ecodesign and cleaner production
The adoption of a circular economy program entails that a company carries out different strategies
to improve the circularity of its production system and also cooperates with other companies over
the supply chain for the achievement of a more effective circular pattern (Wrinkler 2011).
Within company’s production processes, eco-design or green design (Wrinkler 2011) and design for
environment (DFE) (Van Berkel et al. 1997; Ramani et al. 2010) as well as cleaner production (CP)
are the main strategies, to be considered as preparatory towards CE. Design for environment and
cleaner production are strictly in relation among each other. Actually, cleaner production includes
three interrelated practices as pollution prevention (PP), toxic use reduction (TUR) and design for
environment (DFE) (Van Berkel et al. 1997). Both DFE and eco-design “blend environmental
aspects into product design and development at product conception to enhance environmental
performance throughout its lifecycle. The design stage is relevant in that the relative sustainability
of the product mainly depends on the choices made in the early design stage (Ramani et al. 2010),
in order to avoid that the reduction of some impacts could translate into an increase of other types of
impacts (e.g. the abatement of toxic substances might increase energy use which could in turn cause
a negative impact on environment) (Prendeville et al. 2014). Moreover issues regarding
disassembly, disposability without negative environmental impacts, ease of distribution and return,
durability, reliability and customer success” should also be included as relevant to CE (Sherwin and
Evans 2000; Wrinkler (2011); Prendeville et al. 2014). Finally, eco-design renders more
environmentally friendly products and processes while at the same time keeps high quality
standards and product’s performances (Van Berkel et al 1997; Graedel and Allenby 2003; Ramani
et al. 2010).
For energy using products the European Union adopted in 2005 an eco-design directive to provide a
coherent and integrated framework for mandatory eco-design minimum requirements applied to
energy using products (EC 2012a). The first results of this Directive suggest its effectiveness in
improving energy efficiency of some products (EC 2012b). In China, a survey by Yu et al. (2008)
found a low applicability of eco-design in the electric and electronic product sector, while Fang et
al. (2007) point out a wider application of principles of industrial ecology to design for environment
in the subsidiaries of multinational corporations such as Motorola, BASF, Mitsubishi and Lucent
Technologies, as compared to the companies within the domestic industrial system.
Globally, cleaner production is considered an essential strategy towards CE (Bilitewski 2012) and
sustainable development (Van Berkel 2000; Brown and Stone 2007) in that CP introduces cleaner
products, processes and services with the aim to reduce waste and emissions flows as well as to
prevent the use of non-renewable and harmful input flows (Van Berkel et al. 1997, 2000; EC 1997;
Frondel et al. 2004; Gwehenberger et al. 2003; UNEP 2013a). In some cases CP is the first
important strategy towards the achievement of CE goals (Van Berkel 1999; Li et al. 2010). Brown
and Stone (2007) state that the introduction of cleaner production provides fuels for a change in the
way the relationship between business and the environment is perceived. In detail, CP relies on the
continuous application of an integrated, preventive environmental strategy towards processes,
products and services in order to increase overall economic efficiency and reduce damage and risks
for humans and the environment (Van Berkel et al. 1997, 2000; Fresner 1998; Li et al. 2010; UNEP
1990; Brown and Stone 2007; UNIDO 2013).
Moreover, the efficiency and effectiveness of CP strategies depends on the institutional framework
where they are introduced (Van Berkel 1999; Geng et al. 2010b; Zhang et al. 2013; Liu and Bai
2014) and on the capacity and farsightedness of decision makers to develop and implement
proactive, integrated policies and strategies stimulating societies to manage all resources in more
sustainable ways (Van Berkel 1999; Schnitzer and Ulgiati 2007; Bonilla et al., 2009).
Cleaner Production was more extensively promoted and adopted in China compared to other
methods for environmental management, in particular after the “Cleaner Production Promotion
Law” in 2002 (Geng et al. 2010b; 2012 Su et al. 2013). This law, defined by Yap (2005) as
concise, unambiguous and comprehensive in scope”, has been one of the policy responses to the
huge environmental problems generated by the fast Chinese economic development. Actually,
cleaner production practices formally started more than ten years before the promulgation of “CP
promotion law” of 2002 with the creation of the China National Cleaner Production Centre. Li et al.
(2010) report in their study that 5000 industries have introduced cleaner production in China and
that important improvements in energy conservation have been achieved at national level in
Chinese process industries. Geng et al. (2013) evidence that large financial resources are invested in
CE pilot projects involving the application of clean production techniques in specific sectors. As the
number of enterprises in China is very high, in the order of 40 million, strong efforts are needed
towards the removal of existing barriers to CP implementation for a higher CE diffusion (Yap 2005;
Geng et al. 2010b; Zhang et al. 2013).
CE in the consumption sector: consumers’ responsibility and green public procurement
The promotion of consumers responsibility is crucial for enhancing the purchase and use of more
sustainable products and services (Feng and Yan 2007; Geng and Doberstein 2008; Su et al. 2013).
Functional instruments for green consumers are specific information and labelling systems covering
food, non-food products as well as services. The labelling systems are sharply developing across all
continents (EPA 1998): in Europe (EC 2013a), Asia (Liu et al. 2009; Liao and Li 2010), Northern
and Southern Americas (UNEP 2011) and Australia. Governmental involvement in labelling
schemes is an important factor for increasing confidence of consumers towards these instruments
(Sønderskov and Daugbjerg 2010). In European Union, the EU Ecolabel, from its launch in 1992,
has awarded 1300 licenses on non-food products and services and today it can be found on about
17,000 products (EC 2013a). Products identified by an Eco-label should satisfy strict environmental
criteria established by a panel of experts, consumer organizations and industry on the basis of the
environmental impacts of the product in the whole life cycle. Green consumption in public sector is
another important policy tool, stimulating the uptake of more environmentally friendly products and
services. It can be introduced by setting and including “green” requirements before awarding public
contracts (EC 2010). This tool is as much as important for its contribution if we think that e.g. in
EU27 public procurement accounted for about 19.9% of EU Gross Domestic Product in 2009 (EU
2012). In China the public procurement expenditure is also relevant (Zhu et al. 2013). GPP schemes
are also implemented in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and USA (Resource 2015). A recent
survey in EU27 on ten product/service groups showed that the development of green public
procurement, GPP, is encouraging even if not yet satisfactory (EU 2012). Different institutional
hurdles, some of which country specific and more commonly across countries, prevent further
development of GPP worldwide (UNEP 2013b). The latter would require a coherent international
framework of agreed and recognized principles and assessment systems of GPP’s sustainability
including a set of indicators to monitor and evaluate GPP activities by policy makers, purchasers
and suppliers (UNEP 2013b).
CE in waste management: recovery of resources and environmental impact prevention
Waste management has been considered in the past simply a way to get rid of the waste materials
by landfilling or incinerating. This is still the dominant disposal pattern worldwide, in so generating
a huge loss of valuable resources and very heavy environmental impacts. Recently, a new way to
look at waste is emerging, that recognizes waste management as a recovery of resources and
environmental impact prevention. In so doing, waste management becomes an important sub-sector
of circular economy, with the emergence of new typologies of operators and processes, among
which the so-called “scavengers” and “decomposers”, referring to companies capable to extract
resources out of waste by applying innovative recovery technologies. It is worth noting that in the
natural world “scavengers” and “decomposers” are fundamental organisms in each ecosystem and
its food chain. They contribute to keep the community clean by processing dead organic matter and
nurture plants with essential substances.
Scavengers collect the waste resources on site within companies or in other points of the disposal
chain and redistribute them into the system to companies that can reuse or recycle such materials
making their work easier. After the collection of waste materials, some of the scavengers perform
dismantling, sorting, and transport to the decomposers in a form that is readily accessible for them
to process. The decomposers in turn transform or recycle waste resources into new materials or as
fractions of the same input flows for which they were initially designed (Noronha, 1999; Geng and
Coté 2002). Scavengers and decomposers can be further classified as specialist or generalist ones,
according to their specialization to deal with only one type or more types of materials. The stability
of a company relies on the availability of different materials for its activity and more than one
scavenger or decomposer company (Geng and Coté 2002).
3.2 Circular economy at meso level
The CE actions within this level only refer to the production side involving the development of eco-
industrial parks, industrial symbiosis districts and networks, as well as other related productive
networks denominations (Yuan et al. 2006; Chertow 2012, 2000; Su et al. 2013). In these industrial
systems, industries that traditionally work as separate entities, become engaged in complex
interplays of resource exchange (material, water, energy and by-products), so called “industrial
symbiosis”, with the purpose of achieving economic and environmental benefits (Lowe et al. 1995;
Chertow 2000). The essence of industrial symbiosis is taking full advantage of by-product
utilization, while reducing residual products or treating them effectively. The term is usually
applied to a network of independent companies that exchange by-products and possibly share other
common resources” (Zhu et al. 2007).
