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Conceptualizing the Circular Economy: An Analysis of 114 Definitions


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The circular economy concept has gained momentum both among scholars and practitioners. However, critics claim that it means many different things to different people. This paper provides further evidence for these critics. The aim of this paper is to create transparency regarding the current understandings of the circular economy concept. For this purpose, we have gathered 114 circular economy definitions which were coded on 17 dimensions. Our findings indicate that the circular economy is most frequently depicted as a combination of reduce, reuse and recycle activities, whereas it is oftentimes not highlighted that CE necessitates a systemic shift. We further find that the definitions show few explicit linkages of the circular economy concept to sustainable development. The main aim of the circular economy is considered to be economic prosperity, followed by environmental quality; its impact on social equity and future generations is barely mentioned. Furthermore, neither business models nor consumers are frequently outlined as enablers of the circular economy. We critically discuss the various circular economy conceptualizations throughout this paper. Overall, we hope to contribute via this study towards the coherence of the circular economy concept; we presume that significantly varying circular economy definitions may eventually result in the collapse of the concept.
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Resources, Conservation & Recycling
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Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 denitions
Julian Kirchherr
, Denise Reike, Marko Hekkert
Innovation Studies Group, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Circular economy
4R framework
Sustainable development
Content analysis
The circular economy concept has gained momentum both among scholars and practitioners. However, critics
claim that it means many dierent things to dierent people. This paper provides further evidence for these
critics. The aim of this paper is to create transparency regarding the current understandings of the circular
economy concept. For this purpose, we have gathered 114 circular economy denitions which were coded on 17
dimensions. Our ndings indicate that the circular economy is most frequently depicted as a combination of
reduce, reuse and recycle activities, whereas it is oftentimes not highlighted that CE necessitates a systemic shift.
We further nd that the denitions show few explicit linkages of the circular economy concept to sustainable
development. The main aim of the circular economy is considered to be economic prosperity, followed by
environmental quality; its impact on social equity and future generations is barely mentioned. Furthermore,
neither business models nor consumers are frequently outlined as enablers of the circular economy. We critically
discuss the various circular economy conceptualizations throughout this paper. Overall, we hope to contribute
via this study towards the coherence of the circular economy concept; we presume that signicantly varying
circular economy denitions may eventually result in the collapse of the concept.
1. Introduction
The circular economy (CE) concept is trending both among scholars
and practitioners. This is indicated by the rapid growth of peer-re-
viewed articles on CE: More than 100 articles were published on the
topic in 2016, compared to only about 30 articles in 2014 (Geissdoerfer
et al., 2017). On the other hand, many consultancy reports have been
published on the topic recently (with consultancies attempting to signal
expertise on trending topics to clients via such reports (Kipping and
Clark, 2012)). For instance, the major consulting rms Accenture, De-
loitte, EY and McKinsey & Company all have published on CE in the past
two years (Gartner, 2016; Hannon et al., 2016; Lacy et al., 2015; Hestin
et al., 2016; EY, 2015).
The CE concept is of great interest to both scholars and practitioners
because it is viewed as an operationalization for businesses to imple-
ment the much-discussed concept of sustainable development
(Ghisellini et al., 2016;Murray et al., 2017). The latter concept has
been called too vague to be implementable and has thus started to lose
momentum (van den Brande et al., 2011;Peltonen 2017, p.2 .) with
Naudé (2011, p.352) even calling it a theoretical dream [rather than]
implementable realityand Engelman (2013, p.3) writing that we live
today in an age of sustainababble, a cacophonous profusion of uses of
the world sustainable [development]to mean anything from en-
vironmentally better to cool. Notable concepts also supposed to
operationalize sustainable development for businesses are the green
economy and green growth concepts (UNEP, 2011; OECD, 2016),
whereas the CE concept is argued to be the one with most traction these
days (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2014; EY, 2015).
A concept with so much traction is usually employed by various
stakeholders. These can blur the concept since they frequently operate
in signicantly dierent worlds of thought (Gladek, 2017; de Vries and
Petersen, 2009). Blurriness has been raised as a criticism against con-
cepts such as the green economy one (Loiseau et al., 2016) and it has
also been raised against CE in various CE review articles we identied
(Ghisellini et al., 2016; Lieder and Rashid 2016; Blomsma and Brennan,
2017; Sauvé et al., 2016; Murray et al., 2017; Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;
Lewandowski, 2016; further details in Table 1) and beyond. For in-
stance, Lieder and Rashid (2016, p.37) point out that there are various
possibilities for dening [CE], while Yuan et al. (2008, p.5) write that
there is no commonly accepted denition of [CE]. However, not a
single study until now, as far as we are aware, has comprehensively and
systematically investigated CE denitions.
Yet it is both of academic and practical relevance to comprehen-
sively and systematically investigate CE denitions which we view as
an operationalization of CE understandings throughout this paper
(further discussed in Section 2). After all, a concept with various un-
derstandings may ultimately collapse or remain in a deadlock due to
permanent conceptual contention (Hirsch and Levin, 1999; Bocken
Received 13 April 2017; Received in revised form 2 September 2017; Accepted 5 September 2017
Corresponding author at: Innovation Studies Group, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands.
E-mail address: (J. Kirchherr).
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
0921-3449/ © 2017 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (
et al., 2017; Blomsma and Brennan, 2017). Meanwhile, further theo-
retical development of the concept can help cohere it and thus cir-
cumvent this (Hirsch and Levin, 1999; Blomsma and Brennan, 2017).
This theoretical development requires, as a rst step, transparency re-
garding current understandings of the concept in the discourse (Hirsch
and Levin, 1999; Blomsma and Brennan, 2017). The aim of this paper is
to provide this transparency. Hence, the research question addressed in
this paper is: What are current understandings of the CE concept among
scholars and practitioners?
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2out-
lines methods adopted (including a description of our coding frame).
Meanwhile, Section 3presents and discusses the results of our analysis
of 114 CE denitions. Our argument is summarized in Section 4.
2. Methods
There are at least two methods to investigate the understanding of a
concept, as discussed by Dahlsrud (2008, p.2 .). First, interviews
asking for the understanding of a concept can be conducted with re-
levant stakeholders, but it has been found that these stakeholders of-
tentimes struggle to provide thoughtful responses ad hoc (Johnston and
Beatson, 2005; ODwyer, 2003; Dahlsrud, 2008). Second, written de-
nitions of a concept can be gathered and then analysed. This method is
believed to provide a more valid view on the current understanding of a
concept in the discourse since written denition are usually more de-
liberate than ad hoc ones provided in interviews (Carroll, 1999; Moir,
2001; Dahlsrud, 2008). This second method is thus chosen as a base
method for this paper.
Still, we acknowledge that denitions can be rather narrow oper-
ationalisations of the understanding of a concept particularly those
published in peer-reviewed journals. Authors face (sometimes severe)
space restrictions in most of these journals and may thus choose to only
present an abridged denition of a complex concept that focuses solely
on the aspects of the concept investigated in their paper. An example
may be Geng et al. (2013) whose CE denition presented in Science only
counts 41 words. Science allows a maximum of 4500 words including
references for a research article (Science, 2017). Meanwhile, this
journal, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, allows 7000 words ex-
cluding references (RCR, 2017) with one recent CE denition presented
in it, Saidani et al. (2017), counting 112 words. We also hypothesize
that authors may nd some aspects of a concept so self-evident that
they thus do not choose to include these aspects in their denition even
if no space restrictions are faced. Hence, the understanding of a concept
may be broader than the written denition presented.
To (at least partially) address this, we considered not only the de-
nition, but also the neighbouring text (which could also include vi-
sualizations if a comprehensive denition is absent) and at times the
entire paper for cues regarding the authorsunderstanding of the CE
concept. A denition is thus our main, but not our only
operationalization of CE understanding.
Nevertheless, our study may
exaggerate the negligence of certain dimensions in CE understandings,
given that a CE denition is likely narrower than the CE understanding
of a selected author (at least at times).
The remainder of this section is divided in three sub-sections. First,
we describe how we gathered 114 denitions on CE. Second, we de-
scribe our coding framework. Third, we outline the procedure based on
the coding framework for coding the various denitions identied.
