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The circular economy: New or Refurbished as CE 3.0? — Exploring Controversies in the Conceptualization of the Circular Economy through a Focus on History and Resource Value Retention Options


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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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Resources, Conservation & Recycling
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Full length article
The circular economy: New or Refurbished as CE 3.0? Exploring
Controversies in the Conceptualization of the Circular Economy through a
Focus on History and Resource Value Retention Options
Denise Reike
, Walter J.V. Vermeulen
, Sjors Witjes
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University Utrecht, Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands
Radboud University, Institute for Management Research, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Circular economy
Closed-loop economy
Value preservation
Literature review
Over the last decade, the concept of the circular economy has regained attention, especially related to eorts to
achieve a more sustainable society. The revivalof the circular economy has been accompanied by controversies
and confusions across dierent actors in science and practice. With this article we attempt at contributing to
advanced clarity in the eld 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 areglobally, with respect to the
implementation of circularity, arguing that high levels of circularity have already been reached in dierent 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 eorts on realization of the more desirable, shorter loop re-
tention options, like remanufacturing, refurbishing and repurposing yet with a view on feasibility and overall
system eects. 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
1. Introduction to Confusions in Conceptualizing CE
During the last 510 years, the concept of the circular economy
(CE) has received growing attention on various levels, among them
policymaking, advocacy and consultancy, and science. A Scopus search
on the term shows an increase of 50% in academic publications over the
past ve years, a trend that is even more visible for the Journal of
Resources, Conservation and Recycling: the rst CE article is recorded
in 2007, and over two thirds of the total 101 publications listed on the
term stem from the period 20152017.
In international politics, the urgency of closing materials loops is
also more recently actively promoted by consortia of global actors, like
the OECD,
the WEF
and UNEP
through various reports and events
(UNEP, 2011, 2016; OECD, 2016; WEF, 2014, 2016). Japan and China
were the rst key Asian economic players to formally introduce CE
policies on national level. In Europe, many states have implemented CE
initiatives, policies and pilot programmes, most notably Denmark,
Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK are taking the lead (EUKN,
2015). On supranational level, the European Union (EU) is more
slowly following suit with a CE action plan, including legislative
proposals (EC, 2015).
As this article shows, large dierences manifest itself globally with
regard to CE, yet the potential ascribed to CE of breaking the global
take-make-consume and disposepattern of growth a linear model based
on the assumption that resources are abundant, available, easy to source and
cheap to dispose of ()(EEA 2016, p. 9) is widely shared among dif-
ferent societal actors across the globe. The move towards a more cir-
cular economic model can hence be interpreted as confrontation with
Received 3 February 2017; Received in revised form 3 August 2017; Accepted 30 August 2017
Corresponding author.
He obtained his Phd during the review process.
E-mail address: (D. Reike).
OECD = Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; WEF = World Economic Forum; UNEP = United Nations Environment Programme
Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
0921-3449/ © 2017 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (
Please cite this article as: Reike, D., Resources, Conservation & Recycling (2017),
these untenable assumptions. CE is widely posed as alternative model of
production and consumption, a growth strategy enabling the decou-
plingof resource use from economic growth, thereby contributing to
sustainable development (UNEP, 2011; McKinsey and Company, 2015;
EC, 2015; OECD, 2016; EMAF, 2016a,b; Ghisellini et al., 2014;
Geissdoerfer et al., 2017).
More critical voices have questioned the potential ascribed to CE,
targeting especially the myth of decoupling(Gregson et al., 2015;
Hobson, 2015; Lazarevic and Valve, 2017). The 2011 UNEP report on
Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from
Economic Growthreveals that related sustainability concepts and ap-
proaches like Industrial Ecology (IE), eco-eciency and Cleaner Pro-
duction (CP) have contributed to achieving relative but not absolute
With a view on its potential impact, a concern is that CE has been
argued to lack conceptual clarity and an accepted denition (Yuan
et al., 2008; Lieder and Rashid, 2015). Recent literature reviews have
made rst attempts at discerning key conceptual elements of CE and its
link to other sustainability related concepts (see Ghisellini et al., 2014;
Geissdoerfer et al., 2017). However, as Blomsma and Brennan (2017)
argued, theoretical or paradigmatic clarity regarding the concept of CE
has yet to emerge(p.610). An important example, is the framing of CE
as new, innovative, and transformative in character, and simulta-
neously, as easy match with existing ecological modernization in-
itiatives, in some of the literature (Geng and Doberstein, 2008; Liu
et al., 2009; Zhu et al., 2010). This almost paradoxical framing suggests
that fundamental paradigmatic questions of CE conceptualization re-
main indeed unsolved.
Consultancy and advocacy have been especially active in framing
CE as new, yet easily attainable and lending their expertise to policy-
makers, the framing is echoed in policymaking. Suggesting a sharp
contrast between the current linear and a circular economy, Accenture
and Circle Economy write: Climate change and the impending
shortage of raw materials demand a shift from linear to zero-waste
circular cycles.(Accenture & Circle Economy 2016, p. 4). Likewise, the
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMAF) nds that the call for a new
economic model [CE] is getting louder(EMAF, 2013, p.6). In the
scientic literature, the debate is typically more nuanced, however
some authors view CE as a new frame of mind, a new perspective
(Bonciu, 2014, p. 83), a new path of industrializationXiao & Huang
(2010, p. 97) or an approach that will require a paradigm shift in the
way things are made(Preston, 2012, p. 2).
However, looking at the theoretical underpinnings of CE, these are
arguably far from new. System thinking and circularity in ecological
and economic systems are rooted in literature, dating some decades
ago, and these literature streams were themselves inspired by ideas on
agricultural and human metabolism dating back to the 18th century
(Schivelbusch, 2015) whereas the more specic ideas on CE have been
argued to date back to the metaphor of Spaceship Earth (Boulding,
1966). Practically, it can be claimed that advanced economies in
Northwestern Europe have created up to 7090% circularity for key
bulk materials including metals and plastics (EEA, 2013), and in de-
veloping countries the absence of formal resource reutilization ar-
rangementshas led to the emergence of an informal recovery sector
(Gu et al., 2016).
Pointing out CE as new and transformative hence seems to ask for
characterization of the concept in terms of maturity through a closer
look at its historic and geographic evolution. As its rst aim, the present
article conducts a short literature review on the development of CE
(Section 3). We propose playing with its terminology to view CE as a
refurbished rather than as a virgin concept. Articially distinguishing
three phases of development, we show that many elements of its con-
ceptualization have reincarnated various times with its basic thoughts
are found back in other, older key sustainability sub-concepts like IE,
CP, Closed-Loop-Supply Chain Management (CLSC) and Ecodesign.
Based on this overview, we put forward the idea that instead of CE
being per se new or transformative, elements indicative of the new
combinations of the established teachingsthat would characterize a
CE concept entailing the potential to induce transformative sustain-
ability change, have to be carefully dened and shaped by scientists and
practitioners, precisely at this stage where CE carries momentum in
various types of literature. A crude distinction between two schools of
thought (reformist and transformational) serves us as vehicle to eluci-
date some of the main distinctions made in literature.
In line with other authors (Hultman and Corvellec, 2012; Blomsma
and Brennan, 2017), we establish as one of decisive elements of a more
transformative view of CE, nuanced material hierarchies as oper-
ationalization principle of CE, sometimes called R-hierarchies or im-
peratives. While the 3R-imperatives of reduce, reuse recycleform an
accepted notion of CE in theory and practice see the Chinese policy-
there has recently been emphasis on more nuanced hierarchies with
shorter loop options like redesign,refurbish,repurpose, as enabling
the highest possible value retention of resources over multiple product
life cycles.
Hence, the second aim of this article is an in-depth exploration of
the understanding of this key operationalization principle used in the
literature. Our analysis of 69 academic articles on their con-
ceptualization of R-imperatives, nds this to vary starkly among dif-
ferent scholars and disciplines. Authors not only nd varying numbers
of R-imperatives, such as 3Rs, 4Rs or 6Rs, but dierent author(-groups)
assign dierent attributes and meanings which implies that divergent
conceptualizations of this key CE principle dominate the literature (see
Section 4).
As a response to recent calls for better conceptualization (Blomsma
and Brennan, 2017) we go beyond reviewing and synthesize the most
common perspectives on R-imperatives into a single systemic typology
of 10 resource value retention options (ROs) which we illustrate, as
most common in the literature, as a number of Rs. As part of the in-
tegrated view, we suggest discriminating two related life cycles, a
ProductProduce and Use Life Cycle and a Product Concept and Design Life
Cycle in connection with the 10Rs. Through our typology and the visual
frameworks, we seek to underline the idea that a concept rooted in
system thinking calls for transdisciplinary, scholarly eorts at synthesis
and systemic thinking for it to gain potential of system-changing
In Section 2,werst outline the research design employed for at-
taining the aims of this paper, specically the dierent types of litera-
ture reviews conducted are explained. The following two sections,
present the results of the literature reviews on CE history and its con-
ceptual elements (see Section 3), and the progress made with regard to
CE policies and measurement of circularity (Section 4). In Section 5,we
provide our review and synthesis of R-imperatives or ROs. Finally,
Section 6 reects on the implications for the key stakeholders in con-
ceptualizing CE and provides imperatives for action on future policy
and academic approaches.
2. Research Method
This article is based on two distinct literature reviews, and designed
to address gaps voiced previously in research related to 1) paradigmatic
clarity in the conceptualization of CE and 2) lack of a coherent con-
ceptualization of a specic operationalization principle, the R-im-
peratives, as outlined in Section 1. According to the typology of lit-
erature reviews dened by Grant and Booth (2009) the reviews can be
classied as critical reviews. We have chosen for this type of review,
because Grant and Booth (2009) propose it as highly suitable method,
where rather than pointing out all existing knowledge and research
gaps, its objective is pointing to inconsistencies, resolving ideas related
to competing schools of thought, and launching new conceptual de-
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
2.1. Data Collection and Analysis for the Review on CE Conceptualizations
Literature for exploring the development of conceptual elements
and various schools of thoughts was obtained through a search in
Google Scholar and the Scopus database on the circular economy
AND variations of the terms history,development,denitionin a
search dating to 2016. We scanned and collected articles manually for
relevant content on: 1) CE denitions and its links to other concepts as
input for the distinction of CE phases (Section 3.1); 2) characterization
of CE denitions and schools of thought (Section 3.2); and 3) current CE
progress (Section 4). Overall this in-depth study uses a largely quali-
tative and narrative representations of results. We complemented this
approach with two simple bibliometric analysis derived from Scopus
operationalized as a Title-Abstract-Keyword search. These depict the
rise of CE publications relative to related concepts over years and the
number of connections made between CE and these concepts. This
method cannot detect relations drawn by authors in the main body of
text. Still, overall these simple methods serve well to back up our main
ndings more quantitatively and balance the largely qualitative and
narrative analysis.