The industrial symbiosis has traditionally been a research field within industrial ecology. While
industrial ecology focuses at all levels of analysis (facility level, inter-firm level, regional and
global level), the industrial symbiosis refers at inter-firm level because it involves physical
exchanges among several organizations (Chertow 2000) that do not necessarily take place within
the strict boundaries of a “park,”. (Chertow 2000). As the distance among participant industries
increases energy demand, this implies that Eco-industrial Parks are planned where a suitable mix of
production units is able to minimize the waste and emissions of the whole facility (Gwehenberger et
al. 2003).
The international experiences of industrial symbiosis can be mainly traced back to both top down
(Eco-Industrial Parks - EIP -, e.g. in US, Canada and Asia) and bottom up (industrial symbiosis
districts or industrial ecosystem as Kalundborg) strategies, on the basis of the fact that the former
are the result of a preventive planning and design while the latter derive from spontaneous
agreements among the participant companies (Cutaia and Morabito 2012).
Besides China, dealt with in the next section with more details, several EIPs cases can be identified
worldwide (Sakr et al. 2011), in USA (Herees et al. 2004; Gibbs and Deutz 2007; Chertow 2007;
Veleva et al. 2015), Canada (Cotè and Cohen-Rosenthal 1998; Fleig 2000), India (Singhal and
Kapur 2002; Bain et al. 2010), Korea (Kim and Powell 2008; Behera et al. 2012), Japan (Van
Berkel et al. 2009a), Australia (Roberts 2004; Van Beers et al. 2007; Van Beers and Biswas 2008),
Brazil (Veiga and Magrini 2009), Egypt (Sakr et al. 2011), thanks to a growing body of scientific
literature (Bai et al 2014). The EIP of Kalundborg (Denmark) is one of the most analysed examples
in the international literature (Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chertow 2000, 2007; Jacobsen 2006;
Van Berkel et al. 2009a; Mathews and Tan 2011) even if there are many other cases of EIPs in
European countries (as in UK, Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Austria, Italy etc.). Some of them
are in operation, others are planned or in pilot phases (Tarantini et al. 2007; Lehtoranta et al. 2011;
Sakr et al. 2011; Conticelli and Tondelli 2014; Massard et al. 2014). The Kalundborg industrial
complex gradually shifted towards an EIP structure as an example of a bottom up approach of
industrial symbiosis. It originated from the idea of a few managers, in the late ’60s, who discovered
the opportunity of obtaining economic benefits from by-products exchanges (Herees et al. 2004).
Over time, both the extent and quality of symbiosis links among five co-located companies and the
local municipality evolved, from low value to high value by-products (Chertow 2000; Jacobsen
2006; Mathews and Tan 2011), under the aim of firms to achieve an economically profitable use of
their by-products and minimize the costs of abidance to new and more rigorous environmental
regulations (Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chertow 2007). However, the participants industries in
Kalundborg recognized the environmental effects of their activities after a decade from its
foundation (in the ‘80s) and the international awareness of the achieved results only emerged in the
‘90s at the Conference for Sustainable Development of Rio de Janeiro (Chertow 2000; 2007).
Similar results are reported for a case in Styria (Austria) where the participant companies were
found unaware of the additional environmental benefits (Schwarz and Steininger 1995;1997) and
for a Finnish case (Korhonen et al. 1999) that was labelled as “industrial ecology” or “industrial
symbiosis” only after the intervention of a third party (Chertow 2007; Sakr et al. 2011). The
economic benefits arising from symbiotic exchanges in an EIP can be summarized as direct (e.g.
revenues from selling by-products, reduced costs from avoided discharge fees or disposal costs,
reduced costs deriving from substituting virgin energy and materials with alternative feedstock
obtained at lower prices) and indirect. The latter regard the avoidance of investments, increase of
supply security and flexibility, better reputation, innovation, operational resiliency, and ability to
attract and retain employees (Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Herees et al. 2004; Mirata and Emtairah
2005; Jacobsen 2006; Veleva et al. 2015).
Undoubtedly, the evolution of EIP’s development faces many challenges. New problems and trends
are also emerging on the practical foundations of an EIP. For example Zhu et al. (2010) evidence
the need to select optimal companies for the purpose of assuring stability and efficiency to the EIP
itself, while Veleva et al. (2015) argue that eco-industrial parks are less concerned about physical
exchanges of materials, energy, water and by-products in favour of sharing more about
infrastructure and knowledge, joint sourcing, building local supply chain and reducing the risks
from weather and other business disruptions.
Eco-Industrial Development in China
The EIP concept was primarily introduced in China at the end of 1990s (Fang et al. 2007; Zhang et
al. 2009; Shi et al. 2012) and kept developing quickly at research, political and practical level (Fang
et al. 2007; Shi et al. 2012). At political level, the Chinese State Environmental Protection
Administration (SEPA) started to promote EIPs and Industrial Symbiosis as models of industrial
and technological development alternative to the ones based on an end of pipe pollution approach.
In particular the take up of EIPs has been encouraged to face the problem of polluting industrial
development zones (Chiu and Geng 2004; Geng et al. 2008; Shi et al. 2012). Since the beginning of
the development of a new industrial park program, SEPA has been in charge of the approval of
EIPs’ applications to become part of the National Demonstration EIP’s Program (Shi et al. 2012;
Jiao and Boons 2014)
China is trying to develop its own model of EIPs (within the theoretical framework of industrial
ecology) in order to properly account for the different political, socio-economic and environmental
context compared to the rest of the World (Chiu and Geng 2004; Fang et al. 2007).
The intention of pursuing the feature of “new” in the EIPs’ development is confirmed by the
definition of the Ministry of Environmental Protection that defines an EIP as a new type of
industrial park that emphasizes the establishment of an industrial symbiosis network composed of
varied industries (by-products exchange, water and energy cascading, and information sharing
among firms), in addition to including all the features of a traditional industrial park. The main
goals of an EIP are the realization of closed loops, the minimization of waste and overall eco-
efficiency improvements by applying the principles of cleaner production, industrial ecology and
circular economy. Most importantly, is the introduction of a group of criteria and indicators for each
type of EIPs (sector specific, sector integrated and venous) classified into different categories:
economic development, material reduction and recycling, pollution monitoring and park
management (Geng et al. 2008). However, the system of indicators should be improved by moving
beyond measuring the overall efficiency of the EIP towards informing about issues pertaining e.g.
the level of symbiosis and diversity in the EIP as well as the links between the EIPs and the local
socio-economic context in which the EIP is embedded (Geng et al. 2008; 2012).
From 2001 to 2011 China has developed the largest National EIP network consisting of the
approval of 60 National Trial EIPs (Figure 4). Among them the three Ministries have assessed the
progress made in the implementation of 15 National Trial EIPs (Shi et al. 2012). Within the 60
National Trial EIPs, 48 are mixed industrial parks and 11 are sectorial industrial parks (as sugar-
making, metallurgical, mining, coal-based chemical, and petrochemical industries) while only one
National Trial EIP is a resource recovery park (or so-called venous industrial parks where
companies turn waste into reusable resources and again to new products) (Geng et al. 2008; Shi et
al. 2012). The performances of some of the EIPs that are part of the National Trial EIPs (approved
and assessed or only approved) have been carefully analysed by many authors as described in the
Geng et al. (2007) analysed the planning and application of an integrated solid waste management
system in Tianjin Economic Development Area, TEDA (the largest industrial park of China)
introduced in 2003 to maximize resource use and minimize the waste produced and their costs of
disposal. In the same period, the TEDA started an EIP project to increase higher cost efficiency by
sharing common services, transports and infrastructure linking the companies of TEDA. The
planning of integrated solid waste management required the description of waste flows at company,
EIP and regional levels. For example at company level cleaner production programs were
introduced within all the companies of the EIP for the purpose of minimizing the total amount of
waste. At EIP level the planning was focused on creating the network of industrial symbiosis
activities (by-products exchange) among the companies. It also implied the search for new
scavengers and decomposers for the establishment of the network. The research also evaluated the
potential economic (e.g. costs savings in resource use, increase of revenues from the sale of waste),
environmental (e.g. ease of virgin materials exploitation and reduction of waste quantity as well as
decrease of waste’ amount disposal to landfill) and social benefits (e.g. improved public health by
reducing solid and hazardous waste, employment opportunities for local scavengers and
decomposers companies, etc.) from the introduction of the integrated solid waste management
system. Still about TEDA, Shi et al. (2010) further deepen on the process of investments in
environmental management actions (aimed at involving multinational companies operating in the
park and maintaining its competitiveness and leading position in China as an industrial park). In
November 2000 TEDA obtained the ISO 14001 certification for the entire industrial park and in the
same year it has been designated by SEPA as one of the National ISO 14001 Demonstration Zones.
Finally in 2008 TEDA became one of the three first Trial EIPs of the National Demonstration
Program. The research identified 81 inter-firm symbiotic relationships over a period of 16 years
involving utility, automobile, electronics, biotechnology, food and beverage, and resource recovery
clusters. Of the 81 symbiotic exchanges the material exchanges accounted for the highest share
Yu et al. (2015) analysed the role of Government and other factors affecting Industrial Symbiosis
(IS) performances through the analysis of the evolution of IS in the Eco-Industrial Park Rizhao
Economic Technological Development Area (REDA). The study identified 31 IS practices mainly
related to by-products exchanges (90% of the total) while water exchanges and energy accounted
for 6% and 4%, respectively. The latter types of symbiosis are more difficult to establish because
they require the investment of heavy infrastructures. Moreover, the authors evidence that the
content, type and stability of symbiosis streams depend on cleaner production activities
implemented with the goal of minimal use of raw materials and energy as well as minimal
production of waste and emissions. Finally the main reasons for companies to establish IS were
economic (recovering of the costs in environmental investments, cost saving from virgin material
substitution and transport, business visibility and social identity, social responsibility of
enterprises). In this context stricter environmental standards, tax cut and refund policies on resource
use and financial subsidises positively stimulated the IS development.