2.1. Sample development
We decided to gather denitions published in peer-reviewed jour-
nals as well as denitions from works that are not peer-reviewed (e.g.
policy papers and reports such as Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012),
Schut et al. (2015) and Dupont-Inglis (2015) all of these items are
called articlesthroughout this paper) since much of the work on CE
(including conceptual work) is driven by non-academic players, as
noted inter alia by Schut et al. (2015).Ghisellini et al. (2016) also
consider works that were not peer-reviewed in their literature review
on CE. Similarly, Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.767) explicitly propose in
their conceptual contribution on CE to consider non-peer-reviewed
works for future conceptual discussions relating to it.
Our method to gather denitions on CE consists of three ap-
proaches. These were designed with the intention to develop a re-
presentative sample of CE denitions. First, we retrieved denitions
from the CE literature sample developed by Ghisellini et al. (2016)
which is said to be representative for writings on CE (Ghisellini et al.,
2016). The sample includes 155 articles, but only 74 of these mention
the term circular economy, and of those 54 dene it, according to our
analysis. Second, we conducted searches in Elsevier's Scopus for the
term circular economy. We then skimmed the results of these searches
specically for conceptual literature assuming this literature would
contain denitions. We also skimmed the bibliographies of identied
conceptual articles. Denitions included based upon this approach were
inter alia denitions provided in Geissdoerfer et al. (2017),Murray
et al. (2017),Zhu et al. (2010a, 2010b) and denitions outlined by the
Circular Academy (2017). Thirdly, we also included all denitions
outlined in a recent special issue on the circular economy in the Journal
of Industrial Ecology (Bocken et al., 2017) as well as additional recent
literature, e. g. Skene (2017), as suggested by one reviewer of this
paper. We note regarding this overall approach that no distinct search
was undertaken for denitions for works that are not peer-reviewed.
Rather, the rst approach (with the Ghisellini et al. (2016) sample in-
cluding works that are not peer-reviewed, as outlined earlier) as well as
the second approach (with bibliographies gathered via it frequently
including practitioner writings) ensured the inclusion of denitions that
are not peer-reviewed in our sample. Overall, we collected 114 CE
denitions via the described approaches.
This sample size was deemed sucient upon comparing it to the
sample sizes of papers that have adopted similar methods. For instance,
Dacin et al. (2010) analyze 37 denitions on social entrepreneurship,
Zahra et al. (2009) 20 denitions on social entrepreneurship and en-
trepreneurs, while Dahlsrud (2008) considers 37 denitions on corpo-
rate social responsibility. We note that we do not claim that our col-
lection of denitions on CE is representative. However, we are
condent that the set of denitions is at least fairly representative re-
garding the written denitions on CE by scholars and practitioners,
given the approach adopted. We thus claim throughout our paper that
our analysis of CE denitions is based on a comprehensive our synonym
for fairly representative set of denitions. An overview of all 114 de-
nitions is provided in the supplementary materials.
Table 1
Previous reviews of the circular economy (CE) concept.
# Study Focus
1Ghisellini et al. (2016) Summary of 155 articles on CE
2Lieder and Rashid (2016) Summary of CE literature on the manufacturing
3Blomsma and Brennan
Explanation of the emergence of the CE concept
4Sauvé et al. (2016) Comparison of CE concept, environmental
sciences and sustainable development
5Murray et al. (2017) Comparison of CE concept and sustainable
6Geissdoerfer et al. (2017) Comparison of CE concept and sustainability
7Lewandowski (2016) Conceptualization of circular business models
We only refer to denitions (and not the neighbouring text/visualizations, the entire
text) throughout this paper to enhance readability.
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
2.2. Coding framework
Asystematic assessment of denitions requires a coding framework
with such a framework showing how verbal or visual data have been
converted into numeric data for purposes of analysis(Bourque, 2004).
We developed our coding framework in an iterative process. Initial
coding dimensions were developed deductively, based upon our initial
practical knowledge on the topic (e.g. one of the authors of this paper
worked at a consultancy involved in CE work prior to joining academia)
and a preliminary literature review. Additional coding dimensions were
added inductively throughout the coding process (emergent coding
(Dahlsrud, 2008, p.3 .;Haney, 1998)). Our eventual coding dimen-
sions relate to the core principles, aims and enabler of CE. We specify how
we developed these dimensions and what they entail below. We also
summarize in Table 2 which coding dimensions were included in our
coding framework upfront and which were added throughout the
coding process.
Core principles: We distinguish between two types of core principles:
Those relating the R frameworks and the systems perspective. Various R
frameworks have been used in academia as well as by practitioners for
decades (indicating that the allegedly novel idea of CE is grounded in
established thinking (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, p.611 .;)), whereas
a specic article as a starting point for these frameworks cannot be
traced (Sihvonen and Ritola, 2015; Yan and Wu, 2011). Many authors,
e. g. Zhu et al. (2010a, 2010b) and Reh (2013), view the various R
frameworks as the how-toof CE and thus a core principle of it. We
initially chose the 3R framework as the most prominent R framework
for our coding (King et al., 2006; Brennan et al., 2015; Ghisellini et al.,
2016); it is also at the core of the 2008 Circular Economy Promotion
Law of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC, 2008). Yet we eventually
used the 4R framework which is at the core of the European Union (EU)
Waste Framework Directive (European Commission, 2008) introducing
Recoveras the fourth R (the various Rare dened in Table 2) since
several denitions were found to refer to recover. This nuance could
not have been captured if we had coded on the 3R framework. Scholars
have proposed R frameworks beyond the 4R framework, such as the 6Rs
(Sihvonen and Ritola, 2015) or even 9Rs (van Buren et al., 2016;
Potting et al., 2017) with the latter framework, possibly the most
nuanced one, depicted in Fig. 1. None of these frameworks were chosen
for coding, though, since none of the denitions referred to them.
All varieties of the R framework share a hierarchy as their main
feature with the rst R (which would be reducein the 4R framework)
viewed to be a priority to the second R and so on (Potting et al., 2017;
Sihvonen and Ritola 2015; van Buren et al., 2016). We included this
waste hierarchy as a coding dimension from the very beginning. This
inclusion nds particular support in the writings on cradle-to-cradle
(C2C), a concept the CE concept particularly builds on (Linder et al.,
2017). One of the three C2C core principles,
outlined in McDonough
and Braungart (2001) and further elaborated in Braungart and
McDonough (2002),iswaste equals food, a key CE idea expressed via
the various Rs, with Braungart & McDonough (2002, p.56) noting re-
garding this principle that most recycling is actually downcycling; it
reduces the quality of a material over time. Consequently, the authors
suggest (inter alia) to fundamentally rethink production/distribution
and consumption processes prior to pursuing recycling and thus es-
sentially a waste hierarchy.
Systems perspective: The systems perspective is already mentioned in
Table 2
Coding framework (obtained via the iterative coding process).
Core principles Aims
4R framework [I]: Explicit
reference to the 4R framework/
all 4R dimensions (reduce,
reuse, recycle, recover)?
Reduce [D]: Discussion around refusing,
rethinking, redesigning (including prolonging the
lifespan of products), minimization, reduction,
prevention of resource use and/or preserving of
natural capital?
Sustainable development [D]:
Explicit reference to
sustainability and/or sustainable
Environmental quality [D]: Discussion on how
CE aims to maintain, protect and/or restore the
environment and/or resource eciency/enable
the transition towards a low carbon economy?
Reuse [D]: Discussion around reusing (excluding
waste), closing the loop, cycling, repairing and/or
refurbishing of resources?
Economic prosperity [D]: Discussion on how CE
aims to maintain, protect, transform and/or
strengthen the economy?
Recycle [D]: Discussion around remanufacturing,
recycling, closing the loop, cycling and/or reuse of
Social equity [D]: Discussion on how CE aims to
protect, transform, strengthen and/or develop the
society, human well-being and/or jobs?
Recover [I]: Discussion around incineration of
materials with energy recovery?
Future generations (time dimension) [D]:
Discussion of future generations and/or the long-
term perspective of CE?
Waste hierarchy [D]: Indication of an order or ranking of the various Rs mentioned, e.g.
via words such as rst,alternativelyor least desirable?
Systems perspective [D]: Explicit
discussion around CE as a
Micro-systems perspective [I]: Discussion around
product level changes, rms and/or consumers and
their preferences?
Meso-systems perspective [I]: Discussion around
CE at the regional level and/or eco-industrial
Macro-systems perspective [I]: Discussion
around CE at the global and/or national level and/
or the overall industry structure?