2.2. Data Collection and Analysis for the Review on Value Retention
The historic analysis brought forward the idea of value preservation
or resource value retention options (ROs) as we call it in Section 5, as
a central common denominator spanning various academic elds and
dierent types of studies, commonly operationalized in the form of a
hierarchical R-ladderor R-imperatives. Here, Rstands for various
terms starting with re-(from Latin: again), such as re-use,re-man-
ufacture(which we discuss in detail in Section 5). We conducted a
search in Scopus and Google Scholar for identication of peer-re-
viewed, academic contributions addressing R-imperatives. A search
exclusively with Latin prexes risked overlooking options, like canni-
balizationor options related to product design and life extension, as
design for longer. Hence, a great number of search strings were tested
out iteratively (see Appendix A). In this process, we found additional
papers and a number of relevant books applying the snowball method.
All obtained articles were scanned for duplications, relevant informa-
tion was extracted manually and stored as Excel Datasheet. This in-
cluded the number of given R-imperatives, denitions, visualizations
and other clarications like business activities related to a specic
We determined that we had reached a saturation point of the search
when 1) we identied recurrent (groups of) authors advocating similar
perspectives in a discipline and 2) we found (groups of) authors dom-
inating the discourse (indicated through high citation by peers). Unless
we detected a signicant evolution in perspective with recurrent
(groups of) authors, we included only the most recent or the most de-
tailed conceptual contribution; the latter was preferred. Overall, both
conceptual and empirical papers were included. Papers cited less than
ve times were generally excluded from the scan; exceptions were
made for newer papers (20102016) and for several papers from Asia in
an eort to cover relevant perspectives from all continents. A total of 69
contributions were analyzed and results are presented as comparative,
qualitative account of R-denitions in the literature. In order to show
our preference for mixed methods evaluations, we support our second
literature review with more quantitative and schematic representation
of results in tables and two synthesizing graphical frameworks.
Our methods allowed for an extensive overview of the literature, but
the judgement of what constitutes clarifying knowledge with regard to
CE and R-imperatives contains a subjective element. This is typical with
critical reviews, and we acknowledge it as a research limitation. We
tried to restrict any selection biases through inclusion of a wide array of
literature and cross-verication among the three co-authors for the
grouping and analysis of the R-imperatives. Terms and denitions had
to be identied in the text and their meaning interpreted against the
context of other obtained literature which made the use of strictly
bibliometric methods infeasible. Consequently, a time consuming,
iterative process was applied which means high replication eorts.
3. The Circular Economy as a Refurbished Concept
CE dates back much longer than the current use of the notion. In
many parts of the globe, most notably in Europe, circularity has a long
history. In the following paragraphs, we rst show that CE can be ar-
ticially divided into three distinct historic phases leading to the cur-
rent framing of the concept. Recently, Blomsma and Brennan (2017)
provided a similar distinction of CE into three phases where they
characterize CE as an umbrella concept and as a new framing around
prolonging resource productivityto derive further avenues for re-
search. We believe that such an overlap in approaches demonstrates the
relevance of distinguishing evolutionary phases and framings of a
concept. We suggest that dierent schools of thoughts with more re-
formist and more radical ideas exist alongside in the current CE 3.0.
3.1. The Circular Economy as an Evolution in Three Phases
Several authors claim that CE can be traced back as far as Quesnays
Tableau Economique(1758) and his assumptions on surplus value
from cyclical inputs (Murray et al., 2015). The earliest directed ex-
amples at closing material loops date back to the 19th century such as
the work by P.L. Simmonds (18141897) (Cooper, 2011). Besides,
historically, there have always been economic sectors evolving from
waste usage and by-products like dyes in petrochemicals (Ayres and
Ayres, 1996). However, through the industrial revolution, new di-
mensions of product diversication and material use emerge. After
World War II, the global economy accelerates and waste management
becomes increasingly problematic and important to regulate. The main
concerns are controlling and abating pollution but integrative waste
management approaches are still missing (Carter, 2001). At the end of
this phase, early warnings of resource depletion and limits to growth
emerge. The publication of the Club of Rome (1972) is decisive in in-
ducing the shift to the next phase.
3.1.1. CE 1.0 (19701990s): Dealing with Waste
The 1970s, in Europe and the US are the times of command and
control policy measures (Otis and Graham, 2000). Alongside environ-
mental movements, the 3R concept of reduce, reuse and recycling
increasingly gains attention. Governments regulate, businesses mostly
follow reactively. The majority of measures in these decades focus on
the output side; waste is not prevented but pollution limited through
principles like 'polluter pays' and end-of-pipetreatment becomes the
rule (Gertsakis and Lewis, 2003; Tyler Miller and Spoolman, 2002).
Waste management gets important by means of regulating landlls and
incineration, but there is not yet an established thinking in systems,
with large amounts of waste being treated outside ones bordersor
even being dumped in less auent countries (Moyers, 1991). However,
exactly these types of practices, and growing global links through
media, like the television, nurture a realization that local and global
problems are connected and that such problems can also ultimately
aect strong economic nations. It is in this phase that preventive and
life-cycle-thinking focused concepts like CP and IE are rst introduced
and start to contribute to thinking in systems (Gertsakis and Lewis,
2003). Looking at Fig. 1, one can see how a large body of literature on
waste management and recycling emerges during these decades, which
is later accompanied by a rise in the literature which places systems
thinking at center, for example IE and CP. Therefore, the roots of CE can
be argued to lie in precisely this phase. However, in practice, input and
output measures remain insuciently connected. Successes remain
greatest at the output side, with recycling rates considerably growing
between the 1980s and the 1990s, not at last because of further policy
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
measures and voluntary schemes for waste management and recycling
by businesses (Bergsma et al., 2014). Scientic literature on the subject
also grows steadily in this phase, addressing rst improved waste
management and later recycling, separation, and collection.
3.1.2. CE 2.0 (1990s2010): Connecting Input and Output in Strategies for
In this phase, we see a stronger integration among preventive
measures and output measures. The idea of a winwin between the
environment and business activity, as laid down in the Brundtland
Report (WCED, 1987), gets promoted, often under the motto pollution
prevention pays(Ochsner et al., 1995). Increasingly, environmental
problems are framed as an economic opportunity: proactive businesses
can prot from eciency gains and reputation gains (see for more
detail, Blomsma and Brennan, 2017). The dominant framing from the
end 1960s and the 1970s about absolute reduction receives less atten-
tion. Concepts like IE and life cycle thinking (Boons and Howard-
Grenville, 2009) become principles for action, however only on a lim-
ited industrial scale and alongside a very technical discourse (Graedel
and Allenby, 1995) with social elements of innovation and im-
plementation largely neglected (Vermeulen, 2006). Further concepts
like Design for the Environment get established in business in CE 2.0
and increasing attention is paid to questions of prevention and e-
ciency through design as it is widely realized that a reduction in re-
siduals ultimately asks for a reduction in inputs (Ayres and Ayres,
1996). Thinking in systems is growing, and scientic data on global
warming, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, create a new sense of
urgency, in the early years 2000. This is aided by more and faster in-
formation sharing through digitalization and the internet which enable
connecting the local to the global environmental issues in un-
precedented ways.
Although scholars like Stahel and Reday wrote about a closed-loop
economy as early as 1976 (see Bourg and Erkman, 2003), and the
concept of CE itself was coined in the 1960s, it is only in this phase that
CE slowly gains prominence (Murray et al., 2015). This is also visible in
Fig. 1:rst academic literature emerges in the 1990s, but a sharp in-
crease in publications is seen around the year 2000. Fig. 2 depicts the
results of a simple bibliometric analysis on the relation of CE and its
predecessor concepts in Scopus, and shows that rst literature relating
CE to predecessor concepts emerges in 2004. This analysis seems to
conrm the claims by several scholars that the links between CE and
waste management, CE and IE (including eco-industrial parks) and, CE
and CP, are conceptually the oldest and remain very strong to date (see
Murray et al., 2015; Iung and Levrat, 2014). It is also visible that the
link between CE and the Reverse Logistics (RL) and Closed-Loop Supply
Chain (CLSC) literature emerges later (from 2007), while links to
cradle-to-cradle (C2C) emerged very recently. Other concepts from
Fig. 1 were not included in Fig. 2, as scholars have hardly connected
them with CE (e.g. CE and performance economy).
3.1.3. CE 3.0 (2010 ± ): Maximizing Value Retention in the Age of
Resource Depletion
In terms of framing, from 2010 onwards, several borrowedand
olderelements are combined in a new or newly emphasized fashion
(Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, see 3.2). While the rhetoric still stresses
economic gains, ultimate threats to survival of the human race in the
light of seemingly insurmountable sustainability challenges are linked
to population growth and renewed attention for resource depletion and
retaining the value of resources. There is fear that we cannot consume
endlessly and that other nations should not catch up with the Western
level of exploiting nature at least not through the same growth path
and with similar rebound eects. Against this context, the allegedly
newly developed idea of CE gets celebrated for its potential of decou-
pling growth from resource use (UNEP, 2011). Thereby, it is phrased as
a way out of the resource trap.
3.2. Illuminating the Scholarly Debate Through Distinction of Two Schools
of Thought
Where we use the division CE 1.0-3.0 in order to suggest that con-
cepts take evolutionary yet undetermined paths including changes of
meaning over time, Blomsma & Brennan call the latest CE phase va-
lidity checkperiod (2013+). Indeed, there is a sense of urgency for
validityin conceptualization, as writings on CE as newand trans-
formativeoften fail to suciently point out these elements. Until re-
cently, there was a remarkable lack of eort on side of academics to
shape the concept. Hardly any specicdenitions were put forward,
instead articles elaborated on CE requirements (Zhu et al., 2010; Geng
and Doberstein, 2008), its scope and levels (Su et al., 2013), contrasted
it with the linear economy (Pitt and Heinemeyer, 2015) or explained its
related concepts (Murray et al., 2015; Ghisselini et al., 2014).