The emergy method (environmental support demand; Odum 1988; 2000; Geng et al. 2013) is used
by Geng et al. (2010a) to investigate the sustainability of the second largest Chinese Industrial Park
located in Dalian region (Dalian Economic Development Zone, DEDZ) in the year 2006, when the
park started its conversion to the Eco-Industrial Park status, by introducing cleaner production
activities (at company level) and by-product exchange (at the inter-firm level). In 2006 about 83%
of the waste produced by the Industrial Park was collected and recycled while about half (46.5%)
was reused and recycled within the EIP. Very interesting in the study is the introduction of a new
indicator capturing the emergy savings due to the replacement of input resources by means of reuse
or recycle of waste. The emergy method was also used to evaluate the overall performance of EIP
activities and the industrial symbiosis established at Shenyang Economic and Technological
Development Zone (SETDZ). The latter presented its application for the status of EIP within the
National Trial EIP program on 2011. On September 26, 2013, the SETDZ EIP plan passed the
national onsite evaluation organized by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The study found
that industrial symbiosis provides relevant environmental and economic benefits. The latter could
potentially increase by further expanding the existing synergies: the reuse of treated wastewater
from local wastewater treatment, reuse of sludge from wastewater treatment as a fertilizer, the
reduction of coal energy dependency and its substitution with renewable energies such as wind
energy (Geng et al. 2014b). For the same EIP, Dong et al. (2013a) assessed the carbon footprint by
means of a hybrid Life Cycle Assessment calculating a total amount of 15.29 Mt CO
released in
2007. Upstream (55.42%) and downstream (0.02%) impacts contributed to more than the half of the
total carbon footprint of the EIP compared to direct impacts onsite (44.57%). Chemical and
manufacturing industries were found responsible of the highest lifecycle carbon footprints.
Finally, two studies compared Chinese EIPs with other international EIPs. The first one (Mathews
and Tan 2011) compared some Chinese EIPs (Guigang group, Pigmei, Lubei, Suzhou, Tianjin) with
the international counterparts of Kalundborg (Denmark), Kwinana (Australia), Ulsan (Korea),
Kawasaki (Japan). Results evidence that the eco-industrial parks initiatives can be applied to
improve the existing industrial parks in order to transform the value chain from linear to closed-
loop. Moreover, the transition to an EIP occurs over decades introducing primarily cleaner
production and pollution control strategies and gradually broadening the symbiosis. Compared to
the international eco-parks the Chinese parks perform with a lower number of synergies and are
more dependent by the Government both for design, support and management of the EIPs activities
and their financial support (Mathew and Tan 2011). In a latecomer perspective of analysis the
higher role of government in China is important at the early stage of development of EIPs to
overcome barriers that latecomers may face (e.g. access to established markets and technologies in
the face of high competition). The same latecomer perspective allows to better grasp the rapid and
high development of EIPs compared to the slower and smaller numbers in developed countries
(Mathews and Tan 2011). A second study (Zheng et al. 2013) compared selected Chinese EIPs
(Guangxi, Xinjiang, Tianjin, Lubei) and their international counterparts (Kalundborg, Styria,
Kitakyushu, Choctaw) by means of density and network degree-of-centralization metrics and then
categorized the EIPs into three different types: dependence-oriented (Guangxi, Xinjiang, and
Kalundborg), equality-oriented (Choctaw and Lubei), and nested-oriented complexes (Kitakyushu,
Tianjin, and Styria) in so assessing differences and similarities. The authors proposed the
establishment of new symbiosis paths for all the investigated eight industrial symbiosis estates,
from the perspective of analysing their deficiencies in structural characteristics and calculated the
effectiveness of these new linkages.
3.3 Circular economy at macro level
Circular economy development in cities, provinces or regions involves the integration and the
redesign of four systems: the industrial system (e.g. changing the size of companies from small to
large or the phase-out of the heavy polluting enterprises in favour of light economic activities as
related to high-tech industries, tourism or culture) the infrastructure system delivering services
(transportation and communication systems, water-recycling systems, clean energy and electrical
power lines, etc.), the cultural framework and the social system (Mirata and Emtairah 2005; Feng
and Yan 2007; Ness 2008; Naustalslid 2014).
The concept of eco-town was born in the eighties in USA within Urban Ecology mission and was
aimed to redesign cities according to more ecological concepts (Roseland 1997). The well-known
Japanese eco-towns Governmental program developed since 1997 involved urban and industrial
centres in symbiosis projects thanks to their geographical proximity (Van Berkel et al. 2009b). In
that way both zero emissions goals (concept that virtually emphasizes the full use of waste flows in
the economic system) and economic benefits have been achieved given the challenges of shortage
of landfills and the need of revitalizing local industry texture (Van Berkel et al. 2009b). From the
adoption of the Eco-town programme in 1997 a number of 26 eco-towns were created in Japan, by
approving their eco-town plans. Eco-towns also received subsidies to invest in innovative recycling
projects. Moreover, the projects granted with subsidies generated further and even higher no-
subsidized projects and provided public (e.g. environmental quality) and private benefits (e.g.
profits of enterprises). The success of such programs is due to legal, social, economic and
technological factors, such as the evolving legislative framework towards the adoption of a
recycling oriented society, the shared responsibility of society over the need for environmental
protection, the reduction of enterprise’s risks and capital expenditure by means of subsidies, the
diversification of enterprise’s activities, and the improvement of technological capacity within
particular industrial sectors (Van Berkel et al. 2009b).
Other examples of eco-cities can be found in Europe, such as in Germany, Sweden and UK (EU-
ASIA, 2014) as well as in China, where the literature evidences more than one hundreds of eco-city
projects (Marion 2012). Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Dalian in the last years implemented eco-
city pilot projects with the aim of investigating the evolution of CE in terms of resource efficient
use (e.g., indicators of energy intensity per GDP and water intensity per capita), municipal waste
production, waste treatment and reclamation (rate of waste water treatment, rate of industrial solid
waste reuse) (Geng et al. 2009; Su et al. 2013). From 2005 to 2010 in the four mentioned eco-cities
the highest reductions have been observed in energy and water consumption indicators. Tianjin was
the best performing city, in particular within the energy and waste management categories. The
major drivers of performance improvement have been the Government intervention in highly
pollutant and energy consuming industrial sectors, by means of heavy industry relocation, the
introduction of regulations for polluting sectors and the highest availability of energy efficient
technologies and equipment in the four eco-cities referred to above, compared to other Chinese
cities. Moreover, the Dalian municipality has encouraged and in some cases required the
manufacturing companies to adopt cleaner production strategies and the EMS ISO 14001 standard
while for water it promoted programs for improving water management from both supply and
demand sides (e.g., the collection of rainwater in rural and urban areas, the use of seawater for
cooling, the introduction of desalinization technologies, the minimization of water use in industrial
and residential sector, etc.) (Geng et al. 2009).
Collaborative consumption models
Collaborative consumption models are recognized as one of the best available options on consumer
side to shift from the present business-as-usual model to CE (Ness 2008; Preston 2012; Van Meter
2013). Collaborative models (e.g. sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting) are based on
a shared ownership among multiple consumers. For example, when renting the consumer has no
ownership of the product but has only the right to use it by paying a charge (Ness 2008; Ellen
MacArthur Foundation 2010; Preston 2012; Van Meter 2013). As the ownership is at the core of
our present consumption model, the loss of ownership is one of the strongest potential barriers that
could limit the development of such systems (Tukker 2015).
Besides renting, other solutions are lending, bartering and gifting (Segrè 2008; Preston 2012; Ellen
MacArthur Foundation 2010). Because of the various approaches of these activities, their goal can
range from profit, non-profit or both. Presently, collaborative consumption is adopted in car-
ISO 14001:
sharing, in website-based networks sharing different products (music, textbooks, fashion, and art,
among others). Consumer’s lifestyle keeps changing, by reducing the environmental impacts
associated to consumption activities (e.g. in North America members of car-sharing reduced by
30% their driving time compared to the period they owned a personal car) and promotes social
cohesion (Ness 2008; Preston 2012). Rather than a marketing trend, it is instead a crucial factor
towards sustainable development (Bootsman and Rogers 2010) and circular economy, as also
recently recognized by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC 2014). However,
consumers need to be located within a certain community or location (e.g. big cities) or should be
part of a larger network for easy access to such schemes (Preston 2012).
These consumption models are the basis for an improved performance of circular economy, as
theorized by Stahel (2010). In his study the author evidenced the advantages in terms of higher
employment and resource-efficiency of a business model mainly based on selling services instead
of selling products as the present business model. As a consequence Governments, in western
economies should accelerate their taxation policies towards taxing more strongly the use of non-
renewable resources instead of taxing renewable resources as labor (Club of Rome 2015).