Business models [D]: Explicit mentioning of business models (including specic type of business model such as product-as-a-service)?
Consumers [I]: Explicit mentioning of consumption/consumer perspective/consumers as drivers of CE?
Note: If question posed per coding dimension answered with Yes, dimension coded as 1, otherwise as 0; example phrases/coding depicted in the supplementary materials; [D]
= deductively; coding dimension was chosen already prior to starting the rst round of coding, [I] = inductively; coding dimension was added during the coding process.
A critical discussion of the various Rs is provided in Reike et al. (2017).
The C2C rests on three key principles, namely waste equals food,respect diversity
and use current solar income. Yet the second and third principle did not emerge as main
coding categories when coding the various denitions, and are thus not further examined
in-depth in this paper.
Life cycle assessment has emerged as the main tool to judge upon products holistically
from a sustainable development perspective (Toxopeus et al., 2015; Neugebauer et al.,
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
early writings on CE, e.g. Davis and Hall (2006) and Zhijun and Nailing
(2007), and can thus also be seen as a core principle of it. Hence, it was
included as an initial coding dimension. Those mentioning it highlight
that CE requires a fundamental shift instead of incremental twisting of
the current system. This coding dimension was rened when it was
found upon the review of the various denitions that several authors, e.
g. Fang et al. (2007),Sakr et al. (2011), and Jackson et al. (2014), argue
that the transition to CE needs to occur at three levels which can be
interpreted as three levels of the CE system: The macro, the meso and
the micro system. While the macro-systems perspective highlights the
need to adjust industrial composition and structure of the entire
economy, the meso-systems perspective usually focuses on eco-in-
dustrial parks as systems (on these parks: Heeres et al. (2004),Shi et al.
(2010)) and this level is also called the regional levelat times, e. g. by
Li et al. (2010, p.4274) or Geng et al. (2009, p.16). Meanwhile, the
micro-systems perspective usually considers products, individual en-
terprises and what needs to happen to increase their circularity as well
as consumers (Jackson et al., 2014; Sakr et al., 2011).
2.3. Aims
Sustainable development with its sub-dimensions was included as a
coding dimension from the very beginning due to the frequent men-
tioning of this concept and its sub-dimensions as the main aim of CE, e.
g. by Ghisellini et al. (2016), the European Environment Agency (2016)
and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013b). The term sustainable
development, coined by the 1987 report Our Common Futureby the
World Commission of Environment and Development (WCED)
(Redclift, 1989, p.365 .;Palmer, 1992, p.1011 .) has already been
presented in section 1 of this paper with CE argued to be an oper-
ationalization of it for businesses. Overall, the term is seen as a guiding
principle for development that encompasses three aims which must be
accomplished simultaneously: Environmental quality, economic pros-
perity and social equity (Taylor, 2016, p.2;Fulton, 2012; Elkington,
1997; WCED, 1987). Economic prosperity is particularly highlighted by
private sector CE stakeholders, according to the experience of one of the
authors of this paper. Meanwhile, the WCED report particularly high-
lights the intergenerational component of these three sustainable de-
velopment aims arguing that they must be met without compromising
the ability of future generations(WCED, 1987). Hence, we have in-
cluded a time dimension as a separate coding dimension.
Enabler: We included business models as a coding dimension in our
coding framework from the very beginning. This inclusion is grounded
in writings such as Brennan et al. (2015) who particularly highlight that
the circular economy would require novel business models. Ellen
MacArthur Foundation (2012) has also highlighted the signicant role
of novel business models as an enabler in the transition towards CE.
This coding dimension was conrmed once it was found in several
denitions examined, whereas it did not emerge as a core component in
our set of CE denitions (further discussed in Section 3.4). Furthermore,
we included consumers as a coding dimension upon review of our de-
nitions since it was featured in some of them as an alleged second
enabler of CE. Like business models, consumers did not emerge as a
core component in the set of denitions examined, though (further
discussed in Section 3.4).
The nal coding framework consisting of 17 coding dimensions and
used to code all 114 denitions is depicted in Table 2 (with further
details provided in the Supplementary materials). We also depicted this
as a verbal one-sentence CE denition upon a suggestion of a reviewer
of this paper. This compact verbal denition may be of help to those
reading on CE. However, this denition may be understood, rst and
foremost, as the summary of our coding framework instead of a de-
nitive CE denition since the CE concept is understood throughout this
paper as a construct that is developed through a multi-stakeholder
discourse (Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Dahlsrud, 2008). This under-
standing implies that there is no single group with the undisputed
authority to dene what [CE] means exactly(Gladek, 2017) and that
thus our analysis of CE understandings is also (at least partially) sub-
jective; it is an analysis from the viewpoint of our CE understanding,
whereas we attempted to include the main concepts appearing in the
various denitions in our coding framework. While we would generally
welcome it if readers adopted our outlined denition and while we
explain particularly in the next section why we view this denition as
compelling, we also propose additional CE denitions in section 3.5. of
this paper which we also nd suitable for further deliberation. Our CE
denition reads:
A circular economy describes an economic system that is based on
business models which replace the end-of-lifeconcept with redu-
cing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in
production/distribution and consumption processes, thus operating
at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level
Fig. 1. The 9R Framework.
Source: Adapted from Potting et al. (2017, p.5)
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
(eco-industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and be-
yond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, which
implies creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and
social equity, to the benet of current and future generations.
2.4. Coding procedure
We consciously decided in favour of manual coding of denitions
versus automatic coding via computer software since we feared that
automatic coding would be too mechanical to lead to meaningful re-
sults. A word cloud analysis of the 114 denitions at question provides
evidence for this. One of the most prominent terms within the word
cloud we generated is the term economic. This could result in the
reader believing that economic prosperity is a key aim of CE. In con-
trast, the denition by Stahel (2014) uses the term economicwhen
stating that we dene [CE] as all economic activities to extend the
service-life of goods []. Hence, manual coding helped us to avoid
misinterpretation such as between endsand means, as in the ex-
ample. All manual coding was undertaken in Excel.
We acknowledge that manual coding raises questions regarding
reliability with dierent coders found to produce conicting coding
results at times (e. g. outlined by Hruschka et al. (2004) and Olswang
et al. (2006)). Every written denition in our sample was coded by two
coders based upon an initial set of coding rules. Diverging coding re-
sults were reviewed by both coders and coding rules were then recon-
sidered (which could mean that coding rules were amended or added)
a good practice to enhance reliability in manual coding (e.g. argued by
Neuendorf (2002) and Hruschka et al. (2004)). The coding procedure,
further detailed in the supplementary materials, was identical for de-
nitions from peer-reviewed works and works that were not peer-re-
viewed with the nal coding of all 114 denitions undertaken based
upon the coding framework depicted in Table 2.
We note that nal inter-coder reliability (Sanders and Cuneo, 2010;
Swert, 2012) was high with overall results not diering more than 4%
between coders, as evidenced in the various gures and tables in Sec-
tion 3. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that any quantication of a
qualitative denition simplies and thus distorts it, whereas, on the
other hand, this quantication also enables a succinct comparison
across many denitions. Divergences in coding results are reported
throughout this paper mirroring Kirchherr et al. (2016) in order not to
convey any coding results as denite.
3. Results & discussion
This section is divided in ve sub-sections. First, a brief overview
regarding the sample of denitions is provided. Second, results are
presented and discussed on core principles of CE (varieties of the R
framework, systems perspective). Third, results are presented and dis-
cussed on CEs aims (sustainable development with its various sub-di-
mensions). Forth, results are presented and discussed on CE business
models and consumers as CE enablers. Fifth, the results are summar-
Results in all remaining sub-sections of this section are reported
from three angles: The angle of the entire sample, the temporal angle
and the peer-reviewed versus practitioner angle. 2012 was chosen as
the main cut-opoint for temporal analyses since the initial report on
CE by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012) was published in Jan-
uary 2012; this report was called seminal (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017,
p.759 .;Lieder and Rashid, 2016) and it was thus assumed that it has
likely impacted the discourse. Results are presented from both from a
peer-reviewed and practitioner angle since dierent actors in the CE
landscape (e.g., academic, [practitioner] actors) have dierent inter-
pretations of the concept(Blomsma and Brennan, 2017). All coding
results for the entire sample are described in the text below and coding
results from all three angles are presented in Table 3 and Table 4, but
only those results from the second and third angle that were found to be
most notable are further described in the text for reasons of space.
