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Abstract

What visions of the future do different circularity discourses have? What kind of society would that create by 2050? How would transport, energy, agriculture and industrial systems function? What would work be like, and what social practices and behaviours would we carry out? What political systems and democratic processes would they establish? And what ways of life would they foster? Our short communication paper seeks to answer those questions by visioning 4 different circular futures by 2050. We worked with artist and illustrator Anke Muijsers, who drew each of these circular economy and society discourses and graphically represented their vision of the future.
Exploring four visions of a circular future: from
Technocentric Circular Economy to Transformational
Circular Society.
Martin Calisto Frianta, Walter J.V. Vermeulenb, Roberta Salomonec
a Corresponding Author, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht
University, https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3206-1214, p.m.calisto@uu.nl
b Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University,
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5947-8688, W.J.V.Vermeulen@uu.nl
c Department of Economics, University of Messina, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0809-7949, salomoner@unime.it
Introduction: the circular economy as a contested umbrella
concept
In about a decade, the circular economy (CE) rose from a niche concept in the
sustainable production and consumption literature to become a major component of any
business, government or civil society discourse on sustainability. A google search for
“circular economy” in 2012 would lead to 22.600 results, the same search now leads to
over 190 million hits. However, the CE is nothing new, the metaphor of a circle to
represent a sustainable economy has existed at least since the 1970s with Barry
Commoners magnum opus, “The Closing Circle” (Commoner, 1971). The idea of a
society that works in harmony with the natural cycles of the earth can be traced even
further back to the ancestral worldviews and ways of life of indigenous peoples
throughout the globe (Kothari et al., 2019). The current definition and forms of
implementation of CE are very diverse and still very much contested, with many
different actors proposing different visions and discourses of CE, depending on their
socio-economic perspectives and interests (Korhonen et al., 2018). This article aims to
shed light on 4 possible circular futures and their socio-ecological implications for human
and planetary wellbeing. To do so we will examine the 4 circularity discourses developed
by the research of Calisto Friant et al. (2020) to explore the type of society that each
discourse type could lead to.
The Circularity Discourse Typology as a tool to better
understand the broad range of circular futures
To better navigate the diversity and complexity of CE visions and ideas, Calisto Friant et
al. (2020) developed a 2x2 typology of circularity discourses that divides all CE
discourses based on 2 criteria. First, whether discourses are optimist or sceptical
regarding the possibility that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental
degradation fast enough to prevent a socio-ecological collapse. Second, whether
discourses are holistic by including social justice and political empowerment
considerations or segmented by focusing on resource efficiency alone. This
differentiation leads to 4 broad circularity discourse types: Technocentric Circular
Economy (optimist and segmented), Reformist Circular Society (optimist and holistic),
Transformational Circular Society (sceptical and holistic), and Fortress Circular Economy
(sceptical and segmented) (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Circularity Discourse Typology (Calisto Friant et al. 2020)
To help visualize what each of these discourses represents in concrete terms, our team
worked with an artist to develop a visual representation of the 4 discourse types (see
figure 2)
1
. The image details the type of future and socio-economic system that each
circularity discourse would bring about by 2050, with the mix of agricultural, industrial,
housing, energy, consumption, and transport systems they would engender.
1
These artistic representations (figures 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) were illustrated by Anke
Muijsers from https://visual-research.studio/
Figure 2: Visual representation of the circularity discourse typology (Calisto
Friant, 2022)1
Technocentric Circular Economy (TCE) discourses are optimist about the capacity
of technology to prevent socio-ecological collapse as well as segmented as they don’t
include social justice and political empowerment considerations (see figures 1 and 3).
These discourses seek to reconcile economic development with ecological sustainability
through innovative business models and technological breakthroughs, especially in
resource recovery, biotechnology and renewable energy. In a TCE future, industrial
output and energy demand continue to grow by using many different sources of energy
including solar panels, wind turbines, hydrogen, biofuels, nuclear, and even fossil fuels
such as gas and oil with carbon-capture and storage technology to prevent greenhouse
gas emissions. Agriculture is highly efficient and automatised and uses artificial
intelligence, robotisation, biotech and genetically modified organisms to increase
resilience and productivity and reduce losses. Transport systems include high-tech
innovations such as autonomous vehicles, high-speed rail, and passenger drones as well
as green aircraft powered by biofuels, hydrogen or electric batteries. Buildings are made
from recovered or innovative sustainable materials and are packed with smart
technologies, which allow energy-efficient insulated housing, malls and offices to rise
surrounded by green walls, wind turbines and solar panels. New recovery technologies
and businesses flourish in this society, with a myriad of innovations to recycle all types
of waste, and repair, remanufacture or refurbish disused products. Many industries
switch from selling specific goods like cars, smartphones, and washing machines to
providing services like transportation, cleaning, lighting, or computing (so-called,
product service systems). Industries also start producing closer to consumption markets
with innovative robotization and machine learning technologies. This also allows for a
strong symbiosis between and within urban and industrial clusters, which efficiently and
continuously re-use and recuperate wastes to manufacture new products. Social
considerations are not addressed by TCE visions, so current social relations and working
practices remain more or less unchanged, thereby replicating present racial, class,
gender, property, health, and ethnic disparities. Overall, a TCE vision seeks to create a
highly productive and efficient society with an abundance of technical solutions that
allow for high material standards of living and the continued reproduction of capitalist
socio-economic relations.