Obviously, this fact creates an indirect strong barrier to the development of circular economy
(Groothuis 2014) as CE is perfectly aligned with the development of the bio-economy and the
transition towards bio-based rather than fossil based products (Dupont-Inglis 2015).
Innovative waste management and zero-waste programmes
Waste production and management issues increase when a society further develops. The problem is
also worsened by globalization (Song et al. 2014). In urban centres municipal solid waste are
mainly disposed of in landfills, recycled or recovered. Due to increasing environmental problems
and landfill constraints the prevention of waste is gaining more attention in particular in populous
cities and countries such as Japan with limited landfill and natural resource capacity (Buttol et al.
2007; Geng et al. 2010c). Caprile and Ripa (2014) showed by means of LCA that through
prevention, recycling or recovering (separate collection) it is possible to reduce substantially the
environmental impacts compared to disposal in landfills. Moreover as shown by the case of
Kawasaki (Japan), innovative Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) through urban
symbiosis seems to fulfil the need for reducing the amount of waste as well as natural resources
procurement (Geng et al. 2010c). In China, given its fast development, the problem of waste is also
very urgent to address (Sakai et al. 2011). Chinese CE Promotion Law is also one of the political
responses to waste management problems. The effectiveness of CE Promotion Law requires
improvements in different waste sectors, such as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
(WEEE) and Municipal Solid Waste Management, while more attention in waste management
policies should also be paid to imported recycled materials (Sakai et al. 2011).
Ideally CE transition seems to imply the objective of pulling all waste down to zero (EC 2014a).
Some cities, given their critical role in resource use (Ramsar 2012), have established zero waste
programmes (Song et al. 2014; Zerowaste Europe 2014). One of these programs is analysed in its
implementation steps in Durban (South Africa) by Matete and Trois (2008). According to the
authors the investigated model has potential to lead close to zero waste, even if a total recycling is
impossible for all types of materials (e.g. paper). They also evidence that a successful
implementation of the model depends on the participation rate of the households. Following the
ideal goal of zero waste, Zaman and Lehmann (2013) propose the Zero Waste Index for three big
cities: Adelaide, Stockholm and San Francisco with the aim to measure waste management
performances and to forecast potential raw resources demand and emissions savings. The
calculation of the index aims to overcome the limits of the waste sorting rate (one of the most
common indicators used by the municipalities to measure the current performances of waste
management systems), introducing aspects of waste prevention. The zero waste index quantifies the
potentialities of virgin materials of being substituted by the waste management city system. Results
show that among the three cities Adelaide generated the highest amount of waste per capita (681
kg) while Stockholm the least (480 kg). San Francisco achieved the best value of zero waste index:
0.51, meaning that about half of the city municipal waste materials were recovered and potentially
replaced the demand for virgin materials. On the contrary, Stockholm only achieved an index of
0.17 because of the high use of incineration that prevents the possibility to recover large amounts of
virgin materials, energy and water and to achieve GHG emissions savings. It should be noted that
San Francisco achieved the greater energy and greenhouse gas savings, as well as greater water
savings, than the other cities.
The zero waste goal is also included within the European Union policy, as indicated by the 7
Environment Action Program, with the aim to: “virtually eliminate landfilling by 2020” (EU 2013),
while the Landfill Directive, 1999/31/EC (EC, 1999) only required the EU Member States to reduce
the landfilling of “biodegradable municipal waste” to less than 35% of the amount produced in
1995. Some EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands) already
achieved the targets indicated by the EU Landfill Directive. For example, only 3% of the total waste
produced in The Netherlands is still landfilled. The use of different instruments (tax, bans, and
regulations) contributed to the low landfilling rates, in particular landfill taxes. However,
paradoxically, as discussed by Scharff (2014), the transition towards a low landfilling rate generated
different side-effects related to the maintenance of economic, environmental and social
sustainability of the remaining landfills, rendering impossible their final dismissing because of the
need to recover the financial losses. To avoid these problems, Scharff (2014) highlights the
importance of planning the required landfill capacity and the reorganization of the landfill sector,
also to prevent waste disposal abroad and huge costs to the society, instead of to the polluter.
Finally, Shekdar (2009) analyses solid waste management (SWM) systems in Asian countries,
evidencing key features of SWM in some of them related to the stage of development of the
country: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore (developed), Thailand and Indonesia, China
and India (developing). In the first four countries, strong efforts were made towards the elimination
of landfilling and increasing recycling rates. Waste management systems services (collection,
transportation, processing and disposal) are well organized and citizens’ awareness over SWM as
well as the expectations towards such service are high. In the second group of countries, the SWM
system, even evolving through a better management (e.g. recycling is an established and organized
commercial activity) seems facing many problems towards the improvement of the quality of the
SWM service systems.
3.4 Decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts
Both in Europe and China the circular economy is seen as an intermediate objective towards the
ultimate goal of decoupling economic growth from resource consumption (Zhu 2008; EC 2012c).
Although EU and China appear to be two typical case studies, we cannot neglect other applications
of circular economy in other countries of the world.
Decoupling in Europe
Some countries in Europe have reached both relative decoupling and absolute decoupling in some
sectors. Denmark and Sweden decoupled fossil fuels consumption, while Slovakia decoupled the
municipal waste production and England and Germany the land take.
In Denmark relative decoupling was achieved in agricultural production and fertilizer use, in Ireland
with plastic bags and in Iceland for some fish stocks (Prokop 2011; Dynamik project 2013; 2014).
Additional experiences of absolute decoupling in other countries are also discussed by Yu et al.
(2013), such as: Domestic Extraction Use (DEU) in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy
and Canada; Total Energy Consumption (TEC) in Germany, CO
emissions in Germany, France
and the United Kingdom). Europe seems to strive towards absolute decoupling; there is the risk that
only relative decoupling can be achieved due to the so-called “rebound effect”, that is the risk for
eco-efficiency strategies at micro level that improvements in productivity of resources do not
translate into a reduction of resource use, but rather into an increase of them (Ness 2008). However,
some cases of absolute decoupling seem to confirm the hypothesis by Figge et al. (2014) that
rebound effects are not a certainty in all sectors, although they frequently occur. These authors also
found that eco-sufficiency strategies (consisting in reducing what is produced or consumed in
absolute terms) are not neutral to rebound effects. If both of these strategies are unable to reduce
resource use, the final result would unavoidably be an overall reduction of economic activity (Figge
et al. 2014) as theorized by the de-growth movement. However, up to now, as argued by Van
Griethuysen (2010), our society showed to be unable to give up its “growthmania”, even if the
growth-based development path has lead our society to a general collapse”.
Decoupling in China
The eco-efficiency trends of resource use, energy consumption and pollutant emissions, relative and
absolute decoupling of environmental pressure from economic growth and their dynamics (in terms
of analysis of major drivers) in China was investigated by Yu et al. (2013). Their findings pointed
out that from 1978 to 2010, the trend of resource efficiency (measured by GDP/DEU
) kept increasing mainly due to the high growth of GDP, while DEU and TEC increased
to a lower extent. The same pattern is observed for the eco-efficiency trend of pollutant emissions
(to air: CO
, SO
, soot; water: waste water, COD
, ammonia nitrogen) that mainly improved
because of the higher growth of GDP compared to the one of pollutant emissions. Absolute
decoupling in China was found for COD, while relative decoupling only for wastewater, SO
, CO
TEC and DEU. The major drivers of change reveal that the trend of energy efficiency (GDP/TEC)
has been affected positively by technology (phase out obsolete technologies from 2003) and
negatively by structural changes (due to the sharp increase of the fraction of heavy industries output
to the total industrial output in particular from 2000 to 2010).
Decoupling worldwide
Gross Domestic Product, GDP/Domestic Extraction Used, DEU (in the study measured in tons).
Total Energy Consumption, TEC (in the study measured in units of standard coal equivalents).
Chemical Oxygen Demand.
A smaller number of case studies in other countries worldwide showed no significant differences
from the two "approaches" above considered. Absolute decoupling of Domestic Extraction Use
(DEU) was also explored by Wang et al. (2013) in Japan. Decoupling indicators for resource use
) and emissions (D
) are used to distinguish between absolute (D
1), relative (0 < D
< 1) and
non-decoupling (D
< 1) for two BRICS countries (China and Russia), Japan and United States
during 2000-2007 to examine decoupling conditions of domestic extraction of materials, energy use
and sulphur dioxide emissions from Gross Domestic Product (Wang et al. 2013). The main results
of their work show that Japan and the United States were more successful in decoupling SO
emissions from GDP than material and energy use, compared to the BRICS countries. These
findings could be explained by the different development stages and different economic growth
rates between the formers and the latter.