3.1. Sample overview
We examined 148 articles that mentioned the term circular
economy. Only 114 (77%) of these also dene the term, although we
Table 4
Coding Results on Aims and Enabler.
Mentioning of (in sample) (%) Full sample Before 2012 2012 or later Peer-reviewed Practitioner
Sustainable development (SD) 11 10 12 12 11
All three dimensions of SD 13 1013 1314 15 8
Environmental quality 3738 42 3536 4142 28
Economic prosperity 46 52 45 44 53
Social equity 1820 2326 1618 1922 1417
Future generations (time dimension) 1 0 1 1 0
Business models 11 0 14 9 14
Consumers 19 16 20 18 22
Note: Full sample = All 114 denitions.
Table 3
Coding Results on Core Principles.
Mentioning of (in sample) (%) Full sample Before 2012 2012 or later Peer-reviewed Practitioner
Reduce 5455 71 4849 5960 44
Reuse 7475 7174 7576 7778 6769
Recycle 79 9094 7375 8485 6769
Recover 7810 67910 3
Waste hierarchy 30 48 23 38 11
Systems perspective 42 29 47 44 39
Micro-systems perspective 19 13 22 18 22
Meso-systems perspective 21 13 24 21 22
Macro-systems perspective 24 29 22 24 22
Note: Full sample = All 114 denitions.
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
explicitly searched for literature containing denitions. We nd this
odd, given that many authors have already noted the conceptual con-
fusion regarding CE, as outlined in section 1 of this paper, which
highlights in our point of view the necessity to provide a denition
when writing about CE. Given this nding, we recommend that scholars
working on CE conceptually deliberate on the CE concept through the
explicit adoption of a CE denition in their published work. We believe
that it would be in the interest of the eld if the denition adopted
would correspond with the most frequently CE conceptualizations
employed (outlined in this paper) to enable cumulative knowledge
development on the topic. This does not imply that scholars are urged
to copy-paste frequently employed denitions; rather, scholars are en-
couraged to critically engage with concepts frequently found in various
CE denitions.
The sample overall reects that CE is a young eld(Murray et al.,
2017): 83 (73%) of the denitions are from the past ve years. Mean-
while, 77 (68%) of the denitions have been published in peer-re-
viewed journals. The most popular journal among these is the Journal of
Industrial Ecology (23 denitions), driven by the inclusion of a recent
Journal of Industrial Ecology special issue on CE in our sample, as out-
lined in the previous section, followed by the Journal of Cleaner Pro-
duction (17 denitions). No other journal appears more than three times
as a source of denitions.
Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.759) as well as Schut et al. (2015, p.15)
claim that the most prominent CE denition has been provided by Ellen
MacArthur Foundation (2012, p.7) which reads:
[CE] an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by
intention and design. It replaces the end-of-lifeconcept with re-
storation, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the
use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elim-
ination of waste through the superior design of materials, products,
systems, and, within this, business models.
This denition is indeed the most employed denition in our set of
denitions. Yet it is employed besides by Ellen MacArthur Foundation
(2012) and sometimes in abridged form only eleven times, namely by
Charonis (2012),Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2014),EUKN (2015),
Schut et al. (2015),Hobson (2016),Cullen (2017) Goldberg (2017),
Moreau et al. (2017),Niero et al. (2017) and Skene (2017). Only three
other denitions in our sample are used more than once: The
(expanded) denition by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013a) (used
three more times), the denition by Preston (2012) (used one more
time) and Li et al. (2010) (used one more time). Hence, our sample of
114 denitions features 95 dierent denitions. We now examine the
degree of conceptual dierence in these denitions along the coding
3.2. Core principles of the circular economy
We examined the frequency of the four 4R framework components
in the 114 denitions. Allwood et al. (2011, p.368) state that CE would
be about reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery, but that in reality
much policy has been oriented towards promoting the third(echoed
by Ghisellini et al. (2016, p.16 .)). This is corroborated by our coding
with recycling found to be the most common component in the de-
nitions examined (79% of denitions), followed by reuse (74%75% of
denitions) and reduce (54%55% of denitions). All 4Rs (except for
Reuse) are found less frequently in CE denitions from 2012 or later
indicating that the discourse moved away from this framework, pos-
sibly towards a systemic framework (further discussed at the end of this
sub-section). Meanwhile, Gladek (2017) claims that some consensus is
developing among the dierent players working in the eld on how to
dene [CE].This is not corroborated by our coding, though (Fig. 2).
The 16 dierent possible combinations of the 4Rs are depicted in
Fig. 3. Of these, reduce, reuse, recycle (the 3R framework) is the most
commonly employed in the entire sample (35%40% of denitions)
with Jiao and Boons (2014, p.21), for instance, writing CE is dened as
a holistic concept covering the activities of reduce, reuse, and recycle
in the process of production, circulation, and consumption, followed
by reuse and recycle (23% of denitions). No other combination is
featured in more than 10% of the denitions. The 4R framework, as the
ocial EU policy framework for CE, is only reected in 34% of de-
nitions. Perhaps most surprisingly, Fig. 3 also showcases that 67% of
denitions outline the how-to of CE as merely recycling a subversion
of the term since a rm merely focusing on recycling is not circular in
our point of view. Practitioner denitions overall are found to feature
reuse and recycle as often as the 3R framework (25% of denitions). An
explanation is that practitioners have little interest in promoting re-
duction since this may imply curbing consumption and economic
growth if no shift to product-as-a-service as the dominant business
Fig. 2. Development of Circular Economy
Denitions over Time.
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
model is undertaken simultaneously (George et al., 2015; Lacy et al.,
Only 30 percent of denitions examined were found to contain a
waste hierarchy with Song et al. (2015, p.200) writing, for instance,
that only if reuse or repairs are not possible, they can be recycled or
recovered from the waste stream. Waste hierarchies have been fea-
tured less frequently more recently and are barely included in practi-
tioner denitions (contained in 11% of practitioner denitions versus
38% of peer-reviewed ones). Explicating waste hierarchies, e. g. the
prioritization of reducing over all other Rs, results in a CE concept that
is less of a feel-good concept everybody naturally agrees with. The CE
concept may thus lose followers in the short-term if these hierarchies
are explicated (Cullen, 2017) and our data indicates that this is a
concern found more among (activist) practitioners than academics.
However, explicating these hierarchies is necessary to provide gui-
dance to those keen to adopt it, as already outlined by Price and Joseph
(2000) and Murray et al. (2017). In addition, rms may take the path of
least resistance to adopt CE if waste hierarchies are not explicated, e. g.
only improving their recycling and thus only a small part of their op-
eration, without the needed overhaul of the entire supply chain, mode
of operation and the radical change in product materials. Particularly
CE implementation based on denitions that do not outline Reduceas
CEs priority can result in CE subverted to the cause of continuing an
unsustainable business-as-usual model.
The systems perspective as a core principle of CE has been outlined
in the previous section. It can be hypothesized that this perspective may
have replaced the R framework. The systems perspective is explicated
in 42% of denitions examined with Charonis (2012, p.2) writing that
CE is understood as a system that is designed to be restorative and
regenerative. There is a signicant emphasis on this perspective since
early 2012: 29% of the denitions featured this perspective prior to
2012, compared to 47% from 2012 onwards, possibly induced by Ellen
MacArthur Foundation (2012) that mentions it. Most denitions in-
cluding a systems perspective focus on the macro-system. For instance,
Yuan et al. (2008, p.5) write that CE requires complete reform of the
whole system of human activity. Yet the meso-systems perspective, e.
g. outlined by Conticelli and Tondelli (2014), that focuses on eco-in-
dustrial parks is even more prominent than the macro-perspective in
denitions from 2012 or later, indicating that CE is now increasingly
seen as an endeavour that requires eorts particularly at the regional
level. Only few denitions, e. g. Fang et al. (2007) and Linder et al.
(2017),mention that CE requires fundamental changes simultaneously
at the micro, meso and macro system, an explication we nd helpful to
underscore the holistic systemic change that CE requires.
3.3. Aims of the circular economy
We have outlined in Section 1 of this paper that CE is frequently
viewed as an operationalization for businesses to implement the much-
debated concept of sustainable development. Yet Geissdoerfer et al.