Figure 3: Visual representation of a Technocentric Circular Economy future
(Calisto Friant, 2022)1
Reformist Circular Society (RCS) discourses are optimist about the capacity of
technology to prevent socio-ecological collapse and holistic as they integrate many social
justice and political empowerment considerations (see figures 1 and 4). These discourses
seek to create a sustainable circular future through a combination of innovative business
models, social policies and technological breakthroughs. RCS visions thus add a social
justice lens to the many technological and business innovations of TCE visions. An RCS
society combines high-tech innovations and industrial processes with greater care for
workers' wellbeing and respect for human rights. It is a society where technology has
brought nature closer to humans with a myriad of nature-based solutions like green
walls and parks that mitigate heat waves and floods. It is a future where industrial
processes operate like natural ecosystems, sharing resources between localised
manufacturing hubs and cities to continuously reuse wastes to produce new goods.
Innovative technologies like robotisation, 3D printing, chemical recycling, big data, and
artificial intelligence enable the re-localization of industrial processes and the mining of
urban areas for secondary materials. This is all powered by abundant renewable energy
provided by large-scale solar farms, geothermal plants, and wind turbines. This energy
grid also provides plenty of power for an electrified transport system combining high-
speed rail, autonomous vehicles, and passenger drones, with electric scooters, buses,
bikes, and aeroplanes. Buildings are constructed with recovered resources and
sustainable bio-sourced materials. Urban spaces are optimised, renovated, insulated,
and greened as much as possible. The need for offices and housing is reduced thanks to
co-working and house-sharing platforms. A myriad of sharing economy activities emerge
tanks to new information technology platforms enabling people to rent, lend and share
tools, knowledge, work, cars, bikes, resources and much more. In this networked
economy, people become less inclined to own products and rather seek access to their
transportation, cleaning, computing and other needs. Companies thereby switch from
selling products to providing services through product-services systems like leasing
phones and washing machines instead of selling them. Agriculture systems are
sustainably transformed by combining organic agricultural practices with high-tech
innovations like vertical farming, aquaponics, hydroponics, autonomous tractors, bio-
digestors, and genetic engineering. This enables the provision of diverse diets of fresh
produce for humans, the production of biofuels for energy use, and the efficient re-
utilisation of urban organic waste for compost. Local governance structures are
revitalised and democratised with stronger, more open, and accountable representative
institutions. While privately owned corporations remain the norm, and capitalist power
relations subsist, a greater voice is given to unions, workers, and stakeholders in
business boards. A triple bottom line of profit, planet, and people thus guide
corporations and help create socially responsible and environmentally sustainable
business models.
Figure 4: Visual representation of a Reformist Circular Society future (Calisto
Friant, 2022)1
Transformational Circular Society (TCS) discourses are sceptical about the
capacity of technology to prevent socio-ecological collapse and holistic as they integrate
many social justice and political empowerment considerations (see figures 1 and 5).
These discourses seek to create a fair, democratic, de-colonial and sustainable post-
capitalist future where humanity and nature live in mutual harmony by re-localizing and
redistributing power, wealth and knowledge. It is a society where industry belongs to
workers, democratic public institutions, and communities rather than investors and
bondholders. A society where power is equally shared amongst all thanks to a plurality of
deliberative democracy innovations such as citizen assemblies of randomly selected
citizens, participatory budgeting processes, referendums, and citizen initiatives. It is an
economy that redistributes wealth and resources from those that have the most to those
that have the least thanks to high taxes on wealth and a diversity of social justice
programs like job guarantees, universal healthcare, public childcare, free education,
abundant social housing, social security etc. It is also an economy run through care,
reciprocity, and solidarity with an abundance of cooperative and community programs to
care for humans and non-humans alike such as repair cafés and networks, community
gardening, local support groups, cooperative stores and sharing initiatives, convivial
biodiversity conservation and ecosystem regeneration projects etc. Working time is
reduced to allow people to be involved in all the above community activities or any
personal, artistic, spiritual, relational, or family project. Productive work, personal
achievement and competition are no longer the foremost goals in life, allowing for
slower, more meaningful, and convivial forms of life. Citizens thereby gain a renewed
sense of freedom and control over their time and the meaning they wish to give to their
lives. Industrial and manufacturing systems are as low-tech as possible and focus on
providing for tangible human needs rather than for endless artificial wants. Products are
highly durable, and easily repairable, with open patents and manuals that facilitate
modularity and innovation. People thus partake in a plurality of repair, repurpose and
do-it-yourself activities that give them tangible control over their material resources.