Geissdoerfer et al. (2017), in their paper on the relation between sus-
tainability and CE, nally put forward a hard denition. They place
business activities at center and describe CE as a regenerative system
in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are
minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy
loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance,
repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling
(Geissdoerfer et al., 2017, 579).
Their denition reveals some of the elements that are pivotal in
Fig. 1. Scientic Publications in Scopus on Circular Economy and Related Concepts,
Fig. 2. The Relation of CE to its Predecessor Concepts in Scientic Publications in Scopus.
The TITLE-ABSTRACT-KEYWORD search shows that CE is rst related to IE and waste
management, from the year 2004.
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
earlier approaches and become re-emphasized in CE 3.0. Like in CP, IE
and the various sustainability design approaches, the idea of resource
input reduction and creating loops for reuse stands central. The rhetoric
of regenerative systemsshows considerable overlap with IE principles
(Iung and Levrat, 2014; Ghisselini et al., 2014). Moreover, in CE, the
distinction of various preservation stages of resource value using hier-
archical R-laddersor imperatives, is an essential operationalization
principle. Yet, already in the 1990s, several key IE scholars developed
resource retention and cascadinghierarchies (see Graedel and Allenby
1995;Stahel 2003;Cohen-Rosenthal and Musnikow, 2003). As many of
these distinguish three to ve few stages (Graedel and Allenby 1995;
Ayres and Ayres, 1996), the more nuanced hierarchies found in CE (see
Section 5) arguably form one of the elements where established
teachings are recombined in a new way.
The idea of narrowing loops provides that local action and local
closed-loops are preferred just like in IE which is commonly put into
practice with geographically close entities in eco-industrial parks.
However, in CE 3.0 emphasis shifts from geographically close entities to
the supply chain, suggesting that CE 3.0 is characterized by closing
loops over wider geographical distances where feasible these ideas
show the close connection of CE to RL and CLSC. Another, rather new
element is a consideration of a wider system with a more inclusive
stakeholder perspective. In contrast to the design approaches which are
often connected to single rms and inward-looking, or IE, where col-
laboration is described as one among commonly unrelated businesses,
CE 3.0 absorbs these perspectives but adds to old teachings. Typically,
the collaborative system is broadened to supply chain partners and
stakeholders including consumers, NGOs and government. Lastly, one
element that may set CE 3.0 apart from all its predecessors is the
combined thinking in business models, and products and materials ra-
ther than exclusively in one dimension such as ows. Business models
summarize how value is created, captured and distributed among the
involved parties (Bocken et al., 2017)hence CE 3.0 goes further than
predecessors like IE and CP in recognizing that implementation of
preventive measures and circularity decisively hinges on organizational
aspects rather than technical matters of realization only.
The elements above are referred to by dierent parties contributing
to CE conceptualization, even though this paper rst condensed how
these elements recombine in CE 3.0. There are, however, at least three
related elements on which CE literature is fundamentally divided and
which we argue are essential to clear conceptualization (Table 1).
Linked to these, we can distinguish two schools of thought.
The rst two elements are very much related. There is a small group
of scholars which places the idea of refusingand reducingabsolute
resource inputs at center (see Naustdalslid, 2014). Typically, this group
also refers to attaining eco-eectiveness with increased eciencies
constituting a necessary but insucient component of CE.
scholars, however, relate CE to eco-eciency, some are referring to
eectiveness as sub-concepts of the former (Li et al., 2010; OECD,
2011), hence revealing a lack of reection in employing these notions.
This issue is closely linked to idea of CE denoting an alternative eco-
nomic system. As Cox (1999) outlined, the dominant logic in the ca-
pitalist economy is seeking a position where neither customers, em-
ployees, competitors or suppliers can leverage value from you, while
putting yourself in a position to leverage all of them(p.171). System
thinking being an essence of CE seems to deny this logic of optimizing
for oneself. Nevertheless, it is apparent that especially consultancies
and policy documents embed CE into the current economic paradigm
and a rhetoric of healthy growth, rather than using it as a vehicle for
modication of the capitalist system into one where value is distributed
more fairly and equally. For example, the EMAF, a consultancy that has
been inuential in framing CE over the past years, holds that CE is
about a shift to a new economic model(EMAF and McKinsey &
Company, 2014, p.3) assuring simultaneously that it entails exploit
[ing] new opportunities for innovation, growth and resilienceby
gradual decoupling only and underscoring that up to additional 7%
GDP growth can be attained until 2025 through CE (Ellen MacArthur
Foundation, 2017, para. 3). Somewhat similar, the EU, OECD and WEF
link CE to increased global competitiveness and economic growth -
hence to resource eciency rather than to eco-eectiveness (OECD,
2011; WEF, 2014). At the other side of the spectrum, stand a handful of
critical scholars. Gregson et al. (2015) questioned whether our eco-
nomic system can deliver optimal circularity. The authors argue that
high value preservation of resources throughout multiple circular loops
would require radical transformations to the economic order, in-
cluding fundamental recasting of manufacture, retail, consumption and
property rights(p. 235). In the same vain, Lazarevic and Valve (2017)
hold that CE is far from new and radical, if it is simply embedded into
the current institutional set-up as a market driven approach that em-
braces rather than rejects the Western patterns of production and
The nal controversy regards the link of CE to sustainability. Many
authors view it as a concept uniting economic and environmental sus-
tainability, but there are also a few examples following another inter-
pretation. The Dutch government (2013) denes CE as economic
system that takes the reusability of products and materials and the
conservation of natural resources as starting point. It also strives for
value creation for people, nature and the economy in each part of the
system(Circular Academy, 2016, para. 4). This denition includes the
social dimensions of sustainability and rather points to a need of bal-
ance among the three dimensions. Similarly, Dupont-Iglis (2015) argues
that CE is about maximizing the positive environmental, economic and
social eects(para. 3; see also Yong, 2007; Liu et al., 2009; Conticelli
and Tondelli, 2014; Lieder and Rashid, 2015). Van Buren et al. (2016)
are most explicit on the social dimension noting that CE entails crea-
tion of social value (minimization of social value destruction
throughout the entire system, such as the prevention of unhealthy
working conditions in the extraction of raw materials and reuse)(p.3).
Taking these controversies in CE into account, it is apparent that
there are still fundamental paradigmatic divides in conceptualization.
Arguably, the reformist school copies the more general win-win
framing of sustainability which emerged during the 1990s and which
was indeed successful at encouraging sustainability eorts of busi-
nesses. In that sense, it is understandable why scholars have claimed the
good t between CE and other approaches for ecological moderniza-
tion. Still, writings stressing the easy t or embedding it in a healthy
growth rhetoric for persuasion, and failing to point out the new ele-
ments of CE, hardly carry legitimacy in calling CE new and transfor-
mational, instead rendering it merely a refurbished concept to be placed
also evolutionary speaking among other sustainability initiatives.
Conversely, if creation of circular systems implies clear recombination
of the established teachings, as to imply major institutional changes or
even modications to our economic model, then CE can legitimately be
termed a new approach with potential for transformative impact.
Table 1
Three Unresolved Key Elements in the Conceptualization of CE 3.0.
Need forReformist
Transformationist School
absolute resource input reduction NO YES
modication to the economic
order, i.e. capitalist system
balance among sustainability di-
For a denition of eco-eciency vs. eco-eectiveness in the context of ecological
sustainability, we recommend Dyllick and Hockerts (2001). They emphasise non-sub-
stitutability of natural capital, i.e. absolute limits to resource use, and hence seem to
apply the notion even stricter than most cradle-to-cradle scholars who typically refer to
the interpretation provided by McDonough and Braungart (2002).
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
4. CE in Practice Geographical Perspectives on Where We Are
Insights on the history of CE have shown that CE is not per se a new
or transformative concept. On the contrary, if we interpret it in line
with the ideas of the reformist school of thought, placing it among other
sustainability initiatives and within the current economic paradigm, we
can argue that certain levels of circularity have already been in-
stitutionalized in dierent forms across various geographies. Overall, a
very mixed picture of success emerges with diverse modes and speeds of
implementation with policies and measurements focused on capturing
recyclingrates rather than reuse,reductionor recovery rates of
products and materials linked to other R-imperatives.
Sakai et al. (2011) provide a good overview with a wide geo-poli-
tical comparison of Asian countries, Europe and the USA, describing
waste management and recycling policies, set targets and actual re-
covery and recycling rates. For the USA, they give a 44% recovery target
for municipal wastes (2001) and an ambition to raise this to 51%, in
2008. According to Kollikkathara et al. (2009), recycling of US muni-
cipal solid waste grew from 16% to 33% between 1990 and 2006, while
landlling was reduced from 70% to 55%. However, Chowdhury argues
that reliable data is hardly available on recycling rates in the USA
(Chowdhury 2009). The most recent data available in the online US-
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Report on the Environment
shows that recycling has slightly gone up to 34% in 2013, while 53% of
municipal solid waste was still landlled (EPA, 2016). In a detailed
study including uncertainty estimates, Chen (2013) showed that in the
period of 1980s2010s, the aluminium end-of-life recovery rate lay
between 38% and 65% and actual recycling varied between 34% and
61% with an increasing trend and the peak occurring in 2008.
For Japan, the municipal waste recycling was reported at 20%, in
2006, with a target of 24% for 2015 (Sakai et al., 2011). However, some
of the Japanese 2010 recycling targets for specic materials are far
higher: 91% for glass, 62% for paper, 5070% for various home ap-
pliances, and 4085% for various forms of food waste. Most ambitious
in Japan was the construction waste target:9598% for the various
materials in 2012. Even more ambitious policies can be found in Korea,
with an overall reduction target for municipal waste recycling of 61% in
2012. China has set various eciency and waste management targets as
part of its 12th ve-year plan (20112015) and its CE policies. Su et al.