4. Discussion
4.1 Theoretical background of CE
From our extensive analysis of literature worldwide the CE concept shows to be rooted in very
diverse theoretical backgrounds: ecological economics, environmental economics, industrial
ecology. Since its very beginning, CE presented itself as an alternative model to the neoclassical
economic both from a theoretical and practical point of view as it acknowledges the fundamental
role of environment, as well as its functions and the interplay between the environment and the
economic system. Moreover, CE looks at the environment as an example to emulate for redesigning
the production activities, in particular industrial or development patterns. As a consequence, as in
the natural environment, in CE nothing that contains available energy or useful material is lost
(Frosch 1992). One of the innovative and core principles of CE – inherited from industrial ecology -
is that waste at the end of their life should be released to the industrial food web, both as material
and energy flows. Their inclusion in the design of products and processes allows to close the
material and energy cycle (closed loop), maximize waste use, minimize the use of virgin materials
and the release of noxious materials to the environment.
So far the promotion of the concept of CE in China and worldwide seems mainly based on the
industrial ecology theoretical framework and pillars (analytical, methodological, proactive) even if
not everywhere the principles of industrial ecology are well known and implemented (Chiu and
Geng 2004). The published literature is rich with studies that analyse physical performances and
trends of use of different types of materials and energy by-products, industrial symbiosis patterns,
and resource use indicators (Jacobsen 2006; Van Berkel et al. 2009a; Geng et al. 2010a; Shi et al.
2010; Wang et al. 2010; Mathews et al. 2011; Yu et al. 2013; Dong et al. 2013a, b; Li et al. 2013;
Geng et al. 2014b; Sevigné-Itoiz et al. 2014; Wen and Meng 2014; Yu et al. 2015). On the contrary
a few studies deal with the analysis of economic aspects of CE (Andersen 2007) or its theoretical
economic framework (Andersen 2007; Xia and Yang 2007; Zhu and Wu 2007; Charonis 2012;
Naustalslid 2014). Among these, it is interesting to note that while in the European literature CE
operates within environmental economics that is a subfield of neoclassical economics (Charonis
2012; Naustalslid 2014), in China CE is identified within the ecological economics framework. The
latter is considered much more consistent with Chinese industrial development stage, that has been
addressing since the beginning the problem of natural resource scarcity (Xia and Yang 2007; Zhu
and Wu 2007).
4.2 Political background of CE
At political level we found that very diverse policies and economic instruments (taxes,
environmental permits, financial subsidizes) are used worldwide. Contrary to Europe, USA, Japan,
in China the CE implementation is promoted within a national programme as it is considered part of
a wider policy for socioeconomic transformation and development, capable of ensuring harmony
between society and environment (Naustdalslid 2014). The achievement of a harmonious society
seems to characterize the CE political context of China compared to the other countries as Europe,
Japan or USA. In the latter economic areas, CE is mainly recognized as a strategy for waste
management or for implementation of environmental policies at the maturity stage of economic
development (Ren 2007). In EU the political importance of a CE development has been increasing
in the last few years, as it can be ascertained from the Manifesto of resource efficiency (EC, 2012c),
the European Resource Efficiency Platform (EREP) (2012d) and the EU Circular Economy Package
(EU 2014b). In Japan the transition towards CE started earlier with two important laws in 1991 and
2000 while in USA at the moment a relevant federal policy law towards CE seems still lacking.
Also Australia and New Zealand are on the way of defining its CE transition while Korea and
Vietnam have included relevant 3R policies in their political agenda.
4.3 CE patterns across scales
It is important to mention that even if there is recognition of a hierarchy among the 3R principles,
the transition towards CE, at practical level, seems more concerned with recycling rather than reuse,
the leading principle of CE according to Stahel (2013). Reuse could contribute to reduce the
environmental impacts as well as to revitalize the competitiveness of local economies and improve
the well-being of particular segments of population (Stahel 2013; Castellani et al. 2015). Its wider
role is essential given the limits and risks of recycling in the global market (Bilitewsky 2012; Stahel
2013; 2014) to fully accomplish with the objective of absolute decoupling. Recycling activities
should be promoted on a more local dimension compared to global, to avoid the loss of key
resources in industry sector (Sevignè-Itoiz et al. 2014) while CE and policies should focus on each
recycled material since the different level of recycling achieved by materials (Birat 2015).
CE implementation at micro level
At micro level the transition towards CE implies the adoption of cleaner production and eco-design.
As eco-design takes into account all the environmental impacts of a product since the earliest stages
of design, it has the potential to improve the circular economy approach by favouring the
improvement of material and resource use (Sherwin and Evans 2000; Prendeville et al. 2014). In
Chinese Eco-Industrial Parks, cleaner production is the starting point for individual companies to
engage towards CE. The introduction of cleaner production provides environmental benefits and
economic benefits to companies, as it reduces the amount of waste produced and the costs of
disposal. The adoption of cleaner production patterns should be planned in such a way as to balance
its isolated process nature by means of better integration into other environmental strategies of a
company, an industrial system or the entire society. Moreover its adoption is not easy to monitor as
CP can be applied to processes, products and services. Some data about its diffusion are available
only for some European countries, U.S.A, Canada, Japan and China. Finally, the effectiveness of
cleaner production to promote CE and address environmental problems as well as its larger
adoption strictly depend on the context and also on the capacity of public authorities to stimulate an
increase of the responsibility of producers towards a continuous improvement of environmental
performances. In turn, the enhancement of consumers’ responsibility contributes to further
strengthening that virtuous cycle. In this regard, environmental labelling is increasing worldwide
also supported by public authorities as in the case of EU Ecolabel. The diffusion of products
marked with the environmental labelling as well as the increase of Green Public Procurement
strategies are very encouraging aspects.
CE implementation at meso level
The implementation of CE at meso level regards the introduction of EIPs initiatives. The latter
provide the opportunity to improve environmental performances within industrial areas as shown by
the investigated case studies on EIPs in Europe, China and other countries. However, even if there
are several initiatives in Europe, the attention was mainly placed on the Kalundborg industrial
symbiosis system. Instead, in China a much wider range of case studies is reported, showing the
environmental performances of EIPs also in a CE perspective, through different types of
environmental assessment methods. Results show that in several cases (e.g. Tianjin) industrial
symbiosis and environmental improvement are carried out at EIP level. Some trends of symbiosis
such as the ones in electronics and automotive sectors are of particular concern as they regard the
outsourcing of low value added and polluting activities, and need to be addressed appropriately by
the public authorities (Shi et al. 2012). The adoption of a life cycle perspective in the supply chain
of the symbiosis carried out by an EIP is important for the correct evaluation of the environmental
performances of an EIP.
Moreover, due to market mechanisms (price of by-products) industrial symbiosis among companies
may fail, evidencing that economic feasibility is a decisive factor in the adoption of symbiosis
mechanisms and achievement of environmental improvements.
CE implementation at macro level
Finally, the implementation at macro level (e.g. in cities) shows interesting improvements of CE
aspects, as in Japanese and Chinese eco-cities, zero waste programs, as well as CE indicators (e.g.
zero waste index). On the consumption side, monitoring collaborative consumption experiences
(e.g. car sharing) seems to suggest that the quality of consumption patterns affects the
environmental impacts. In the waste management sector at national level, the case of Netherlands
shows that it is possible to achieve a high recycling rate, while also evidencing how it is difficult to
move towards CE, to close the material loop and dismiss the landfills. Finally, as above mentioned,
in both European Union and China the transition towards CE should lead to the decoupling of
environmental pressure from economic growth while other countries as Japan, USA, India, Brazil
and Russia are also aimed to the decoupling. So far absolute decoupling has been achieved, in
Europe and China, only for some production patterns, sectors and materials, evidencing that the
scale factor affects the performance of the economic systems (e.g. the increase of the Gross
Domestic Product, GDP) more than offsetting the increase of efficiency (GDP/DEU or GDP/TEC).
4.4 Summarizing CE development, advantages and disadvantages
This review evidenced features and progresses of CE patterns in some countries and geographical
areas. Because of different development stages and country specific constraints, European Union
Japan and USA (post-industrialization stage) and China (mid-industrialization stage), the main areas
and countries of CE development, evidence unique features in circular economy patterns. In the
former, CE policies and actions are mainly identified within waste area as they emerged in response
to the increasing problem of waste management (Ren 2007; Geng et al. 2010). Industrial pollution
with the introduction of cleaner technologies was partially resolved (Ren 2007). Instead, China is
facing a phase of industrial development that has no precedents in the history of the former
countries. Its primary aims within CE is the adoption of a new business model that integrates
cleaner production and the development of eco-industrial parks, considered as the more critical
sectors to address (Ren 2007). The large industrialization, rapid urbanization, change of
consumption patterns and population growth lead to a rapid increase of the amount of waste leading
China in 2004 to be the largest Municipal Solid Waste generator (World Bank 2005; Chen et al.
2010; Zhang et al. 2010). While the amount of MSW per capita is still lower in China (250 kg) than
in 27 European countries (512 kg), Japan (380 kg) and USA (720 kg) (Environment European
Agency 2009; OECD Statistics 2010), landfilling remains in China the dominant means of disposal
of MSW (Chen et al. 2010; Zhang et al. 2010) practically preventing the possibility of closing
material cycles in CE perspective. Instead, the industrial waste collection rates are higher in China
(67% in 2010) and much closer to the ones of developed countries (90% in 2010) (Song et al.