Global energy use is reduced to sustainable levels for the biosphere, and it is shared to
ensure enough energy is available for everyone. Moreover, energy is produced in socially
and environmentally respectful manners thanks to decentralised energy grids of
community-owned renewable sources like wind turbines, geothermal plants, and solar
panels. All agriculture is organic, highly biodiverse, and as local as possible, utilising
urban food waste for community composting and urban agriculture. Cooking and food
preparation is slowed down, with deep care and appreciation for diverse, healthy, plant-
based ingredients that ensure human and planetary wellbeing. Transportation needs are
reduced as much as possible by planning walkable cities, with easy access to local
markets and public services thanks to plenty of green spaces, accessible sidewalks, and
bike lanes as well as free and quality public transport systems. Long-distance travel is
reduced to a minimum, and, when necessary, happens by train and supports community
tourism that respects local cultures and ecosystems. Construction of additional buildings
is also reduced to a minimum by focusing instead on repurposing unused buildings and
preventing the unfair and unsustainable accumulation of building stock. This leads to
convivial cities and neighbourhoods with access to local markets, green areas, communal
spaces, urban gardens, and public services for everyone, regardless of class, gender,
ethnicity, (dis)ability or age. All in all, in a TCS future not only are resources shared and
cycled in slower, fairer and more sustainable manners but power, technology,
knowledge, wealth and care are cycled and shared in fundamentally democratic and
redistributive manners.
Figure 5: Visual representation of a Transformational Circular Society future
(Calisto Friant, 2022)1
Fortress Circular Economy (FCE) discourses are sceptical about the capacity of
technology to prevent socio-ecological collapse and segmented as they don’t include
social justice and political empowerment considerations (see figures 1 and 6). They
describe a future where biophysical stability is severely weakened and geostrategic
resource security is sought through technological innovations and top-down controls on
people and resources. FCE discourses are concerned about the tangible shortages caused
by overpopulation and the overconsumption of natural resources. Yet, instead of
envisioning a utopic vision to solve these socio-ecological challenges and prevent
planetary overshoot, they see climate breakdown and ecological collapse as inevitable
due to the entrenched nature of capitalist power relations. Therefore, rather than
attempting to describe the world as it should be, FCE discourses focus on describing the
world as it will most likely be if current unsustainable socio-ecological trends continue.
FCE discourses thus see a world where people seek to protect themselves and maintain
access to resources despite the surrounding collapse. Protection from mass climate-
induced migration is intensified with heavy security apparatus of walls, surveillance
systems and migration controls. Military and economic domination and coercion are used
to secure access to key resources and build high-tech industrial societies. Minerals for
wind turbines and solar panels, uranium for nuclear power plants, and land for bio-fuels
are thus obtained throughout the globe by some societies, despite global shortages that
prevent others from accessing these resources. Military and police power also enables
some societies to impose the conservation of critical biodiversity hotspots, and to restrict
access to fossil fuels. It thereby secures key planetary functions and resources for some
humans, by imposing sufficiency on all others. Islands of material wealth and abundance
are hence created by neo-colonial and imperial practices. This allows some societies to
maintain high-speed rail networks, autonomous vehicles, passenger drones and malls
filled with electronics, clothing, furniture, and other goods for those that can afford
them. Climate engineering, autonomous tractors, genetically modified organisms and
biotechnology maintain a limited supply of foods that resist constant droughts, floods
and heatwaves. Water scarcity and pollution are rampant, but new water-saving,
decontamination and desalination technologies provide access to water for those that
can pay for it. In the most powerful cities, buildings and urban systems are highly
efficient and connected thanks to big data, artificial intelligence, and the internet of
things to ensure the effective use of limited resources. Innovative recovery technologies
and strong integration between powerful consumption and production centres ensure the
efficient recovery, remanufacture, refurbishment, and recycling of waste materials for
new products and services. Some nations use high-tech robotisation, automatization and
machine learning technologies to create eco-industrial systems with optimum labour,
energy, and material efficiency. However, for most of the earth’s population, these
industrial tools and resources remain inaccessible. Poverty and hunger thus persist in
most of the globe, which is afflicted by constant floods, droughts, heatwaves and sea-
level rise. Current racial, class, gender, property, health, and ethnic disparities are
exacerbated as those with historical power are able to maintain access to the limited
resources that remain. All in all, in a TCE future, a minority of people, in a few countries,
secure a relative material abundance amidst a heavily degraded planetary system with
strong resource constraints for most of humanity. It is circularity and sustainability for
those that can afford it and imposed sufficiency for all the rest.