(2017, p.757) claim that the relationship between the concepts is not
made explicit in literature. This is conrmed by our coding with only
12% of our denitions explicitly including notions of sustainable de-
velopment, as depicted in Table 4.Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.765)
furthermore note that authors on CE usually do not take a holistic
viewon environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity
as the three dimensions of sustainability (WBCSD, 2017; Elkington,
1997). This is also conrmed by our coding with only 13% of deni-
tions referring to all three dimensions, a nding that is particularly
problematic in our point of view since a CE understanding only en-
tailing one or two of the three dimensions of sustainable development
can result in CE implementation that is not sustainable, e. g. one lacking
social considerations.
Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.765),Sauvé et al. (2016, p.54) and
Lieder and Rashid (2016, p.46) state that discussions around CE would
focus mostly on environmental quality with Lieder and Rashid (2016,
p.46) even arguing that discussions around [CE are] done from [an]
environmental impact perspective leaving economic benets []
missing. Yet these claims are rebutted by our coding. The most pro-
minent aim of CE is economic prosperity (46% of denitions), followed
by environmental quality (37%38% of denitions). Economic pros-
perity is most frequently mentioned by practitioners (53% of deni-
tions) who are oftentimes said to view CE as a pathway to boost growth
(Lacy et al., 2015; Ghisellini et al., 2016).
Several authors such as Sauvé et al. (2016, p.54),Murray et al.
(2017, p.369) and Moreau et al. (2017) claim that the CE concept lar-
gely neglects social equity. This is conrmed by our coding with social
equity only considered in 18%20% of denitions. For instance, Geng
Fig. 3. Denitions coded on the 4R framework.
Note: Reco = Recover; Recy = Recycle;
Reu = Reuse; Red = Reduce; 4R = Reduce, reuse,
recycle, recover.
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
et al. (2009, p.16) write that CE would aim to bring great [] social
benets. Scholars researching the sharing economy, a neighbouring
eld to CE (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017), have begun a fruitful conversa-
tion regarding its social equity impacts with several scholars, e.g.
Frenken and Schor (2017) or Schor (2017), highlighting that it may
increase inequalities. Yet the impacts of CEs social equity impacts re-
main largely unknown (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017; Murray
et al., 2017). Those who propose CE may be well-advised to state social
equity as one of its design variables, while starting to research its social
equity impacts.
Lastly, our coding examined references of CE denitions to future
generations a core component of sustainable development, as outlined
previously. Yet Geissdoerfer et al. (2017, p.766) state that this time
dimension is excluded from most [CE] discussions. Indeed, only a
single denition, the denition by Geng et al. (2013), and thus less than
1% of our overall denitions, take it into account. One of the authors of
this paper has worked at a large consultancy that engaged with the CE
concept prior to joining academia. Short-term gains via CE were pro-
mised to attract contracts, but these are dicult to materialize (DSGC,
2015, p.15 .). Hence, several companies quickly lost interest again.
Consultants advising on CE may sell it not as a quick win, but a major
long-term undertaking. Selling it as the latter (which includes framing it
as an endeavour undertaken for future generations) can help ensure
that those interested in it will not give up too soon and we thus nd that
this long-term perspective must be included in all CE denitions.
3.4. Enabler of the circular economy
Some, e.g. Lewandowski (2016), claim that circular business models
are widely seen at the core of CE. They are the driving force in the shift
towards [CE](EUKN, 2015). However, a lack of discussions around
business models within the CE discourse has been diagnosed by Lieder
and Rashid (2016, p.46 .). Our coding results provide ample evidence
for this diagnosis. Business models are mentioned in only 11% of de-
nitions with Beek et al. (2016, p.8) arguing, for instance, that CE
comprises business models [that] are based on longevity. An increase
in the mentioning of business models can be observed from 2012 on-
wards (from 0% to 14%) possibly because the denition by Ellen
MacArthur Foundation (2012) included business models. Furthermore,
business models are more prominent in practitioner denitions than
peer-reviewed ones (9% versus 14%) with the main reason likely being
that practitioners are more concerned than scholars with the nuts and
bolts [of CE](van der Eijk, 2016, p.2) which is embodied by questions
regarding the business model. However, much more emphasis on
business models will be needed in future discourses if the private sector
is supposed to lead the transitions towards CE. A CE understanding
lacking business models is one with no driver at the steering wheel in
our point of view.
Furthermore, Ghisellini et al. (2016, p.19) note that the promotion
of consumer responsibility is crucial for [CE], while Lieder and Rashid
(2016, p.45) also point out that circular supply chains must not only
consider the various production and distribution, but also consumption
processes. Similarly, Yuan et al. (2006, p.5) write that CE would require
novel production processes and consumption activities. Nevertheless,
we nd that only 19% of all denitions examined include consumption
with Moreau et al. (2017, p. 498) writing that CE entails rethinking
[] consumption. This negligence of the consumer in CE denitions
may be reective of a research gap regarding the consumersperspec-
tive on CE with Borrello et al. (2017, p.1) writing that little is known
about consumerswillingness to participate in [a CE]. Authors ex-
cluding the consumer and thus possibly adopting a supply-side view
regarding CE risk developing business models that are unviable due to
lacking consumer demand, as noted by Repo and Anttonen (2017). The
consumer is the most central enabler of circular business models
(Gallaud and Laperche, 2016) and the consumer perspective may thus
be seen as the ipside of the CE business model coin. We recommend
including it in any CE denition adopted.
3.5. Summary
The previous sections have demonstrated the most frequent CE
conceptualizations found in the set of 114 denitions. These results are
summarized in Table 5. Yet this summary must be read with caution.
While the coding revealed that many of the 114 denitions can be
grouped conceptually, a great abundance of conceptualizations re-
mains. Indeed, none of the most frequent CE dimensions outlined in
Table 5 even attains a simple majority among the entire sample of
denitions examined (economic prosperity, featured in 46% of deni-
tions, is closest to this simple majority).
We note that this abundance of CE conceptualizations, this circular
economy babble, constitutes a serious challenge for scholars working
on this topic. Knowledge accumulation regarding the CE is dicult if
scholar A conceptualizes the how-toof CE as recycling, while scholar B
considers the how-toas reducing, reusing and recycling, to provide an
illustrative example. If scholars are not aware of their conceptually
dierent understanding of CE, knowledge accumulation attempts may
lead to misleading results. Dacin et al. (2010, p.38) has found that the
current state of conceptual confusion [on social entrepreneurship]
serves as a barrier to [] advances in the eld. The same fate may
apply to the young eld of CE research. Of those 114 denitions ex-
amined only three were found by both coders to include the 3R fra-
mework, the R hierarchy, a systems perspective, environmental quality,
economic prosperity and social equity elements outlined as CE di-
mensions in Section 2of this paper. These are the denitions by Liu
et al. (2009),Lieder and Rashid (2016) and van Buren et al. (2016), all
quite lengthy (at least 140 words) which is understandable given the
many dimensions included. We nd all of them as a starting point for
future deliberations on CE. We nd that the denition by van Buren
et al. (2016, p.3), the briefest of the three denitions, is also the one
written with greatest clarity and we thus particularly recommend this
denition. We critically note regarding these denitions that the one by
Lieder and Rashid (2016) does not mention Recover, that the R hier-
archy could be more explicit in all three denitions, that all lack re-
ferences to future generations and that all fail to include business
models as an enabler of CE and that of these three denitions only van
Buren et al. (2016) mentions the consumer perspective. These are cri-
ticisms we have attempted to address with our denition provided in
Section 2.2.
4. Conclusion
The circular economy (CE) concept is trending and thus much lip
service is given to it these days. Trending concepts tend to diuse in
their meaning and many have claimed that this has also happened to
the CE concept. While at least seven CE literature reviews have been
published so far, no comprehensive and systematic analysis specically
on current CE understandings was conducted prior to this study, as far
as we are aware. We have gathered a comprehensive set of 114 CE
denitions and systematically analysed it against a coding framework
to provide transparency regarding current CE understandings. We ac-
knowledge that a CE understanding can be broader than a denition
presented with our study thus possibly exaggerating the negligence of
certain dimensions in CE understandings. Second, our approach to
systematically analysing denitions simplied and thus (at least
somewhat) distorted them since it quantied qualitative denitions. We
view this quantication as necessary, though, to succinctly compare
many CE understandings and thus create transparency about them. This
transparency is the rst step to cohere the concept in our point of view
with our study hoping to contribute to the coherence of the CE concept.