The circular economy, beyond the present model of production and consumption, helps optimize
natural resource use through efficiency increase towards a transition from open to closed cycles of
materials and energy and to less wasteful industrial processes (Frosch 1992; Erkman 1997;
Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Chiu and Geng 2004; Andersen 2007). CE prevents the loss of valuable
materials as suggested by Mirabella et al. (2013) and supports the concepts put forward by Park and
Chertow (2014) and Zaman and Lehmann (2013) of waste as a potential resource. The Ellen Mac
Arthur Foundation’s Report rejects the concept itself of waste. For this to happen, their use at the
end of life cycle should be planned in the design phase (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation 2012).
Prendeville et al. (2014) evidences that this latter stage acquires and plays a central role in CE
reinforcing its benefits (mainly focused on resource use) as eco-design aims to reduce all
environmental impacts in the life cycle of a product. The adoption of a cradle to cradle perspective
embedded in CE while preventing the loss of valuable materials allows a reduction of the costs for
the companies and municipalities, due to a reduction of the problem of waste management
(Mirabella et al. 2013; Geng et al. 2010c) as well as to a reduction of the externalities for the society
(lower pollution), new jobs opportunities (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation 2012; Club of Rome 2015)
and increased welfare for low income households (Castellani et al. 2015). This is because the reuse
and remanufacturing activities are labour intensive instead of resource intensive as in the present
linear model of production and consumption (Stahel 2013). In turn the reduction of dependence on
natural resources, in particular non-renewables means a lower exposure of the economy to the
negative effects of resource prices shocks (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation 2012; Preston 2012; Lett
Generally at meso level the development of eco-industrial parks and industrial symbiosis under “CE
philosophy” are source of environmental (lower material and energy resources consumption and
lower water, air and soil pollution) and economic advantages (e.g. lower costs for raw materials
substitution and lower treatment costs) (Chertow 2007; Zhu et al. 2007; Van Beers and Biswas
2008; Park et al. 2008; Van Berkel et al. 2009a, b; Geng et al. 2010; Shi et al. 2010; Wang et al.
2010; Behera et al. 2012; Wen and Meng 2014;Yu et al. 2015). Several studies (Ehrenfeld and
Gertler 1997; Singhal and Kapur 2002; Jacobsen 2006; Herees et al. 2004; Zheng et al. 2013)
quantify (or estimate) the actual and potential benefits (Zheng et al. 2013) obtained from industrial
exchanges in Kalundborg in terms of annual resource savings (water, fuel and chemicals), waste
and emissions avoidance. For China, in crucial economic sectors as iron/steel industry, Dong et al.
(2013b) evidence that it is possible to exploit energy, water, by products and waste exchanges
enhancing resource and energy efficiency, reducing pollutant’s emissions of the EIP and the
external linked facilities as well as of the urban communities. In fact, urban solid waste can be used
by the EIP and the excess of metallurgy energy of the EIP can feed urban heating systems (Dong et
al. 2013b). In the successful experiences of urban symbiosis in Japan of the Eco-Town Program
establishing 26 Eco-Towns, Van Berkel et al. (2009) highlight that the program other than
providing environmental and socio-economic benefits contributed to the advance of technology in
recycling as new processes for complex waste streams along with advanced options for commodity
plastics. Other experiences of symbiosis among industries and local municipalities and their social
benefits (employment, district heating and waste disposal) are also cited by Lehtoranta et al. (2011)
in the relevant Finnish pulp and paper industries.
As the companies mainly engage in EIP projects with the purpose of gaining economic benefits
(Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Singhal and Kapur 2002; Herees et al.2004; Chertow 2007; Park et al.
2008; Lehtoranta et al. 2011; Sakr et al. 2011; Behera et al. 2012; Massard et al. 2014),
environmental benefits are side-effects of their choices (Herees et al. 2004) often uncovered
(Chertow 2007; Bain et al. 2010). As a consequence, the engagement in EIPs and industrial
symbiosis and CE as well are considered a disadvantage for companies (as reported by Shi et al.
2010 for the automotive sector) whenever the IS projects are not convenient economically. Many
authors stress therefore the importance for public authorities of creating the adequate support to
companies through policies, national EIP initiatives, environmental legislative framework,
economic instruments (taxes, subsidies) for the development and advance of EIPs and IS as well as
policies removing the hurdles that prevent the safe reuse of by-products and informing companies
about the benefits of IS, improvement of the cooperation among stakeholders, adequate
infrastructures (rails and roads) and services (as research centres and EIP coordinating centres),
promotion of a cleaner production approach among individual facilities, education programmes to
support EIP’s take up (Cotè and Cohen-Rosenthal 1998; Roberts 2004; Desrochers 2005; Van Beers
et al. 2007; Park et al. 2008; Veiga and Magrini 2009; Van Berkel et al. 2009a, b; Bain et al. 2010;
Costa et al. 2010; Shi et al. 2010; Lehtoranta et al. 2011; Behera et al. 2012; Bai et al. 2014; Veleva
et al. 2015; Yu et al. 2015).
Finally, circular economy also requires producers and consumers to become more active
participants in the recycling or reuse of products, forgetting about the passive “throwaway” culture
of the linear economy (Shah 2014). It should not be disregarded that given the limits in recycling it
is unlikely that CE could continue to maintain quantitative economic growth forever. According to
Georgescu-Roegen (1971): not only growth, but also a zero-growth state, even a declining state
which does not converge toward annihilation, cannot exist forever in a finite environment”.
Nevertheless, as we discussed in section 3.3, CE should be seen as a transition to a new and
different business model, where wellbeing is decoupled by resource consumption. CE could help
the transition to a degrowth path (less resource use with increasing wellbeing) that seems inevitable
in particular in industrialized economies having surpassed ecological limits (Kerschner 2010). As
suggested by Kerschner (2010) economic degrowth in the North could implement a path for
achieving the goal of a globally equitable lower steady state economy, by allowing some more
economic growth in the South. In this perspective CE can be seen as an advantage by degrowth
supporters and a disadvantage by the ones advocating continuous quantitative economic growth. On
the other hand, so far environmental and social dimensions of sustainability have attracted less
interest compared to the economic sphere and need the right recognition. A shift is then needed, in
particular in developed countries, towards a more qualitative development model, as could be the
CE, where people live equitable within planet’s carrying capacity as suggested by Brown and
Ulgiati (2011).
4.5 Future research options
The perspectives of CE are huge and appealing. An overall increase of knowledge of theoretical and
practical framework of circular economy, CE, as well as the monitoring of the presently existing
projects at the different levels are fundamental for advancing CE progresses in Europe, China and
worldwide. The most important aspect, i.e. the one that still seems to need improvement, is the
knowledge and awareness of European producers and consumers, because of the important role
devoted to producers and consumers responsibility in European policies. The same aspect is
certainly important in other countries and China, but CE awareness seems to be more analysed only
in China, at least based on literature.
At a micro level, only a few studies deal with the diffusion, adoption and effects of cleaner
production. In particular, the research on design needs to be oriented to understand the effects of CE
business and consumption models implying the selling of a service (instead of a product) or its
leasing, refurbishment and remanufacturing (Ramani et al. 2010; Bakker et al. 2014). To this
purpose research on motivation of consumer’s purchases and replacement of still functioning
products with new ones is also needed, to help designers to better match consumers choices and
needs (Ramani et al. 2010). The role of scavengers and decomposers also requires a better
investigation at all levels. Diverse types of scavengers and decomposers companies are well
established in Europe where recycling activities are highly developed and recycled materials
markets are actively operative (specially for paper, glass, steel, among others).
At the meso level the development of EIPs and the adoption of industrial symbiosis, IS, require
further investigation in European countries, where most studies only focus on Kalundborg case,
disregarding other options or achieved results. This would provide additional knowledge on IS to
public authorities, in order to enhance the shift of existing, poorly integrated industrial areas to the
principles of industrial ecology and circular economy. The role of the public sector is of paramount
importance in promoting the adoption of new symbiosis initiatives as well as CE advancing over
time (Lehtoranta et al. 2011).
Continuity, i.e. stability of normative framework and market opportunities, is another key feature of
IS that need to be further investigated. Companies rely on the need to maintain economic
profitability of their activities and investments in IS when market mechanisms (e.g. increase of
prices of by-products provided by a company to another) discourage the adoption of IS. In this
regard appropriate instruments rewarding positive externalities need to be tailored to provide tools
to policy makers.
It should not be disregarded the need for assessing the environmental performances of IS on a life
cycle basis, with regard to the upstream and downstream impacts of the entire network (Martin et al.
2015). Sokka (2011) showed that by only considering direct emissions and resource use by the
symbiosis network, more than the 50% of the total impacts are neglected.
Finally, at the macro level it would be extremely important to evaluate the evolution of projects,
legislation, and awareness in cities, regions and overall nations. This would provide feedback
information to policy makers about the soundness of the policies adopted by far.