(2013) report of the four major cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and
Dalian to have achieved remarkable increases in waste reclamation
rates in the period of 20052010. Industrial solid waste recovery in-
creased between 16 and 34% and safe disposal of municipal solid waste
in landlls by 1020%. In the municipality of Dalian this means at-
tainment of overall rates as high as 96% and 100% in the two respective
categories. However, data on actual reuse are scarce. Ghosh et al.
(2016) nd that China ocially reports to recycle 28% of its e-waste,
yet it is burdened by an equally large illegal import of e-waste from
In the rst decade of the 21st century, the overall EU ambition is
somewhere in between Korea and the other countries mentioned. The
2008 EU Waste Framework Directive (EC, 2008) included a 50% target
for recycling household waste (2020), 70% recycling of demolition
waste (2020), and 85% recycling of cars (2015), to mention a few
elements (Sakai et al., 2011). However, within the EU, there are clearly
dierent histories and speeds. First movers were mostly mid and
Northwestern European countries, among them Denmark, Germany,
the Netherlands, and the UK (EUKN 2015). In the Netherlands, for
example, waste prevention and recycling of waste received extensive
attention in policymaking, since the beginning of the 1990s, and
yielded substantial results. For a large number of product groups this
policy developed 'recycling arrangements' (Vermeulen, 2002;
Vermeulen and Weterings, 1997). In a paper to the European En-
vironment Agency (EEA), Milios reports about the Netherlands
achieving the 50% recycling of municipal waste in 2010, with the share
of landlling getting close to 0% (Milios, 2013). In a more recent
evaluation of the national waste management plans (20032009 and
20092015) for the Dutch government, Bergsma et al. show that do-
mestic waste in 2010 was for 79% recycled, 20% incinerated and 2%
landlled, while construction waste was recycled for 98%, and 2%
landlled (see also Schut et al., 2015).
It is important to note here that household waste and other muni-
cipal waste are only a small portion of all waste generated (resp. 16,6%
and 10,0% in 2010 in NL), compared to construction waste (44,7% in
2010) and industrial waste (28,6% in 2010) (Bergsma et al., 2014). For
industrial waste the recycling rates are at 88,6%, with 7% incineration
and 4% landlling. This indicates that consumer waste behavior is the
weaker link in the chain (Bergsma et al., 2014; Goorhuis et al., 2012).
More recently, eorts have been made to further increase the recovery
rates from households.
The Dutch policies resulted in recycling rates, in 2015, for various
waste streams of 8597% (83% of glass, 85% of paper, 97% of
cars, > 95% of tyres, 95% of (domestic) metal, 97% of construction
waste), and lower rates for some other material ows (around 45% in
timber, around 51% of household plastic waste), but in all cases sig-
nicantly higher than 25 years ago (ARN, 2016; Nedvang, 2015; Schut
et al., 2015; Vereniging Band en Milieu, 2016). However, these high
circularity rates disguise that downcycling is still the rule rather than
upgrading (see Blomsma and Brennan, 2017). While Dutch policy
documents explicitly call for shorter loop options, national targets be-
yond recyclingand recoveryare still missing.
The Dutch case is an example from the front running group of
countries with proactive policies and recovery targets. A recent review
by the EEA on municipal waste management in 32 European countries
clearly illustrates the divide (2013). Consumers in the wealthier mid
and Northwestern European countries generate twice as much waste as
in Eastern European countries. Yet, overall recycling rates for municipal
waste, in 2010, in the mid and Northwestern European countries, are
beyond the 50% target, like in Austria, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands
and Switzerland, with regions even reaching 8090%, while Rumania,
Turkey, Bulgaria remain close to 0% recycling. The landlling practices
are mirroring this: Switzerland and Netherlands reaching close to 0%
landlling, while Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania and Turkey still
landll 80100% of their municipal waste (EEA, 2013).
With the recent EU ambitions for a CE (EU, 2016), the European
divide poses a double challenge for policymaking: supporting the lag-
gards to catch up, and challenging the frontrunners to make next steps
to fully closing loops and moving towards shorter loop R-imperatives.
Another recent review by the EEA of the material resource eciency
policies in 32 countries suggests that the frontrunner countries ex-
plicitly promote steps towards CE with higher ambitions like 75% re-
covery of all domestic waste, in 2020, and 90% of glass, in 2015
(Netherlands). Laggard examples include the municipal waste-recycling
target of 2020 in Lithuania, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia set at 50% and
to be reached by 2020 or 2030 (Serbia) (see also the list of dierent
recycling targets in: EEA, 2016a,b).
With these national dierences in Europe, the average recovery and
recycling rate for all forms of waste sums up to 46% in the period
20122014 (EEA, 2016a,b), which can be viewed as being half way on
the road towards circularity. The numbers above clearly suggest a
strong divide within Europe, in terms of ambition and actual reuse
rates. However, a recent study of Van Eygen et al. (2016) shows that
also mid-European countries have not come far in establishing struc-
tures that would enable viability of longer loop R-imperatives for their
key materials downcycling rather than upgrading or reducing
amounts used is still the rule. In Austria, in 2010, the vast majority of
all plastic waste was incinerated for energy recovery or in the cement
industry (46%, 21%) and at best mechanically recycled into granulate
or chemically into feedstock used in other production processes (21%,
10%). Moreover, a report by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE, 2015) shows
that an EU wide a decrease of landlling by 8% achieved by national
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
Table 2
Overview of R-Imperatives According to Hierarchy and Discipline. (Amelia et al., 2009; Badurdeen et al., 2009; Geng et al., 2012; Gerrard and Kandlikar, 2007; Govindan et al., 2014;
Graedel and Allenby, 1995; Guide et al., 2003; Ingarao et al., 2011; Kazazian, 2003; Kazerooni Sadi et al., 2012; Peng et al., 1997; Price and Joseph, 2000; Rahman et al., 2009; Rahman
and Subramanian, 2012; Rusjanto et al., 2011; Sinha et al., 2016; Xin et al., 2014; Xing and Luong, 2009; Yan and Wu, 2011) (For interpretation of the references to colour in the table
legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
Author names in bold print: Key author (50+ citations) and highly cited by other authors addressing.
Green color = Rs clearly ranked: Ranking of R-imperatives explicit through text, gures or tables; in most cases, denitions of Rs and a reasoning for the ranking is provided.
Yellow color = Suggests Rank: Listing order of R-imperatives in text, gures or tables suggests a ranking, yet not explicit.
Orange color = Rs not ranked: No clear ranking of R-imperatives through text, gures or tables, no explanations.
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
landlling ban policies in 20092013 was coupled with a substantial
increase in incineration. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and
Sweden all built incinerators with over-capacity which the ZWE argues
caused adverse eects with doubling or tripling of incineration, a de-
crease in recycling rates (Austria, Norway), and a lower focus on pre-
vention and other more desirable R-imperatives as a result of needing
sucient throughput for viability of the newly built, high capacity in-
cinerations (ZWE, 2015).
Insights on circularity on recycling and recovery in developing
countries are dicult to obtain as little aggregate information exists.
According to Diaz (2017), the root causes for low CE in developing
countries are a lack of political will, lack of a national waste manage-
ment policies, rules and regulations, insucient funds dedicated to CE,
and the absence of expertise and education at all levels. This void of
policies and formal structures led to the emergence of an informal re-
covery, recycling and reuse markets. Diaz estimates that informal re-
cyclingeorts amount to 10% to 15% of total municipal and com-
mercial wastes generated in developing countries. Ocial numbers are
available only for the BRIC countries, a review of formal sector e-waste
recycling nds very low recycling rates for India (3%), a marginal
fraction in Russia (less than 1%), and only informal structures in Brazil
and South Africa (Ghosh et al., 2016).
This brings us to the issue of leakages from CE: despite a 40-years
history of recycling preferences in Europe (Williams 2015), we still face
illicit and illegal exports of waste towards developing countries with
weak regulations and enforcement capacities (Crang et al., 2013;
Gregson et al., 2015; Lepawsky et al., 2015; Lepawsky and Billah,
2011). Breivik et al. (2014) recently produced a global e-waste mass
balance showing a substantial ow of e-waste from OECD countries to
China and West-Africa, which represents 23% of the amounts of e-
waste generated domestically within the OECD. This implies a dierent
CE challenge in these countries.
The rst study that tries to measure global circularity comes from
Haas et al. (2015) and takes 2005 as a reference year. If total material
input is considered, the aggregate global recycling rate is as low as 6%,
only if biological ows are included (as demanded by CE) the recycling
rates is as high as 37%. In line with our ndings, the authors assess
recycling in Europe (EU-27) as advanced (41% average) compared to
the rest of the globe (28%), with a higher share of material recycling
but lower biomass reuse than in other parts of the world. Critically, they
also note that Europe consumes more materials compared to the global
average and that noncircular ows are much higher at 6.4 t/cap/yr
(3.4 t/cap/yr globally).
Overall, recycling rates are high for several bulk materials, but low
for many high value materials (OECD, 2015). Although there is a global
move away from landlling as the least desirable waste management
option, the recent circularity rates in Europe result of policies where
incineration and long loop recycling are main R-imperatives. It seems
crucial not to try and eliminate longer loop options at all costs a
thorough upfront evaluation of the system eects is decisive to avoid
adverse eects and regression. We acknowledge that recycling is a valid
form of reuse and currently the optimal treatment for some materials,
yet there is a danger that attaining high recycling rates become a sy-
nonym for a high level of circularity which can lead to convenient
stagnationon longer loop R-imperatives.
5. Value Retention Options in CE Literature: From Confusions in
Conceptualization Towards a Synthesis
As outlined in the previous sections, CE
is often characterized
with reference to hierarchically ranked R-imperatives as an important
operationalization principle. In practice, recycling and incineration,
lower forms of value retention of materials, still dominate policies and
scientists often have to rely on public datasets on recollection and re-
cycling ratesas data on reuse or resource input reduction is yet dicult
to obtain. This section examines the use of R-imperatives in the
literature and nds limited consensus among scholars from diverse
disciplines relevant to CE.