A concept which fails to cohere may ultimately collapse or remain in a
deadlock due to permanent conceptual contention, not only in research,
but also in practice, since cumulative knowledge development on it is
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
We dened CE within our iteratively developed coding framework
as an economic system that replaces the end-of-lifeconcept with re-
ducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in
production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the
micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco-in-
dustrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with
the aim to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously
creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity,
to the benet of current and future generations. It is enabled by novel
business models and responsible consumers. We hope that this CE de-
nition can be a contribution to the scholarly CE community with this
denition ideally serving as a conceptual foundation for future work on
the topic.
Our analysis of 114 denitions provides the rst quantitative evi-
dence that and how CE means many dierent things to dierent people,
as also indicated by a comment of a reviewer of this paper who noted,
upon skimming through the denitions analysed for this work, that
some of the authors [] seem to have no idea about what [CE] is
about. For instance, we found that some authors entirely equate CE
with recycling, whereas the most common conceptualization of the
how-toof CE is a combination of reduce, reuse and recycling, the 3R
framework that is already outlined in the 2008 Circular Economy
Promotion Law of the Peoples Republic of China. Practitioners fre-
quently neglect reducein their CE denitions, though, assumingly
since this may imply curbing consumption and economic growth
Worryingly, we found that only a third of denitions explicate a
waste hierarchy. Examples of denitions that include a waste hierarchy
are Ness and Xing (2017),Song et al. (2015) and Allwood et al. (2011).
This lacking waste hierarchy in many CE conceptualizations was not
previously highlighted in the scholarly literature, as far as we are
aware. We consider denitions lacking waste hierarchies to be sub-
verted CE denitions since adopting such denitions can result in
companies that implement only minimal changes in their current
business model, e. g. increasing recycling, to claim that they are part of
CE. However, CE must be understood as a fundamental systemic change
instead of a bit of twisting of the status quo to ensure its impact. Yet
only around 40% of denitions conceptualize CE from a systems per-
spective. Previous scholarly work has also not highlighted that many CE
denitions lack this systems perspective, as far as we are aware.
Meanwhile, our analysis conrmed previous authorsclaim that
CEs link to sustainable development is weak. We further revealed that
most authors see CE as an avenue for economic prosperity, whereas
previous scholars conducting narrative reviews of the CE literature had
argued that CE would be mostly concerned with environmental aims.
Unsurprisingly, the focus on economic prosperity is particularly pro-
minent among practitioner denitions. Meanwhile, we conrmed pre-
vious scholarly writings arguing that CE understandings mostly neglect
the social considerations. Lastly, our review casts doubt regarding the
claim by some authors that novel business models are CEs main enabler
since only very few denitions explicitly refer to business models. We
also found that only one out of ve denitions consider the consumer as
a second enabler of CE. This resonates with previous scholarly writing
that outlines consumers as a research gap for the CE community.
We note that the conceptual muddle regarding CE evidenced by our
study does not suggest to throw the [CE] baby out with the bath-
water, as one reviewer of this paper wrote. The signicant momentum
gathered by the concept holds the promise that CE may be able to reach
beyond current sustainable development eorts. However, a distinction
is needed between ideal and subverted CE denitions. If subverted
denitions start dominating, CE implementation will only result in in-
cremental improvements at best, with the CE concept then not deli-
vering on its promise of fundamental change. The CE concept may then
ultimately end up as just another buzzword in the sustainable devel-
opment discourse.
Those working on CE need to point it out when encountering
Table 5
Typical denitions of the circular economy.
denition (in
Full sample Before 2012 2012 or later Peer-reviewed Practitioner
Dimensions Reduce, reuse, recycle Reduce, reuse, recycle Reduce, reuse, recycle Reduce, reuse, recycle
Systems perspective Systems perspective Systems perspective
Economic prosperity Environmental quality Environmental quality Economic prosperity
Economic prosperity Economic prosperity Economic prosperity
Example CE is [a] closed loop material ow in
the whole economic system []in
association with the so called 3R
principles [] Taking into account
economic aspects CE [] minimizes
matter [] without restricting
economic growth(Lieder and Rashid
[CE] is a mode of economic development
[], requires compliance with ecological
laws []. It is, essentially, an ecological
economy that follows the principles of
reducing resource use, reusing, and
recycling(Zhijun and Nailing 2007)
CE is [a] closed loop material ow in
the whole economic system []in
association with the so called 3R
principles [] Taking into account
economic aspects CE [] minimizes
matter [] without restricting
economic growth(Lieder and Rashid
The core of CE [are] the 3R
principlesreduction, reuse, and recycling of
materials and energy. [] The approach is
expected to achieve an ecient economy while
discharging fewer pollutants. The strategy requires
complete reform of the whole system of human
activity(Yuan et al., 2006, p.5)
[CE] is about decoupling growth from
resource consumption []. Its about
designing products [that] are easier to
reuse or recycle.[](Dupont-Inglis
Note: Most frequent 4R combination listed in dimensions.Systems perspective,environmental qualityand economic prosperitylisted in dimensionsif 40% in coding for at least one coder (as depicted in Tables 3 and 4). Example denitions
are abridged and thus stylized; full sample = All 114 denitions.
J. Kirchherr et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 127 (2017) 221–232
subverted CE denitions. Furthermore, we believe that describing good
CE implementation examples can help sharpen the understanding of the
CE concept both among scholars and practitioners. These good practices
are not hard to nd, as they can be historically found everywhere in the
form of pre-industrial production systems. Our practical experience
suggests that there are also many contemporary good CE practices.
More scholarly work detailing these practices (which also need to be
communicated in popular media outlets) would do a service to those
keen on the concept. Detailing these practices must also include ana-
lyses of how barriers encountered while implementing them were
overcome these analyses would be most instructive for practitioners.
Future research may also focus on those dimensions identied in this
study that are neglected by many working on CE, e. g. the consumer
perspective. For instance, more research on the consumer perspective
could help to highlight pathways to enhance their contribution to CE.
Any such future CE research needs to be grounded in a deliberate CE
conceptualization to foster cumulative knowledge development on this
Disclosure statement
No potential conicts of interests were reported by the authors.
We would like to thank Rasmus Bellmer for his contributions to this
paper as a research assistant. Furthermore, we are thankful to three
anonymous reviewers at Resources, Conservation and Recycling for their
constructive comments on this piece of work.
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... The extreme climate and other problems caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions threaten economic development and even human security, spurring the global low-carbon transition (Lizana et al., 2021). The circular economy (CE) follows the "R" principles, which can alleviate the resource supply pressure and help combat climate change (Kirchherr et al., 2017). As two pillars supporting sustainable development goals, energy conservation and emission reduction during production, helping achieve synergy with LE initiatives (Zeng and Li, 2021). ...
... In this paper, the scope of LE is limited to the energy-side transition (Kang et al., 2020a(Kang et al., , 2020b, while CE focuses on the transition to resource efficiency on the product/material side (Kirchherr et al., 2017). These two transitions are not isolated but interdependent, with potential synergies and trade-offs. ...
... This section analyzes how the scales and strategies of reviewed articles have evolved. On the one hand, we divide the research into macro research for socio-economic systems (53%), meso research for industrial parks (3%), micro research for technology cases and enterprise/consumer behavior (37%), and other research for literature or other objects (6%) (Kirchherr et al., 2017). Policy, technology, and behavior are focused on when discussing the "strategy" dimension. ...
The circular economy and low-carbon economy are closely interconnected as pillars of global sustainable development. However, no consensus exists on how to maximize the carbon reduction benefits of circular practices. This paper illustrates the nexus and identifies synergy paths between low-carbon actions and circular practices via a systematic and critical review. Results show that the mutual promotion relationship is the most studied in the existing literature (63.48%), followed by the parallel status (38.20%) and the trade-offs (3.37%). To enhance synergy mechanisms such as urban-industrial symbiosis and critical raw material cycles, challenges related to cost/risk reduction, urban/industrial planning and inter-system barriers should be addressed. Potential trade-offs arise mainly from carbon-intensive electricity, circular economy rebound and raw material scarcity, requiring a comprehensive consideration of the territorial energy supply structure and circular economy chains. Fiscal and informational interventions from the government, and the technological and business innovations they foster, are the shared drivers. Low-carbon actions and circular practices work together to serve the sustainable development of entities under various scales and dimensions. Three principles are proposed for decision-makers to maximize synergies and minimize trade-offs: (1) prioritize non-end-of-life strategies to meet the surging demand for critical raw materials in the short term, (2) adjust the mix of circular practices following the pace of low-carbon energy transition, and (3) implement more bio-projects that contribute to a win-win situation for the transition to renewable energy and integrated bio-waste management. Briefly, circular practices reduce carbon emissions more effectively when tailored to local and immediate conditions. Future research should focus more on the time-varying features of different circular practices, factors behind household and individual behaviors, and social sustainability.