5. Conclusions
The final purpose of this extensive worldwide literature review was to understand to what extent CE
could be a solution to the need for reducing the environmental impacts of business-as-usual
economic systems. Although the implementation of CE worldwide is still at an early stage of
development, CE provides a reliable framework towards radically improving the present business
model towards preventive and regenerative eco-industrial development as well as increased
wellbeing based on recovered environmental integrity. However, only a limited number of countries
have taken preliminary actions towards CE and a stronger commitment is still required. At both
theoretical and practical levels CE is mainly rooted in environmental economics and industrial
ecology, with a high emphasis on technological innovation in the form of cleaner technologies as
well as on recycling rather than reuse. The latter is a key principle in CE and should be prioritized
with adequate policies. Moreover, the high emphasis on increasing resource efficiency is not fully
consistent with the often claimed need for decreasing resource use as well as the high reliance on
non-renewable resources.
With reference to the so-called Odum and Odum’s pulsing paradigm, with long time-scale
oscillating waves of growth and descent, it seems evident that the same policies and strategies that
apply to growth phases may not be the best options in transition and descent stages. As a
consequence, CE is not an appropriate tool for growth-oriented economic systems (i.e. cannot be
claimed to support further economic growth), where efficiency is not the “winning card” and the
rebound effect and market competition are likely to diminish the potential benefits of increased
efficiency. Instead, in steady-state oriented economic systems as well as in a possible future descent
stage of some economies worldwide, CE efficiency and environmental protection would become
crucial factors to orient policies for the transition to new production and consumption patterns,
capable to delay the descent and allow a smoother transition to different and more environmentally
sound lifestyles and socio-economic dynamics.
Sergio Ulgiati acknowledges the contract by the School of Environment, Beijing Normal
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Figure Captions:
Figure 1: Classification of reviewed studies according to the different subjects and categories converging to Circular
Figure 2: Classification of reviewed case studies on the basis of the investigated geographical location. The diagram
only refers to the articles selected for the present study, according to the sample described in the Introduction.
Figure 3: The pulsing paradigm according to Odum and Odum (2001, 2006). In a pulsing dynamics, the first stage
(growth) is characterized by high net yields, low efficiency and increasing load on environment; in the transition,
steady-state phase, a declining growth rate is accompanied by low net yields, increasing efficiency, decreasing
environmental loads; during degrowth, no net yields are achieved, efficiency reaches its maximum possible value to
get the most out of less resources available, environmental loads keep decreasing due to less resource use. Finally, a
phase of resource restoration occurs, for a new cycle ahead. CE contributes to transition and degrowth phases, while
is not requested in growth and restoration stages.
Figure 4: Overview of approved eco-industrial parks (EIPs) within the National EIP Program up to December 2010 in
China. Source: Mathews and Tan 2011.
Table Captions:
Table 1. Main limits and challenges of transition to Circular Economy.
Table 1 Main limits and challenges to CE transition.
Principles of CE Limits or Challenges Reference
Optimal product life scenario.
Design for disassembly, reuse,
Design for durable products.
Design for new business model of
Bakker et al. 2014
Wrinkler 2011; Ellen MacArthur
Foundation 2012; Bakker et al. 2014
Bakker et al. 2014
Ramani et al. 2010; Bakker et al.
Reduction Overcome rebound effect of eco-
efficiency and eco-sufficiency
Figge et al. 2013
Reuse Technical maximum reusability of
Increase of consumer demand
towards reuse of products and
Development of take-back
mechanisms from the companies.
Ensuring repair and secondary use
of products after their original use.
Taxation based on non-renewable
energy rather than labor and
renewable energies
Park and Chertow 2014
Prendeville et al. 2014
Bilitewsky 2012
Bilitewsky 2012
Stahel 2010; 2013
Recycle Reinforcement of local markets of
recycled materials.
Risks of global trade of materials.
Plastic waste: unfeasibility due to
the mixing of contaminants.
Cellulose: feasible until 4-6 times.
Rare metals (lack of economies of
Food Waste: further transformations
before being used requires high
costs in research and development.
Appropriate LCA modelling for
reuse and recycling.
Sevigné-Itoiz et al. 2014
Bilitewsky 2012
Reh 2013
Reh 2013
UNEP 2013b; Prendeville et al.
Mirabella et al. 2014
Thomas and Birat 2013; Birat 2015
Reclassification of materials into:
Reuse after the first cycle
Safe return to the Biosphere or in a
cascade of subsequent uses
Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012
Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012
Renewable Energy Increase their share compared to the
share of fossil fuels. Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012
Preston 2012
CE Roots and origins
Pearce and Turner 1989; Frosch 1992; Ehrenfeld and
Gertler 1997; Erkman 1997; Van Berkel et al. 1997; Chiu
and Geng 2004; Andersen 2007; Ren 2007; Zhu and Wu
2007; Mathews and Tan 2011; Ellen Mac Arthur
Foundation 2013; Preston 2012; Iung and Levrat 2014.
Regional eco-industrial networks
and productions, eco-cities, urban
Roseland 1997; Mirata and Emtairah
2005; Feng and Yan 2007; Ness 2008;
Geng et al. 2009; Van Berkel et al.
2009b; Marion 2012; Su et al. 2013;
Naustdalslid 2014
Eco-industrial systems and Industrial Symbiosis
Districts and Networks
Lowe et al. 1995; Ehrenfeld and Gertler 1997; Co
and Cohen Rosenthal 1998; Chertow 2000; Fleig
2000; Singhal and Kapur 2002; Gwehenberger et al.
2003; Herees et al. 2004; Chiu and Geng 2004;
Roberts 2004; Mirata and Emtairah 2005; Jacobsen
2006; Yuan et al. 2006; Chertow 2007; Geng et al.
2007; Gibbs and Deutz 2007; Geng et al. 2008; Fang
et al. 2007; Tarantini et al. 2007; Van Beers et al.
2007; Zhu et al. 2007; Van Berkel 2009a; Kim and
Powell 2008; Van Beers and Biswas 2008; Park et al.
2008; Geng et al. 2009; Veiga and Magrini 2009;
Zhang et al. 2009; Bain et al. 2010; Geng et al. 2010a;
Zhu et al. 2010; Shi et al. 2010; Wang et al. 2010;
Lehtoranta et al. 2011; Mathew and Tan 2011; Sakr et
al. 2011; Wrinkler 2011; Behera et al. 2012; Chertow
2012; Cutaia and Morabito 2012; Shi et al.,
2012; Dong et al. 2013a; Dong et al. 2013b; Su et al.
2013; Zheng et al. 2013; Bai et al. 2014; Conticelli
and Tondelli 2014; Geng et al. 2014b; Massard et al.
2014; Wen and Meng 2014; Veleva et al. 2015; Yu et
al. 2015
Implementation at micro level
(single company or consumer)
CE Principles and Limits
Gwehenberger et al. 2003; Cagno et al. 2005; Davis and Hall
2006; Schnitzer and Ulgiati 2007; Ren 2007; Feng and Yan
2007; Ness 2008; Zhu 2008; Connet et al. 2011; Sakai et al.
2011; Bilitewsky, 2012; Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012;
Lazarevic et al. 2012; Preston 2012; He et al. 2013; Su et al.
2013; Thomas and Birat. 2013; Reh 2013; Stahel 2013, 2014;
Bakker et al. 2014; Figge et al. 2014; Lett 2014;
Manomaivibool and Hong 2014; Mirabella et al., 2014; Park and
Chertow, 2014; Prendeville et al., 2014; Sevigné-Itoiz et al.,
Birat 2015;
Castellani et al. 2015;
Resource 2015
CE Models
Ulgiati 2004; Odum and Odum 2001, 2006; Xia and Yang,
2007; Zhu and Wu 2007; Kerschner 2010; Schneider 2010;
Kallis 2011; Brown and Ulgiati 2011; Charonis 2012; Ellen
Mac Arthur Foundation 2012; Geng et al. 2014a; Naustdalslid
2014; Prendeville et al., 2014; Küçüksayraç et al. 2015
Cleaner production
Van Berkel et al. 1997, Fresner 1998;
Van Berkel 1999, 2000, 2007;
Gwehenberger et al. 2003; Frondel et
al. 2004; Cagno et al. 2005; Yap 2005;
Yuan et al. 2006; Brown and Stone
2007; Ren 2007; Schnitzer and Ulgiati
2007; Fang et al. 2007; Feng and Yan
2007; Geng and Doberstein 2008;
Bonilla et al. 2009; Geng et al. 2010b;
Li et al. 2010; Ramani et al. 2010;
Wrinkler 2011; Geng et al. 2013; Su et
al. 2013; Zhang et al. 2013; Liu and
Bai 2014; Prendeville 2014.
Product Recyling and Reuse,
Scavengers and Decomposers
Noronha 1999; Geng and Coté 2002.
Green consumption and Green
Public Procurement
Feng and Yan 2007; Geng and
Doberstein 2008; Liu et al. 2009; Liao
and Li 2010; Sønderskov and
Daugbjerg 2010; Su et al. 2013; Zhu et
al. 2013
; Resource 2015
Implementation at meso level
(Eco-industrial parks)
Implementation at macro level
(city, province, region, nation)
Waste trade markets: Su et al. 2013.