5.1. R-Imperatives for Circular Economy in the Literature
Our second literature review (see Section 2) is based on 69 con-
tributions. We found these to originate from diverse disciplines which
we grouped into the following ve: Waste Management and Environ-
mental Sciences (WM), Reverse Logistics and Closed-Loop Supply Chain
Management (RL/CLSC) Product Design and Cleaner Production
(CDCP), Industrial Ecology (IE) and Circular Economy 2010+
(CE2010 + ). An overview of contributions and authors per discipline
is found in Table 2.
The 69 peer-reviewed contributions all summarized imperatives for
reuse as a certain number of Rs. It seems obvious why this is popular:
The re-in Latin means again,back, but also afresh,anew, fairly
well expressing the essence of CE (Sihvonen and Ritola, 2015). How-
ever, the simplicity that makes such terminology attractive may si-
multaneously have contributed to confusions in CE literature and its
related literature strands. Looking at the myriad of words which appear
as R-imperatives in these articles, we note the use of 38 dierent re-
words in varying combinations. In alphabetic order these are: re-as-
sembly, recapture, reconditioning, recollect, recover, recreate, rectify, re-
cycle, redesign, redistribute, reduce, re-envision, ret, refurbish, refuse, re-
market, remanufacture, renovate, repair, replacement, reprocess, reproduce,
repurpose, resale, resell, re-service, restoration, resynthesize, rethink, re-
trieve, retrot, retrograde, return, reuse, reutilise, revenue, reverse and re-
As Table 2 shows, almost 60% of the authors writing on R-im-
peratives apply a clear hierarchy, in many cases including denitions of
the terms used. Still, about 40% apply no clear hierarchy and remain
suggestive or vague on the meaning of the concepts used this opacity
seems concerning, given the variety of terms appearing and since our
review entailed a directed search for articles in which R-imperatives are
key concepts.
As regards the number of R-imperatives (#Rs) distinguished, these
range from 3Rs to 10Rs as can be seen in Table 3. Surprisingly, 3Rs are
most used as a typology in the CE2010+ literature, while in WM, 5Rs
clearly dominate. Contributions in RL/CLSC frequently use 4Rs, 5Rs or
6Rs. Altogether, a 5R typology is most common, and looking at the
color coding, it can be seen that this one is also commonly given with a
clear hierarchy and best dened. Typologies of 4Rs and 6Rs typologies
are nearly as popular, whereas the more nuanced typologies with 7Rs-
10Rs are far less used. It is notable that about ¾ of the latter category
are recent contributions, published after 2010. Nevertheless, there is no
clear trend visible from use of more simple towards more nuanced
typologies over the years (see Table 3).
Most importantly, our comparative analysis revealed the extensive
variety and confusion found with the dierent R-imperatives. Scholars,
in combining R-words, present fundamentally dierent orders and
hierarchies some of which lack an obvious logic. As the most simple, the
3Rs distinction serves well to illustrate that authors remain far from
applying the same concepts and meaning. For example, 3R can refer to
reduce, reuse, recycle’–this is a well-known waste management prin-
ciple and dominant with Chinese scholars as the Chinese national CE
policies are based on 3Rs. Yet, it is also found with many other scholars
(e.g. Lieder and Rashid 2015; Diener and Tillman, 2015; Ghisellini
et al., 2014; Yoshida et al., 2007) and can also mean reuse, re-
manufacture, recycle(Gehin et al., 2008; Nagalingam et al., 2013);
reduce, recovery, reuse(Wang and Hsu, 2010); reuse, recycle, return
(Hassini et al., 2012); recycling, reuse, revenue(Larsen and Taylor,
2000); and reuse, recycle, reduce(Yan and Feng, 2014). Finally, one of
the most confusing variants is reuse,recover and recycle (Wang and Hsu,
2010) as the authors use the concepts as an aggregate as well as in a
ranked order of activities.
This example could be extended for higher #R typologies and points
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
Table 3
Representation of R-imperatives for circular economy in academic literature. (Amelia et al., 2009; Badurdeen et al., 2009; Geng et al., 2012; Gerrard and Kandlikar, 2007; Guide et al., 2003; Ingarao
et al., 2011; Kazazian, 2003; Kazerooni Sadi et al., 2012; Peng et al., 1997; Price andJoseph, 2000; Rahman et al., 2009; Rahman and Subramanian, 2012; Rusjanto et al., 2011; Sinha et al., 2016; Xin
et al., 2014; Xing and Luong, 2009; Yan and Wu, 2011; Govindan et al., 2014) (For interpretation of the references to colour in the tablelegend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
to a wider cacophony regarding the use of R-words in the literature.
This all prompts the question why scientists despite a growing body of
CE literature have not focused on clearly dening this key concept
related to CE operationalization along with an accepted set of deni-
tions. A number of possible explanations can be given:
- The eld of CE is not a clearly dened academic discipline with
paradigmatic features; instead it is addressed by scholars rooted in
various schools of thought, each with their specic focus and dis-
ciplinary framings;
- The eld of CE is not one of perfect academic isolation, instead it
emerged and developed in close symbiosis with policymaking, ad-
vocacy and consultancy, where the use of concepts also serves other
interests such as persuasion, reducing complexity for communica-
tion purposes, and building a business case with alternative con-
cepts. As a result of this the R-words can be used either as general
common sense language or as specic disciplinary vocabulary, re-
ferring to specic given denitions;
- There is a permanent entry and growing number of new academic
actors from dierent countries and continents, for whom the history
of earlier publications in other countries and other disciplines may
not be very accessible. With this the focus of the contributions may
also be aected by the level of progress in recycling policies and
practices in the respective countries, and by nationally dened
terminology related to government policies;
- Apart from scientists, governments in dierent countries use diverse
phrasings and supranational organisations, like the EU (3R as: reuse,
recycle, recover), UN and OECD (3R as: reduce, reuse, recycle)
create their own contradictory syntheses of these in their complex
political decision making processes (EC, 2008; Hultman and
Corvellec 2012; OECD, 2011; UNEP, 2012).
Next to these more sociological explanations, there are explanations
more closely linked to the complex nature of the concept of CE itself:
- It is relevant on various scales: global economy, national economy,
value chains of interlinked companies, material owsor waste
streams, single business and nally the specic product scale. The
key academic disciplines reecting on CE each link to particular
scales thus each addresses specic elements rather than the full
- In this context, the unit of analysis is often the product level, where
some address products as generalized term, while others analyze
specic products, produced by a specic company in its specic
value chain;
-The concept of the product life cycle can actually denote two en-
tirely dierent cycles: rstly, the full route of resources used for a
produced and consumed product via its consumption to its after-use
recycling or disposal; secondly the lifecycle from original design to
an optimized design including prototyping andadjustments through
application over a span of years (Kuik et al., 2011; Nagalingam
et al., 2013)
5.2. Making Sense of Value Retention Options: Comparing and Synthesizing
Exploring the confusion created is one thing, trying to get beyond it
is another challenge. Some eorts have been made, based on a limited
literature review, mostly writing from one of the specic disciplinary
connes we discussed above (see for example Sihvonen and Ritola,
2015). A broader and more systematic attempt at creating clarity is
relevant as dierent strands of literature propose that a common lan-
guage and understanding are crucial for successful implementation of
any concept, especially where this involves innovation and learning
across multiple groups of stakeholders, as can be assumed to occur in
CE. Sharing an understanding of key notions seems critical, especially,
where dierent languages and professional jargon are used by stake-
holders possessing dierent underlying paradigms (Section 3.2), pos-
sibly causing mixed views on visions and ambitions, misunderstand-
ings, and consequently inhibiting learning processes.
Based on the interdisciplinary literature review discussed here we
synthesize the literature and propose a 10R typology, diversied for the
two product life cycles of Produce and Useand of Concept and Design.
The typology consists of eight reutilization options and two preventive
options, most importantly the R0 denoting zero use and impact,
wherefore we use the term resource value retention options (ROs) in
order to best cover these altogether. As shown, the meaning of other,
common terms (various R-words) can be viewed as eroded and unsuited
as umbrella notion. Moreover, the term value retentionwas not found
among the reviewed articles, it is not aicted by the existing confusion.
As a newly introduced term, it must be clear that it shall refer to the
idea of resources carrying an intrinsic value as applied in the sus-
tainability discourse as opposed to economic notions of value. Hence
the retention of resource value means conservation of resources closest
to their original state, and in the case of nished goods retaining their
state or reusing them with a minimum of entropy as to be able to give
them consecutive lives.
We present the various ROs by distinguishing short loops (where
product remains close to its user and function), medium long loops
(where products are upgraded and producers are again involved) and
long loops (where products lose their original function). We support the
comparative analysis and synthesis with Table 4 and Figs. 3 and 4
which show the ROs linked to the two distinct product life cycles.
5.2.1. Shortest Loops: R0-R3 (Refuse, Reduce, Resell/reuse)
The rst four loops exist close to the consumer, and can be linked to
a commercial or non-commercial actors engaged in extending the life
span of the product. Scholars applying a clear hierarchy characterize
these as the most preferable ROs in CE. As the historic overview and the
previous section argued, the varying emphasis on the R0 and R1 in the
literature may be evidence of a paradigmatic division regarding the
issue of the perceived necessity of absolute reduction of inputs and
consumption hence also relating to dierent motives of dierent
groups in promoting CE.
5.2.2. Refuse: R0
The concept refuseis both used in the context of the consumer and
the producer. In the consumer case, scholars stress the choice to buy
less, or use less, which may apply to any consumption article aiming at
prevention of waste creation (Allwood et al., 2011; Black and Cherrier,
2010; Tyler Miller & Spoolman 2002). It refers to a critical position of
consumers, shifting towards a post-material lifestyle (Hedlund-de Witt,
2012; Spaargaren, 2003). Refuse is also often used in the context of
rejection of packaging waste and shopping bags (Clapp and Swanston,
2009; Kasidoni et al., 2015). Applied to produce and use,refuse refers
rather to the Concept and Design Life Cycle where product designers
can refuse the use of specic hazardous materials, design production
Author names with *: This/these author(s) use(s) a dierent terminology than 3Rs/4Rs or other units than products and materials, e.g. Ayres and Ayres (1996) strategies for raising
productivity,Liu et al. (2016) repair companies, reuse companies.