... Within the circular economy discourse, one of the most widely used definitions is that developed by Kirchherr et al. (2017). In their article, which we use by way of example, the authors took on the arduous task of reviewing existing definitions of the circular economy. ...
... The definition of Kirchherr et al. (2017) fails to meet the criteria for a good definition, as they provide criteria for the 'circular economy' that are neither necessary nor sufficient -"reducing resource flows", for instance. Further, their definition gives rise to counter-examples. ...
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With more than 4,000 research articles in 2022 the Circular Economy is clearly a topic that meets academic interest. With resource use at an all-time, unsustainable peak it is also a topic that raises great expectations: We need the circular economy. The great hopes that we all have are further fueled by the definitions of the circular economy that we find in the literature. Put colloquially, many of these definitions depict the circular economy as a “jack of all trades”. Some definitions include waste management while others are even synonymous with sustainable development. Attempts to summarize existing definitions into one result in definitions that blur the lines between the circular economy and other concepts even further. To empower the circular use of resources we need to understand what the circular economy really is and how it relates to related concepts. The role of definitions is to draw rather than blur lines. This is where many definitions fail. In our short article “Definitions of the Circular Economy: Circularity Matters”, we develop some conditions that good definitions must meet. By way of example, we apply these conditions to a popular definition that we found in the literature and we identify some of the shortcomings of existing definitions. We develop four conditions that we believe good definitions of the circular economy must meet. Good definitions of the circular economy must (1) refer to closing resource loops, (2) mention optimizing rather than minimizing resource flows, (3) consider at least two levels, and (4) distinguish between the circular economy as a perfect ideal type and a realistic imperfect circular economy that delivers sustainability in combination with other approaches. In this short paper, we propose a definition that meets all four conditions. We see the definition we propose neither as the start nor as the end of the discussion on how to define the circular economy. We see it as a mid-way point and as an invitation to researchers to join a discussion that we believe is necessary to leverage the potential that the circular economy can have for the sustainable development of all.
... Аналіз наукової та методичної літератури показує, що поняття циркулярної економіки трактується досить широко. Різноманітність підходів демонструють дослідження, які дозволяють виділити 72 концепції та 114 визначень [Kirchherr et al., 2017] циркулярної економіки. У табл. ...
... Однак поступове впровадження, поза будь-яким нормативним контекстом, цих показників зумовило неоднорідність підходів до вимірювання циркулярності [Saidani et al., 2019a]. Незважаючи на те що поняття циркулярної економіки дедалі частіше обговорюється та визнається як таке, що сприяє досягненню Цілей сталого розвитку, досі немає консенсусу щодо стабільного визначення циркулярної економіки: 114 визначень циркулярної економіки, поділених на 17 категорій, були ідентифіковані [Kirchherr et al., 2017]. Це можна розглядати як одну з причин нечіткості та широкого різноманіття індикаторів, розроблених стосовно циркулярної економіки, чи-то з погляду їх сфери дії, їхніх основних цілей чи їх бажаного використання. ...
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У навчальному посібнику викладено теоретичні положення та методичні основи циркулярної економіки як альтернативи лінійній моделі. Зокрема, висвітлено зміст сучасної концепції нової моделі в контексті ієрархії ключових стратегій, наведено загальну характеристику наукових шкіл, викладено основні методи вимірювання прогресу циркулярної економіки, окреслено інструменти та підходи дизайну виробів відповідно до нової моделі. Значну увагу приділено огляду інноваційних рішень у сфері розроблення біопластиків в Україні як екологічної альтернативи традиційним пластикам, а також питанням поводження з електронними відходами відповідно до принципів циркулярної моделі. Посібник призначений для студентів закладів вищої освіти ІІІ–IV рівнів акредитації всіх форм навчання і напрямів підготовки, а також для аспіратів та викладачів. The handbook outlines the theoretical principles and methodological foundations of a circular economy as an alternative to a linear model. In particular, the content of a modern concept of the circular model in the context of a strategies hierarchy is set out, the general characteristics of scientific schools are given, the existing methods of measuring the progress of the circular economy are outlined, and the available approaches of product design in line with the new model are described. Considerable attention is paid to a review of novel solutions in the field of bioplastics development in Ukraine as an ecological alternative to conventional plastics, as well as to the issues of electronic waste management in compliance with the principles of the circular model. The handbook is intended for students of higher educational institutions of III–IV levels of accreditation of all forms of education and areas of training, as well as for PhD students and university lecturers.
... Thus, a study by J. Kirchherr, D. Reike, M. Hekkert based on an analysis of 114 definitions of the circular economy, revealed: its basic principles, systemic perspectives, goals, activators / enablers. A study by these authors found that: 1) the circular economy is often portrayed as a combination of measures to reduce, reuse and recycle; 2) the goal of the circular economy is often considered economic prosperity, then the quality of the environment; and to a lesser extent, the impact on social justice and future generations; 3) among the activators of the cyclical economy are business models and consumers [5]. ...
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The article shows the relevance of transition to a cyclical economy in the society under the influence of global crises. Two hypotheses were proposed. Firstly, the formation of environmental values in Ukrainian society can be traced, which can create the basis for the transition of society to a circular economy model. Secondly, the important role of education in the implementation of the concepts of sustainable development and the circular economy has been confirmed, since it ensures the formation of environmental and economic consciousness, value orientations and social culture, trains specialists and develops the economy, in particular cyclical economy. To assess the hypotheses, the following were used: an online survey of representatives of the educational community. The results showed: 1) insufficient awareness of respondents about the nature of the circular economy; 2) the value of protecting the ecology of the region and the understanding of the importance of environmental protection in Ukrainian society are weak; 3) The most important problems include economic problems, but at the same time, environmental problems of the territories. An analysis of the scientific literature and coverage of foreign practical experience made it possible to determine the ways of developing education in support of sustainable development, the “green” and cyclical economy, the reorientation of higher and postgraduate education towards the training of specialists in the cyclical economy. The results can be useful in the formation and adaptation of educational and environmental strategies.
... The most common strategies to increase circularity are recycling, recovering, and reuse, and to some extent also reduction (Kirchherr et al. 2017). Other studies have used the terminology 'narrowing, closing, and slowing resource use' (Bocken et al. 2016;Geissdoerfer et al. 2017) as well as 'regenerating,' (Velasco-Muñoz et al. 2021) on circular economy strategies. ...
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Purpose The purpose of using circularity indicators is to show the effect of changes from linear to more circular systems. This paper contributes to highlighting the importance of methodological aspects of circularity indicators in the agricultural sector when using a life cycle thinking approach. Selected circularity indicators have been explored and compared with LCA impact categories by using them to evaluate the circularity of a livestock system. Methods Circularity indicators were tested on a theoretical pig production system where several circularity strategies and associated mitigation actions were applied. The strategies and mitigation actions were as follows: anaerobic digestion of manure (closing resource loops), anaerobic digestion of bread waste (closing resource loops), precision fertilization (narrowing resource loops), use of cover crops in feed production (regenerating resource flows), and use of bread waste as feed (slowing resource loops). The functional unit was 1 kg pork as carcass weight, and the treatment of 1.1 kg bread waste for all impact categories and indicators. For each mitigation action, relevant circularity indicators were tested. Based on this, the functionality and suitability of these indicators were discussed. Results and discussion Four of the circularity indicators were based on nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P) substances: N recycling index, partial N balance, consumption of fossil-P fertilizers, and emissions to water bodies (P). Even if the indicators do not capture the impact of emissions of N and P as the eutrophication impact categories, they provide a useful indication of the circularity of a system. The other three circularity indicators tested were as follows: renewable energy production, soil organic carbon, and land use ratio. The renewable energy production indicator is easy to understand and communicate and provides unique information. Soil organic carbon presents a potential for soil carbon sequestration. Land use ratio is based on the same data as land occupation but provides an assessment of whether feed production competes for the suitable area for food production by including production of human-digestible protein. Conclusions Circularity indicators provide valuable information about the circularity of an agricultural product system. The circularity indicators and LCA impact categories can be used either separately or together, or to complement each other. The choice of indicators depends on the questions raised, i.e., goals and scope, and it is therefore important to have a number of circular indicators to choose from in order to achieve a comprehensive assessment.