Collaborative consumption
Ness, 2008; Segrè 2008; Ellen Mac
Arthur Foundation 2010; Botsman and
Rodgers 2010; Stahel 2010; Preston
2012; ; Su et al. 2013; Van Meter
2013; Groothuis 2014; Club of Rome
2015; Dupont-Inglis 2015; Tukker
Zero Waste programs, innovative
municipal solid waste management
Buttol et al. 2007; Matete and Trois
2008; Shekdar 2009; Chen et al. 2010;
Geng et al. 2010c; Zhang et al. 2010;
Zaman and Lehman 2013; Scharff
2014; Sakai et al. 2011; Su et al. 2013;
Caprile and Ripa 2014; Song et al.
Ness 2008; Zhu 2008; Van Griethuysen 2010; Figge
et al. 2014; Yu et al. 2013; Wang et al. 2013.
Feng and Yan 2007; Geng et al. 2008;
Geng et al. 2012; Preston 2012; Geng et al. 2013; Ren
et al. 2013; Su et al. 2013; Zaman and Lehman 2013;
Park and Chertow 2014
; Golinska et al. 2015
Yap 2005; Feng and Yan 2007. Policy
Feng and Yan 2007; Geng et al. 2013;
Sakai et al. 201
Feng and Yan 2007; Costa et al. 2010;
Lehtoranta et al. 2011; Shi et al. 2012; Jiao and Boons
Sustainable development
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Environmental crises and resource depletion have adversely affected the food security around the world. Food security in the future can be guaranteed by sustainable agriculture that respects the environment. So, it is necessary to decrease the energy consumption of resources for agricultural productions to achieve the maximum sustainability. For agricultural productions, environmental and energy issues are completely interrelated, and a comprehensive evaluation is necessary to manage them in all productions. In this study, energy, environmental, and economic indicators in cantaloupe production were studied. The studied energy indices included energy efficiency, energy productivity, net energy gain, and energy intensity. Life cycle method based on ISO 14040 standard was used to evaluate the environmental impacts. This method includes goal statement, identification of inputs and outputs, and a system for assessing and interpreting the environmental impacts of various agricultural productions. Also, for economic analysis, the average prices of inputs and outputs and also net return (NR), gross return (GR), and profit-to-cost ratio were used. The results showed that nitrogen fertilizer (32.28%) and diesel fuel (30.52%) had the highest and cantaloupe seeds (0.39%), and oil consumption in tractor engines (0.43%) had the lowest share of energy consumption, respectively. Energy efficiency, energy productivity, energy intensity, and net energy gain were estimated 0.56, 0.70 kg MJ⁻¹, 1.41 MJ kg⁻¹, and − 11,775.86 MJ ha⁻¹, respectively. The results of the present status of environmental impacts showed that the most effective factor in climate change is direct emissions from the diesel fuel. Also, indirect emissions from phosphorus and urea fertilizers had the highest effect on ecosystem quality. Various machine operations such as primary and secondary plowing, spraying, and transportation were the main causes of high diesel fuel consumption. Economic analysis showed that the profit-to-cost ratio and the productivity values were calculated about 1.6 and 7.27, respectively, which means that for every dollar spent in cantaloupe farms, it produced 7.27 kg of cantaloupe production. The variable costs were estimated at 1154.5 and fixed cost was 1487 $ha⁻¹. Among the variable costs, transportation and fuel costs were the highest with 64.3%. Decreasing the diesel fuel consumption by using appropriate farm management methods and using the reduce tillage methods can play an effective role in reducing the consumption of this input and improving the energy, environmental, and economic indicators in cantaloupe production.
... A circular economy (CE) is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design [1]. It replaces the end-of-pipe approach with restoration, shifting the focus from waste management to design [2][3][4]. Design plays an essential role in a CE because it can help to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve the overall sustainability of a product or system [5,6]. According to [7], a CE can be designed to handle both biological and technical material cycles. ...
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Most frameworks for dealing with the complexity of designing for the circular economy have limitations in terms of correlating different domains of knowledge, correlating highly complex design strategies, and facilitating the process of design strategies’ discovery and development. This paper discusses how managers and designers can create products that can be circulated for several life cycles by considering five different circular objectives (i.e., maintenance/longevity, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture and/or recycling). To achieve one or more of these objectives, multiple design strategies can be used at various phases of each product life cycle and throughout the product’s lifetime. A literature review is used in this article to evaluate how circular objectives and design strategies are classified in terms of relevance, product life cycle phases, and product life cycles. The three classifications are merged to create a novel conceptual framework, which is then tested through the use of four circular case studies to map out life cycles, circular objectives, and design strategies. The framework may help managers and designers better understand how their businesses and products interact along the supply chain, allowing them to establish more effective product lifetime plans.
... When perfect circularity is reached the eco-efficiency of virgin resource use is infinitely high (Figge et al., 2017). Again, as above, however, it is difficult to find examples of perfect circularity in practice (Ghisellini et al., 2016). Research has looked into how many times resources are used in our global economy before they are lost. ...
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By using resources more efficiently, resource users help to overcome the inherent resource scarcity on "spaceship earth." One strategy in this context is to close resource loops and to use resources circularly. With fewer resources wasted, a more circular use of resources should also increase the efficiency of resource use and create more value. However, when resource users aim for a greater degree of efficiency, inadvertently they might contribute to resources being used less rather than more circularly and, consequently, less instead of more efficiently. We show how to assess the value that is created by the efficient use of resources for the case of linear and circular resource use. This allows us to identify three distinct types of positive externalities related to the circular use of resources: (1) systemic static externalities; (2) idiosyncratic dynamic externalities; and (3) systemic dynamic externalities. We describe how the value created by these externalities can be assessed and argue that they need to be considered when evaluating environmental resource use.
... Circular economy performance can be measured efficiently using composite (combined) indicators, which target different dimensions of circular economy, such as economic, social, or environmental [1], whereby attention should be paid to indicator construction so as not to draw simplified and inaccurate conclusions about circular economy. The concept of circular economy is founded on resource reuse and recycling as support for building a new sustainable society, which requires changes in the way of thinking and doing business, and modifications of living habits [2]. The results of previous studies of indicators that measure circular economy performance highlight the need to create proper methodological guidelines, which would significantly improve the construction of composite indicators [3,4]. ...
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Composite indicators are modern tools for evaluating, comparing, and measuring the performance of multidimensional concepts such as sustainable development, environmental protection, or circular economy among countries, regions, or cities. The core of composite indicators includes the mathematical relation of individual indicators pertaining to different dimensions of the observed concept. Importantly, composite indicators are constructed by means of various mathematical models, primarily multiple-criteria decision analysis, which allows the selection of adequate individual indicators within a composite indicator. This is followed by the selection of a suitable aggregation model and a careful selection of a system for assigning individual indicator weights. Subjectivity during decision-making should be avoided as much as possible, as it could lead to an imprecisely formed indicator. In addition, this requires a proper previous definition of indicator robustness, which explains the level of coverage of a specific concept, as well as potential restrictions that need to be listed in indicator notes. This paper discusses the key features of measurement using indicators and the application of composite indicators in circular economy. Guidelines are also provided for proper definitions and construction of composite indicators that measure circular economy performance, all for the purpose of improving the system for circular economy performance measurement.
The burgeon concept of Circular Economy (CE) has fundamental issues hindering clarity and comprehensive assessments. This paper uses established ontological criteria to review and improve the CE definition and (assessment) frameworks. The review reveals that mainstream CE definitions and assessments are fuzzy, shift problems, oversimplified and not synchronized. This causes many loopholes that not lead towards sustainability. Therefore, an improved definition and framework is proposed, specifically for CE of XL to XS regions (scales from planetary to neighborhoods). A CE should strive towards self-sufficiency on each scale to avoid problems shifting to other regions or future society. The framework elaborates on a comprehensive systems-approach, which connects the triple bottom line across nine ecosystem processes, eight societal processes, and six economic production processes. The proposed definition and framework are demonstrated in an assessment of regional pressures and their impacts of Australia with 2020 data. The framework aims to better inform decision-makers on trade-offs between vital processes to minimize unintended problem shifting. The definition and framework have improved universal application for meaningful comparisons and optimization towards a sustainable CE in any region.
The increasing demand for social well-being and infrastructure development, along with the exploitation of physical resources and the depletion of natural ecological resources, have led to a series of environmental problems, such as global warming and climate change. As a result, the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals have called for the reduction in the impact of urban development on the environment and the creation of adaptive, inclusive and sustainable habitats. The circular economy (CE) is a new economic paradigm that contributes to sustainable socioeconomic development. It aims to lessen the extraction and acquisition of material resources through recycling and rationalise the allocation and reuse of social resources. For instance, recycling wood, a fundamental component of municipal waste, alleviates some pressure to extract raw materials and solves the dilemma of turning materials into waste. In this context, this study investigates five mills and logging sites around London as a source of material support. The findings highlight that wood recycling methods remain inadequate, with an excessive amount of wood being landfilled, downgraded and disposed without the possibility of reuse. The experiment completed the material collection of Waste, Under-use and Off-cut wood based on photogrammetry and laser scanning technology. According to the practical features found within the geometrical data, a material library was generated to wood select to the porosity requirements of the building. Results from the investigation illustrate how recycled wood components can be reintegrated into new construction as part of sustainable building design (SBD).