Color Coding: Refers to Clarity on Ranking of R-imperatives, see legend of Table 2
Please note that we put forward the new term resource value retention options for
covering due to the high inconsistencies of terminology in the literature. Here, a new
umbrella term can add to clarication. Still, we present these options as a number of Rs
rather than ROs, as this form of listing is consistently used across all disciplines.
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
processes to avoid waste (Bilitewski, 2012) or more broadly speaking,
any virgin material. Surprisingly, only eight contributions incorporate
refuseor preventionin their retention hierarchies (Bilitewski, 2012;
Hultman and Corvellec, 2012; Tyler Miller & Spoolman 2002; Allwood
et al., 2011;Cohen-Rosenthal and Musnikow, 2003;Bakker et al.,
2014;van Buren et al., 2016;Fercoq et al., 2016) which is possibly
explained by the focus on reusein most articles rather than on ex-
plaining all possible ROs.
5.2.3. Reduce: R1
The concept reduceis used in three ways: consumer oriented,
producer oriented or as a generic term. Francis (2003) provides such a
generic description stating that it is about eliminat[ing] the produc-
tion of waste rather than the disposal of waste itself after it has been
created(p.121), while others stress that it refers to all life cycle
stages, including the use phase, yet without specifying what the con-
sumer action imperatives in the use phase should be (Ghisellini et al.,
2014; Yan and Feng, 2014).
We found some hints on desired concept and design behaviors,
such as using purchased products less frequently, use them with more
care and longer, or making repairs for life extension, for example with
consumer-to-consumer support (repair shops). Den Hollander and
Bakker (2012) included participation in the sharing economy
through pooling (simultaneous use) and sharing of products (sequen-
tial use) in this category, as they expect more eective product use
over time. In most case, however, reduceis explicitly linked to pro-
duce and use and their role in the pre-market stages of the Concept and
Design Life Cycle, stressing using less material per unit of production,
or referring to dematerializationas explicit steps in product design
(Jayal et al., 2010; Lieder and Rashid, 2015;Roine & Brattebo, 2003;
Sihvonen and Ritola, 2015; Worrell and Reuter, 2014).
5.2.4. Resell/Re-Use: R2
The concepts resell(or resale) and re-useare closely linked,
expressing two sides of the market transaction needed to bring pro-
ducts back into the economy after initial use: the oering side and the
taking side. Also in this category, the various explanations of these
concepts refer to dierent positions: consumers, collectors, retailers
and producers. There is a strong preference for linking the concept of
re-useto the use-phase of the Product Produce and Use Life Cycle.
Still, quite a few scholars (Jayal et al., 2010; King et al., 2006; Wang
and Hsu, 2010; Yan and Feng, 2014) apply this concept in the context
of only reusing parts or components, which is most commonly termed
refurbishment and remanufacturing (see below). Other authors ex-
plicitly distinguish this as re-use in fabrication(Graedel et al., 2011)
or mention both options distinctively (Kuik et al., 2011).
Overall, most commonly reuseapplies to a second concept and
design of a product that hardly needs any adaptations and works as
new(De Brito and Dekker, 2003), with the same purpose(Bakker
et al., 2014; Ghisellini et al., 2014), without refurbishment(Silva
et al., 2013), and without rework(Srivastava, 2008)orwithout re-
pair(Fleischmann et al., 1997). From the consumer perspective, this
implies buying second hand, or nding a buyer for a product that was
not or hardly in use, possibly after some cleaning or minor adaptations
for quality restoration by the consumer. In this context, online con-
sumer-to-consumer auctions for used products are increasingly im-
portant, like e-bay and national equivalents (Worrell and Reuter,
2014). Such direct re-use(Agrawal et al., 2015; Loomba and
Nakashima, 2012) can also take place as an economic activity via
collectors and retailers. Literature suggests that quality inspections,
cleaning and small repairs are common here (García-Rodríguez et al.,
2013; Hazen et al., 2012; Stahel 2010). Yet also direct re-use of unsold
returns or products with damaged packaging belong to this category
and producer initiatives that enable multiple re-uses of packaging
(Agrawal et al., 2015; Romero and Molina, 2013).
Table 4
10 Value Retention Options in CE as a Synthesis of Literature.
R # CE concept Object Owner Function Key activity customer Key activity market actor
Downcycling R9 Re-mine Landlled material Local authorities; Land owner New Buy and use secondary materials Grubbing, cannibalizing, selling (South)/
high-tech extracting, reprocessing (North)
R8 Recover (Energy) Energy content Collector, municipality, energy
company, waste mgt. company
New Buy and use energy (and/or distilled water) Energy production as by-product of waste
R7 Re-cycle Materials Collector, processor, waste mgt.
Original or new Dispose separately; buy and use secondary
Acquire, check, separate, shred, distribute,
R6 Re-purpose
Components in composite pro-
ducts (new product with old
New user New Buy new product with new function Design, develop, reproduce, sell
Product upgrade R5 Re-manufacture Components in composite pro-
ducts (old product with new
Original or new customer Original, upgraded Return for service under contract or dispose Replacement of key modules or compo-
nents if necessary, decompose, recompose
R4 Re-furbish Components of composite pro-
ducts (old product with new
Original or new customer Original, upgraded
(large complex pro-
Return for service under contract or dispose Replacement of key modules or compo-
nents if necessary
R3 Repair Components of composite pro-
ducts (old product with new
1st or 2nd consumer Original Making the product work again by repairing
or replacing deteriorated parts
Making the product work again by re-
pairing or replacing deteriorated parts
Client/user choices R2 Re-sell/Re-use Product Consumer Original Buy 2nd hand, or nd buyer for your non-
used produced/possibly some cleaning,
minor repairs
Buy, collect, inspect, clean, sell
R1 Reduce Product Consumer N.a. Use less, use longer recent: share the use of
See 2nd cycle Redesign
R0 Refuse Product Potential consumer N.a. Refrain from buying See 2nd cycle Redesign
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
5.2.5. Repair: R3
The meaning of repair may seem to defy misinterpretation. Its
common purpose is to extend the lifetime of the product (King et al.,
2006). It is described as bringing back to working order(Fernández
and Kekäle, 2005; Fleischmann et al., 1997), making it as good as new
(Srivastava, 2008), recreating its original function after minor defects
(Stahel, 2010), replacing broken parts(Thierry et al., 1995). Despite
this apparent clarity, the concept was found to be used in dierent
contexts, for example, denoting what other authors call refurbishment,
like in an article describing military closed-loop-systems (Wilhite et al.,
2014). An important distinction is that repairing can be done by dif-
ferent actors and with or without change of ownership. Repair opera-
tions can be performed by the customer or people in their vicinity, at
the customer's location, and through a repair company. More recently,
peer-to-peer non-commercial repair workshops have become a trend
(Ecoinnovators, 2015; Hultman and Corvellec, 2012). Businesses may
send recollected products to their own repair centers, to manufacturer-
controlled (Thierry et al., 1995), or to third party repair centers
(Sherwood et al., 2000). Finally, we can distinguish planned repairas
part of a longer lasting maintenance plan (García-Rodríguez et al.,
2013; Den Hollander and Bakker, 2012)orad-hocrepairs.
5.2.6. Medium Long Loops R4-6
The next two concepts, refurbish and remanufacture, resemble an-
other. Therefore some authors seem to use them as synonyms
(Blackburn et al., 2004; Defee et al., 2009), yet others mix up the
concepts (Mitra, 2007). If we found them both listed among ROs, re-
furbish appeared as superior or more desirable option mentioned prior
to remanufacture. However, only few scholars provide explicit deni-
tions. It is important to note that the medium long loops are largely
conceived as business activities with indirect links to the consumer, for
example, as commissioner or recipient of refurbished, remanufactured
or repurposed products.
5.2.7. Refurbish: R4
The use of the concept refurbishseems to be most adequate in
cases where the overall structure of a large multi-component product
remains intact, while many components are replaced or repaired, re-
sulting in an overall upgradeof the product (Brito & Dekker 2003;
Fernández and Kekäle, 2005). Applied in this way, the concept re-
furbish is also known from common language in the context of an
overhaul of buildings, while in CE literature airplanes, trains, mining
shovels, or engines and machinery are among the examples. The result
should be a specied quality (Loomba and Nakashima, 2012; Thierry
et al., 1995), bringing the product up to the state-of-artdue to the use
of newer more advanced components (Stahel 2010). In this category we
also nd some confusion, for example Srivastava (2008) speaks of al-
most as good as, yet others mention repairing components which better
matches the dominant description of remanufacturing.
5.2.8. Remanufacture: R5
Remanufactureapplies where the full structure of a multi-compo-
nent product is disassembled, checked, cleaned and when necessary
replaced or repaired in an industrial process (Gehin et al., 2008; Lieder
and Rashid, 2015). Some scholars also refer to this as reconditioning,
reprocessing or restoration (Den Hollander and Bakker, 2012.; Jayal
et al., 2010). Compared to refurbishing, the references on retained
quality are more tempered, expressed as up to original state, like new
(Go et al., 2015; Loomba and Nakashima, 2012), partly because the
remaining life span is expected to be shorter than for new products and
because recycled components are used in the remanufactured product.
Gehin et al. (2008) propose if new parts were to be added, the resulting
product might be an upgrade viewed against the original. Another in-
terpretation found in literature is that remanufactured products would
fully consist of recycled components (Badurdeen et al., 2015; Jawahir
et al., 2006).
5.2.9. Repurpose: R6
The concept of repurposeis used to a lesser extent, in total, only
three articles included the concept among the ROs (van Buren et al.,
2016;Sihvonen and Ritola 2015; Tyler Miller and Spoolman, 2002),
seven other authors seem to mean the same using the concepts rethink
(Li, 2011)orfashion upgrading(Stahel, 2010)orpart reuse(Den
Hollander and Bakker, 2012). Repurposing is popular in industrial de-
sign and artists communities. By reusing discarded goods or compo-
nents adapted for another function, the material gets a distinct new life
cycle. This seems to denote both low and high value end-products.
Stahel (2010) gives the example of unemployed workers becoming
entrepreneurs by transforming defective microchips into jewellery,
glass bottles into mugs, textile waste into quilts or plastic sheeting into
5.2.10. Long Loops R7-9
At rst view, the long loops are purely denoting traditional waste
management activities as this category includes recycling, dierent
forms of energy recovery, and re-mining which could be viewed as
an upgrade to landll management. All scholars applying clear hier-
archies with their ROs agree that these options are the least desirable.