... The concept of circular economy (CE) and deconstruction (design for disassembly) has been suggested as one of the best approaches to managing buildings' endof-life and closing the material loops in the built environment (Akinade et al., 2017;Chau et al., 2017;Kirchherr, Reike and Hekkert, 2017). Yet, the conventional approach to disposing of building materials still dominates the construction sector (Guy, Shell and Esherick, 2006;Knoth, Fufa and Seilskjaer, 2022). ...
Full-text available
The reduction of embodied carbon emissions in buildings has a significant impact on mitigating climate change. Current studies suggest that circular economy principles have the potential to reduce environmental impacts. Recycling and reuse of deconstructed building materials during the end of the useful lifespan of a building can help reduce carbon emissions. A process-based life cycle assessment was performed for the end-of-life phase of a steel frame and precast concrete supermarket building in the UK. The amount of potential carbon emissions reduction through the adoption of a specific end-of-life management strategy was quantified. The results indicate that reusing building components provides the greatest reduction of 72% compared to landfill, whilst recycling achieves a 41% reduction. Additionally, a comparison between reuse and recycling reveals a reduction of about 33%, indicating reuse should be considered a priority in minimising embodied carbon emissions of buildings.
... The circular economy relies on recovering materials from old products and re-using them as inputs in production for as long as possible (Korhonen et al., 2018). Other definitions of the CE include: reducing resource use; using old products for as long as possible through repair or reuse; and using renewable energy for material recovery (Kirchherr et al., 2017(Kirchherr et al., , 2018. The CE is expecting also to reduce future carbon dioxide emissions (EU, 2020). ...
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This study aims to shed light on some international experiences in economics The ring and how the latter contributed to supporting the sustainable development of many countries, where The concept of the circular economy and the difference between it and economics were highlighted The linear traditional system and how the circular system of the economy contributed to reducing waste of resources Managing waste to value it instead of disposing of it, as well as finding solutions to the waste problem and energy, and the changes it brought about in the ways of producing and consuming products, and it has The study included some statistics and figures for four carefully selected countries Seeing many cases, France and Germany were selected as two countries The European Union, China and Singapore as two Asian countries.
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Over the last decade, the concept of the circular economy has regained attention, especially related to efforts to achieve a more sustainable society. The ‘revival’ of the circular economy has been accompanied by controversies and confusions across different actors in science and practice. With this article we attempt at contributing to advanced clarity in the field and providing a heuristic that is useful in practice. Initially, we take a focus on the historical development of the concept of circular economy and value retention options (ROs) for products and materials aiming for increased circularity. We propose to distinguish three phases in the evolution of the circular economy and argue that the concept – in its dominant framing – is not as new as frequently claimed. Having established this background knowledge, we give insights into ‘how far we are’ globally, with respect to the implementation of circularity, arguing that high levels of circularity have already been reached in different parts of the globe with regard to longer loop value retention options, such as energy recovery and recycling. Subsequently, we show that the confusion surrounding the circular economy is more far-reaching the divergent scholarly perspectives on retention options and unite the most common views a 10Rtypology. e conclude that policymakers and businesses should focus their efforts on realization of the more desirable, shorter loop retention options, like remanufacturing, refurbishing and repurposing – yet with a view on feasibility and overall system effects. Scholars, on the other hand, should assist the parties contributing to an increased circular economy in practice by taking up a more active role in attaining consensus in conceptualizing the circular economy.
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With 270 million light vehicles and 20 million heavy-duty and off-road (HDOR) vehicles in use in the European Union, automotive and HDOR industries are two major sectors in the European economy. Each year, 12 million light vehicles plus 1 million HDOR vehicles reach their end-of-life. In a context of circular economy, following questions are of growing concern. To what extent is the circular economy achieved and implemented in the automotive and HDOR sectors? What industrial practices and regulations are prevalent and commendable in the light of the circular economy? While the end-of-life management of light vehicles − subjected to the ELV Directive 2000/53/EC – is widely studied in literature, the end-of-life stage of HDOR vehicles has been neglected for a long time from a research perspective. To fill this gap, extensive literature survey and in-depth investigations on the industrial ground are conducted. Key factors – i.e. regulations, business models and markets evolution, new and emerging technologies integration – affecting the circular economy performance of automotive and HDOR sectors are analysed. Notably, not only lessons learned from best industrial practices but also remaining challenges for a more circular economy are highlighted. Both industries are compared through the four buildings blocks of the circular economy and the four possible feedback loops defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As a result, this research contribution could lead to practical applications, for instance, in supporting industrial practitioners or policy makers to realize the opportunities and challenges of closing the loops of HDOR vehicles from different perspectives.
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The concept of circular economy has become a catchphrase for describing redesign of industries and economies towards better sustainability. The consideration of consumers holds a prominent role in the concept, yet consumers are not well accounted for in literature on circular economy. This paper takes a forward-looking approach to the relationship between consumers and circular economy. It reviews an extensive and systematically collected corpus of European citizen visions on desirable and sustainable futures from this perspective, and argues that the concept of circular economy should increasingly connect to energy issues and social topics, if it is to better embrace citizens' expectations on it.
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The concept of a circular economy has become a significant school of thought in sustainable economics over the last 10 years. This paper critically analyses the key principles underpinning the concept of the circular economy, specifically examining the thermodynamic and ecological foundations upon which these principles are apparently rooted. We examine issues related to recycling, biological and technical nutrients, restoration, energy use, elimination of waste, eco-efficiency, product lifetime and economic growth under three headings: the pyramid of waste, short cycles and eco-inefficiency. We reflect on how the economy of nature is based on an open system, not a closed system, that nature operates using short cycles, not extended lifetimes, that nature is sub-optimal, not optimal and that nature is eco-inefficient, not eco-efficient. Findings are then discussed, and we explore what we can learn from the natural world in terms of sustainability.
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In this article, we use Hirsch and Levin’s notion of umbrella concepts as an analytical lens, in order to articulate the valuable catalytic function the circular economy (CE) concept could perform in the waste and resource management debate. We realize this goal by anchoring the CE concept in this broader debate through a narrative approach. This leads to the insight that whereas the various resource strategies grouped under the CE’s banner are not new individually, the concept offers a new framing of these strategies by drawing attention to their capacity of prolonging resource use as well as to the relationship between these strategies. As such, the CE offers a new perspective on waste and resource management and provides a new cognitive unit and discursive space for debate. We conclude by discussing research opportunities for the industrial ecology (IE) community relating to the concept’s theoretical development and its implementation. Specifically, we pose that reinvigorating and growing the social science aspects of IE is required for both. After all, it is in understanding and facilitating the collective implementation of any idea, also the CE concept, that the potential lies for shaping our material future.
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In light of the environmental consequences of linear production and consumption processes, the circular economy (CE) is gaining momentum as a concept and practice, promoting closed material cycles by focusing on multiple strategies from material recycling to product reuse, as well as rethinking production and consumption chains toward increased resource efficiency. Yet, by considering mainly cost-effective opportunities within the realm of economic competitiveness, it stops short of grappling with the institutional and social predispositions necessary for societal transitions to a CE. The distinction of noncompetitive and not-for-profit activities remains to be addressed, along with other societal questions relating to labor conditions, wealth distribution, and governance systems. In this article, we recall some underlying biophysical aspects to explain the limits to current CE approaches. We examine the CE from a biophysical and social perspective to show that the concept lacks the social and institutional dimensions to address the current material and energy throughput in the economy. We show that reconsidering labor is essential to tackling the large share of dissipated material and energy flows that cannot be recovered economically. Institutional conditions have an essential role to play in setting the rules that differentiate profitable from nonprofitable activities. In this context, the social and solidarity economy, with its focus on equity with respect to labor and governance, provides an instructive and practical example that defies the constraints related to current institutional conditions and economic efficiency. We show how insights from the principles of the social and solidarity economy can contribute to the development of a CE by further defining who bears the costs of economic activities.