Still, materials or particles obtained through longer loop recycling can
serve as input for shorter loop ROs (see remanufacture'). We added 're-
mining'; despite a sheer lack of attention to this RO in the analyzed
contributions, a growing body of literature emerges on this subject. We
view it as important addition to the RO hierarchy as it is directed at
obtaining a use for existing waste stock and materials and ows that
seemed irreversibly lost as untreated waste.
5.2.11. Recycle Materials: R7
The concept recyclingis in the bottom of ROs but at the top when it
comes to frequency of use and confusing use. It is either used for any
form of avoiding the use of newly mining materials or resources (Ayres
and Ayres, 1996; Ghisellini et al., 2014): any recovery for any purpose
(Bakker et al., 2014), or it explicitly described as option beyond the
shorter routes of R0-R6. Commonly, it means processing of mixed
streams of post-consumer products or post-producer waste streams
using expensive technological equipment (Yan and Feng, 2014), in-
cluding shredding, melting and other processes to capture (nearly) pure
materials (Graedel et al., 2011). A clear dierence with the higher ROs
is that recycled materials do not maintain any of the original product
structure and can be re-applied anywhere (Graedel et al., 2011; Jawahir
et al., 2006; King et al., 2006), wherefore recycled materials are also
called secondarymaterials (Worrell and Reuter, 2014).
In the process of separation and selection of collected waste, various
quality levels may be used (Brito & Dekker 2003)which also coincides
with low value for these materials and a dicult position on the
market, competing with pure virgin materials (Agrawal et al., 2015;
Blackburn et al., 2004). Only for relatively few materials, among them
metals, recycling has as little quality loss as to enable competition with
virgin material. Finally, recycling typically requires high energy inputs
for collection and re-processing which may supersede the retained
value (Ghisellini et al., 2014; King et al., 2006; Reh, 2013; Stahel,
2010). As we saw with high ROs, also here an important distinction
concerns agency. Stahel (2010) stresses that recycling takes place also
in business-to-business relations when production wastes from end
producers or component producers are being recycled (described as
primary recycling). This is advantageous, because materials are not yet
mixed, as opposite to secondary recycling, where used end-of-life
products get collected by municipal waste collectors. We have accord-
ingly included shorter and longer R7-loops in our synthesis (see Fig. 3).
5.2.12. Recover (energy): R8
Like some of the other ROs, recoverhas a mixed use with three
types dominating. First, it is used to describe collecting used products
at the end-of-life, and then disassembly, sorting and cleaning for
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
utilization (Yan and Feng, 2014). Elsewhere, we found it mentioned as
second R in a 3Rs ranking: reduce, recover, reuse (Wang and Hsu,
2010). This use is especially common in the reverse logistics literature
(Brito & Dekker 2003). It may also mean the extraction of elements or
materials from end-of-life composites (Stahel, 2010). In Worrell and
ReutersHandbook of Recyclingwe see a mixed use of the word, both
in connection to collection of recyclable products and materials and in
relation to the energy recoveryfrom waste streams (Worrell and
Reuter, 2014). However, in 20 of the analyzed articles, recovery means
capturing energy embodied in waste, linking it to incineration in
combination with producing energy (Hultman and Corvellec, 2012;
Sihvonen and Ritola, 2015) or use of biomass (Stahel, 2010). In Fig. 3,
we placed it among the lower value ROs referring to its dominant use.
5.2.13. Re-mine (R9)
A RO that is mostly forgotten or ignored in operationalizing CE is
the retrieval of materials after the landlling phase. Both in the North
and the South, taking valuable parts from disposed products forms a
more or less informal sector which emerged under very dierent con-
ditions. In developing countries, people try to earn a living by scrapping
valuable materials and items from landlls. This often involves freeing
hazardous substances thereby posing signicant health risks for the
scavengers. Focusing on the most valuable parts is named cannibali-
sation(Fernández and Kekäle, 2005; Fleischmann et al., 1997;
Masoumik et al., 2014; Schenkel et al., 2015; Thierry et al., 1995) al-
though the concept is also used more generally to denote selective re-
trieval of parts (De Brito and Dekker, 2003) which can be used in other
products or components (García-Rodríguez et al., 2013).
In developed countries, with a long history of controlled landlling
recently entrepreneurs started to minethe valuable resources stored in
old landlls and other waste plants which is called landll mining or
urban mining (Cossu and Williams 2015; Frändegård et al., 2013;
Johansson et al., 2012; Jones et al., 2013; Van Passel et al., 2013;
Quaghebeur et al., 2013). It has been argued that the concentration of
various minerals is nowadays higher in landlls than in original mines.
In this context, Westerhoet al. (2015) received much attention with
their work on turning faeces into gold. They estimated that annually
up to 13 million dollarsworth of metals could be extracted from che-
mically re-mined sludge per city of one million inhabitants. Finally, in
strongly urbanized regions, the price of new land is as high as to justify
investment in full clean-up of old landlls and restoration of the area
for urban development constituting an area re-mine. Together with the
medium long loops of refurbish and repurpose, this RO receives least
attention in policymaking and business. It may change status in the
decades to come, from an unpopular Rtowards a widely known and
practiced activity, once technological progress allows for lucrative re-
mining. With a view on this, we have included it as R9 activity in
Table 4 and Fig. 3.
Anal potential ROis re-servitization. We chose not include it as
a separate RO because it seems highly interrelated with other ROs such
as reuseand was not listed by the analyzed authors. Given centrality of
functionalityin CE, latest articles stress the importance of re-serviti-
zation’–rethinking and adapting services and the development of
product service systems (PSS) as part of CE business models. For ex-
ample, Pialot (2017) proposes that shorter loop options can be pro-
moted through linking these with services for the creation of hybrid
Fig. 3. Mapping Circular Economy Retention
Options: The Product Produce and Use Life Cycle.
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
business models with higher value retention over lifecycles.
With this exposé, mapping of CE options in the Product Produce and
Use Life Cycle is complete. We identied the contradictory use of
concepts, and found that the ROs can be categorized into 10 main op-
tions. Three clusters can be formed: ROs closely related to consumer/
customer alternatives (R0-R3), ROs referring to various forms of up-
grading of used products on the side of users but dominantly carried out
by business actors (R4-R6) and the options referring to aggregate ma-
terial ows, often resulting in down-cycling, hence lower value re-ap-
plications (R7-R9). Moving along the options, up to the higher num-
bered ROs, we also see changes in ownership and changes in function.
The three categories can also be labelled down-cycling,product up-
gradingand user choices recycling. This is shortly summarized in
Table 4.
5.3. Systematic Integration of Value Retention Options: A Visualization
Above we have indicated that shorter and longer loops can be dis-
tinguished among the value retaining activities in CE. Taking the in-
sights from the various scholarly contributions together, a depiction of
the RO loops and ows is possible through integration into a synthe-
sized visualization (Fig. 3). These type of visualizations are frequent in
the literature and interestingly, those of scholars publishing on CE and
related elds for more than three decades, have undergone substantial
evolution (compare for example: Stahel 1976 in Stahel, 2003) and
Stahel and Clift, 2016; for more examples see Thierry et al., 1995;
Jawahir et al., 2006; King et al., 2006; Srivastava 2008; Nagalingam
et al., 2015). At the basis of many visualizations in the literature, stands
a construct of the production chain, the linear produce, use and land-
llinglifecycle which is complemented by re-directing arrows, loops
which signal that the products or parts are brought back to a certain
stage of the production chain (Gehin et al., 2008; Go et al., 2015).
As we argued, comprehensive visualizations that are closer to de-
picting complexities of CE need to distinguish various shorter loops
between stages, for example links between retailers and end producers
or between the end producer and component manufacturers. This also
means that a variety of new stakeholder groups need to be acknowl-
edged, for example third parties (prot or non-prot organisations)
engaged in specic recirculation activities (repairing, re-retailing, re-
furbishment, ...). In the shorter loops some of the R-activities may be
either consumer-to-consumer, consumer-to-business, or business-to-
business activities. Many of the 3R, 4R, 5R, 6R (...), descriptions and
visualizations do not take these dierences into account. They are es-
sential, because in all cases, they refer to interactions between dierent
social actors, each of them dealing with their own interpretations,
abilities, limitations and contextual situations.
In our discussion of the ROs, we briey referred to the second type
of product cycle: the Product Concept and Design Life Cycle. Ideas on
prevention, and prolonging product life through design relate to much
older approaches (see Section 3). In the 1990s, material choices and
improving recyclability represented 3 out of 7 elements in the
EcoDesign Strategy Wheel (Brezet and Hemel, 1997; see also Tukker
et al., 2001). The same premises can be found in Design for Environ-
mentapproaches (Ehrenfeld, 1997; Kurk and Eagan, 2008). In later
years, the scope of these methods has been widened to include social
sustainability, renaming it as 'Design for Sustainability'. In these ap-
proaches recycling challenges have also systematically been included
(Arnette et al., 2014; Crul et al., 2009; Jawahir et al., 2006; Kuik et al.,
2011; Ramani et al., 2010; Yan and Feng 2014). Some of these alter-
native strategies for redesignreceived considerable attention, like
Design for Remanufacturing(Sherwood et al., 2000) and Design for
Disassembly(Boothroyd and Alting, 1992), the latter is found often in
relation to the automotive industry. Notably, since the early days of
industrial designers attention to environment and sustainability, ROs
founded on material choices and prevention have been at the heart of
their conceptual and methodological contributions.
As we stated earlier, the idea to design out wasteis crucial in CE. In
the articles analyzed, we saw that authors used dierent ideas to denote
ROs as part of the (re-)design of products. Particularly, refuse, reduce
and re-purposerepresent dierent ideas in dierent contributions.
Mapping CE options as industrial designer requires a perspective where
all the RO steps are considered long before a product is rst mass
produced. This distinctive life cycle aims at prevention and starts with
the design process, resulting into a realization of the design which
entails all the ROs in Fig. 3. Design is also aimed at long-lasting eco-
nomic lifespan and the most eective, repeated production and sale of a
successful product concept. Industrial design scholars vary in their
descriptions of the design process, but commonly it includes: design
task denition function analysis and module structure conguration
material selection and part design preliminary evaluation (Xing et al.,
2003). In the most recent UNEP "Handbook for Design for Sustain-
ability", steps for redesigning, new product development, and for the
creation of product service systems, are included (Crul et al., 2009).
The various steps in the literature can be summarized as ve core
activities in the Product Concept and Design Life Cycle to which the
dierent ROs can be attached: policy (strategy formulation), idea gen-
eration (using creativity), the strict designing (see steps given above by
Xing et al., 2003), realization (which is the timespan of producing the
product) and evaluation and reconsideration. The last two steps directly
link to the Product Produce and Use Life Cycle as shown in Fig. 3.In
Fig. 4, we linked R2 and R6 to conceptual ideas of design; the other ROs
have been found to be traditionally related to strict designing in the
literature, for example Design for Remanufacturing relates to R5.
TheProduct Concept and Design Life Cycle can hence be mapped on top
of the rst gure, as shown in Fig. 4, taking the role of (re-)designers in
the lifespan of a product concept as the focus.
Taking insights on the ROs together, it becomes clear that we need
to think in terms of two related life cycles, the Product Produce and
UseLife Cycle (Fig. 3) and the Product Concept and Design Life Cycle
(Fig. 4). This is a fundamental insight which has so far only been
stressed by a particular author group within RL/CLSC (see Kuik et al.,
2011; Nagalingam et al., 2013). Another important consideration we
point to regards agency and ownership. Most scholars lack attention to
the role of consumers in refusing, reducing, and consumer-to-consumer
arrangements for re-selling goods. Although rms remain the central
actor in our visualization, the connection to government, consumers,
and other parties for a functioning system, becomes more explicit. We
also show that even a more circular economy will have low value life
extension and leakages, which adversely aect developing countries.
Finally, we give attention to neglected or under-addressed ROs
through inclusion of Refuseand Re-mineamong the ROs. Refuseis
critical to include because prevention is always more desirable than
minimizing. Overall, merging stocks and owsperspectives as known
from IE visualizations, and complementing it with established ideas of
value retention of goods and materials found in RL/CLSC, CP and in the
design and waste management literature, results in a more complete
and systemic picture of ROs in CE.
6. Implications of This Study for Policymakers, Businesses and
With our work on the history and the operationalization principle of
ROs in CE, we have shown that a shared understanding of the concept
has yet to be established.
Our historic review reected on the paradigmatic divides in CE and
the framing paradox of CE as new and transformational, yet compatible
with existing environmental initatives. We distinguished three phases
from CE 1.0-3.0 and put forward that CE should be viewed as an
evolving concept wherein the new and transformational elements
should be clearly dened. Depending on what academics and other
stakeholders make of it, CE can be understood as new. Yet its
dominant framing and implementation eorts so far, place it on one
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
line with other strategies for sustainability, rendering CE a concept
complementing other approaches rather than it being the rst sus-
tainability concept which would induce transformative change. CE 3.0
as a transformative concept would also demand a more critical per-
spective on approaches and methods for analysis used in connection
with CE (Gregson et al., 2015). The view of CE as an easy t with ex-
isting modernization initiatives may also be related to the slow ad-
vancements in the development of systematic approaches for analysis
specically tailored to CE (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017).
We focused on the use of one of the key CE concepts, the R-hier-
archies or imperatives in order to point out existing confusions in
conceptualizing CE. In an eort to contribute to a clearer idea of this
operationalization principle of CE, we proposed the term resource value
retention options (ROs) and translated the most common perspectives
found on these options among dierent academic disciplines into a 10R
typology along with visualizations. These specically stress the need for
attention to shorter loops, stakeholders, and leakages that will occur
even in a more circular economy with some of the latter being a
natural result of physical laws whereas others can be linked to the
dominant economic paradigm in which developing countries tend to
lose out rather than leapfrog.
There are a number of implications that can be derived from our
review. Specically, we suggest implications and roles for three dif-
ferent groups: government, business and academia.We advance that
government and policymakers have a key role in enabling mechanisms
for shorter loop value retention options, setting targets, and in di-
recting economic activities towards more circularity. Our brief
overview of the level of measured circularity has largely ignored the
multitude of CE pilot case examples where shorter loop value retention
options are attained. In Europe, many companies have been founded
explicitly to assist businesses in the implementation of these types of
circular business models. With help of incentives like funds, subsidies,
but also through activities with more indirect eects like knowledge
provision, tool development, engagement, events (...), government can
ensure a way forward for these frontrunners in society. In particular
SMEs with innovative business models and high expertise often require
support, in order to make their far-reaching ideas a reality, to link with
larger business players or to assess the impacts of their work. Above all,
the state has a crucial role as role model and through its public pro-
curement (16% GDP in EU) should be rst in going beyond low
hanging fruits and incur more eorts to seriously measure the sus-
tainability impacts to demonstrate viability, increase legitimacy and
thereby scalability of CE. With a view on global developments, we
follow the call of Diaz (2017) for an integration of informal recyclers
into formal structures along with educational eorts by professionals
from CE lead countries in order to enable these countries to leapfrog
steps in CE development.
Businesses we ask to embrace simplicity in complexitythrough
using such heuristics as the synthesized typology of ROs as a starting
point for evaluating their own possibilities to engage in CE and to form
business models around feasible ROs. A number of scholars have
stressed the lack of appropriate CE tools and a shared language, such as
in the context of CE-inspired business model innovation (Antikainen
and Valkokari, 2016;Bocken et al., 2017;Lewandowski, 2016). In order
to prot from CE, businesses can analyze what their own supply chain
Fig. 4. Mapping Circular Economy Retention
Options: The Product Concept and Design Life Cycle.
D. Reike et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling xxx (xxxx) xxx–xxx
position means for participation and application of feasible ROs. In
addition, businesses have a stake in limiting the confusion around CE. If
businesses seek to work together successfully with diverse stakeholder
groups in CE, ensuring a common understand of CE among the colla-
borators at the outset of projects is vital. As Blomsma and Brennan
(2017) remarked, CE is not limited to technical implementation but it
has fundamental organizational implications which makes alignment
on what CE means for ones business or organization an essential
component of success. More research should look into these organiza-
tional relationships and check the 10R typology put forward against
those used by others actors in the CE landscape such as policymakers,
business and consultancy to further synthesize meaningful tools for all
stakeholder groups.
We call on academics to show the way towards consensus in
conceptualizing CE.Denitions, degrees of circularity, its normative
character, the relation to other sustainability concepts and to sus-
tainability itself as a concept all of this is still far from being clear.
Especially proponents of CE have to realize that the time to form the
eld is now or CE may fall to victim to dissonant views and conse-
quently behind the potential attributed to it. In 1996, Ayres & Ayres
noted that IE as a concept has some well-dened relationships but
others are being loosely grouped together by the enthusiasms of the
proponents. This shows that like CE these days, IE faced a challenge of
interdisciplinarity and arguably has not overcome it. Else celebration of
an allegedly new concept of CE may not have resonated as strong in
science, politics and business.We acknowledge that the focus on ROs as
key principle of CE is certainly an oversimplied representation and
embodimentof CE. First, ROs focus on the technical ows leaving out
services and the biological ows, the latter are only addressed through
R0, R1, R2 and R8. Moreover, the concept of functionalityrather than
ownership is of high importance in CE which we have only addressed
indirectly by referring to the development of circular business models
and product service systems. Other key CE concepts like entropyand
rebound eects from reutilization of resources should be taken into
account when deciding about application of ROs.
Anal issue is that ROs cannot be separated as neatly in reality. A
product made of multiple components frequently requires the combi-
nation of several ROs. Moreover, measurements of impacts of ROs, and
more importantly of trade-os among the options for dierent product
categories, are still scarce. Therefore, in practice the optimal ROs are
often dicult to delineate. Academics and other stakeholders have a
role in advancing practice by assisting in the development in systematic
measurement of retention options so that hierarchies of preference can
be established for dierent materials and product groups. Many aca-
demic contributions are either empirical, quantitative and highly
technical, or largely conceptual and qualitative in nature. We believe
that more mixed methods research uniting these two worlds is para-
mount for a better understanding of CE. Our critical and inter-
disciplinary review and the synthesized R typology serve as a simple but
necessary rst step towards a more comprehensive and systematic un-
derstanding of CE among various academic disciplines and across dif-
ferent stakeholder groups. With our critical review, we hope to con-
tribute to the more coherent use of key concepts relating to CE required
for CE to be implemented at full potential.
The authors would like to thank T. Markus. We thank all the re-
viewers for their constructive comments. The corresponding author
would like to express special thanks to A. Santoro and E.A.J. Smits.
Appendix A
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Combinations of keywords used for the search on value retention options
Main search term
1. Reduce, OR reuse, re-use, repair, re-
manufacture, re-maufacture, recycle,
recover, redesign
And Reduce, reuse, re-use, repair, remanufacture, re-mau-
facture, recycle, recover, redesign
And Reduce, reuse, re-use, repair, remanufacture, re-mau-
facture, recycle, recover, redesign
2. Circular economy OR Industrial
ecology, reverse logistics, closed-
loop, waste management
And Reduce, Reuse, reus*, repair, remanufacture, re-manu-
factur*, recycle, recyc*, re-cyc*, refurbish, re-furbish, re-
duce, reduc*, repurpose, re-purpose, epurpose*, re-
purpos*, recover, redesign, re-design
Or Reduce, Reuse, reus*, repair, remanufacture, re-manu-
factur*, recycle, recyc*, re-cyc*, refurbish, re-furbish, re-
duce, reduc*, repurpose, re-purpose, repurpos*, re-
purpos*, recover, redesign, re-design
3. Circular economy Or Industrial ecology, reverse logistics, closed-loop, waste
And hierarchy, cascading, cascad*,
4. Circular economy And Europe, EU, China, papers from year: 2010+
5. Circular economy Or Industrial ecology, reverse logistics, closed-loop, waste
And 3Rs, 4Rs, 5Rs, 6Rs, 7Rs, 8Rs, 9Rs, 10Rs
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