Figure 6: Visual representation of a Fortress Circular Economy future (Calisto
Friant, 2022)1
What discourse dominates CE debates and what discourse do
people prefer?
Research on CE has found that TCE is currently, by far, the most dominant discourse in
public and private institutions (Berry et al., 2021; Calisto Friant et al., 2022b, 2022a,
2021; Campbell-Johnston et al., 2020; Melles, 2021; Ortega Alvarado et al., 2021; Palm
et al., 2021). CE debates and implementation to date have thus not sufficiently
addressed the socio-political implications of a circularity transition and the biophysical
limits to economic growth. But what would most people prefer when envisioning a
circular future? There is little research on CE perceptions, two recent studies of civil
society and citizen perceptions of CE in the EU show that a more holistic and socially
inclusive approach to CE is preferred (Lazarevic and Valve, 2017; Repo et al., 2018).
Two recent surveys in France suggest that citizens would prefer a TCS discourse. The
first survey by Odoxa found that, to address current socio-ecological challenges, over
54% of respondents think it is more important to fundamentally transform our ways of
life and reduce consumption levels than to invest massively in green technologies and
innovations (Odoxa, 2019). The second survey by the Observatory of Utopic Perspectives
found that 54.6 % of respondents prefer a sufficiency-oriented and inclusive ecological
utopia rather than a growth and technology-oriented neoliberal utopia (15.9%) or a
conservative traditionalist utopia (29.5%) (Observatory of Utopic Perspectives, 2019). A
recent survey on CE perceptions around the world by Utrecht University and Revolve
Circular found that holistic circular society discourses (TCS and RCS) were preferred
compared to segmented discourses (FCE and TCE) (51.6% vs 48.4%) and that
respondents placed a high degree of importance to social justice concerns and
consumption/production reduction imperatives
2
.
The abovementioned research suggests that the TCE discourse, which dominates the
current debate on circularity, does not align with what citizens would prefer when they
are asked to think of a circular future. While these surveys have their limitations, many
other studies find that, when citizens openly and freely deliberate in a well-informed,
inclusive, and democratic environment, they tend to make significantly more sustainable
decisions than politicians (Cabannes, 2018; Calisto Friant, 2019; Dryzek et al., 2019;
Fishkin, 2018). Research even finds that, in a democratic context, citizens choose to
forgo personal gains for the benefit of future generations (Hauser et al., 2014). More
research is needed to gain a better picture of what circularity discourses people find
most appealing and what circular economy and society policies they would choose in a
democratic context. Indeed, a more diverse, democratic, and inclusive construction of a
circular future is needed to better include the plurality of citizens’ discourses and
perspectives on circularity. A deliberative governance process that hands decision-
making power to citizens could help co-design and implement fair and sustainable
circularity policies that subordinate economic growth to ecosystem limits, planetary
boundaries and social justice imperatives. This democracy is also needed in the
workplace by replacing the hierarchical shareholder capitalism of corporations working to
generate endless profits for their stock-owners, with non-profit cooperatives owned and
managed democratically by workers for the benefit of their socio-ecological communities.
Conclusions
First and foremost, it is important to note our description of 4 circular futures is an
inevitable simplification of complex visions and its main objective is to help understand
the core differences across most circularity discourses to date. The past, present and
future of the concept is thus much more nuanced and complex, and the actual future of
humanity will likely combine elements of all the above-mentioned circular futures and
visions.
Each of the above discourses has its strengths and weaknesses. RCS and TCE visions
place too much hope on sustainable technological innovations to address resource
shortages, climate change, and biodiversity collapse. The is clear now that decades of
academic research have evidenced that the decoupling of economic growth from
environmental degradation has not occurred and will most likely not occur on a scale
sufficient to prevent climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse (Haberl et al., 2020;
Hickel and Kallis, 2019; Jackson, 2016; Parrique et al., 2019; Wiedenhofer et al., 2020).
2
See: https://www.imagine-circularity.world/
On the other hand, TCS discourses are perhaps too optimistic about the possibility of
transforming current capitalist ways of life, social structures, and power relations in a
fair, democratic and sustainable manner. Envisioning a post-capitalist and post-growth
society does seem like a far shot, especially in a discursive landscape that makes many
people believe that “there is no alternative” and think that “it is easier to imagine an end
to the world than an end to capitalism (Fisher, 2009). Yet, as Christian Felber (2015)
puts it, “there are plenty of alternatives” thanks to a rich history of social movements
and ideas from the Global North and South alike that have proposed and enacted
radically different ways of living and flourishing (like degrowth, buen vivir, ecological
swaraj, steady-state economics etc.).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, FCE discourses, place no hopes either on
technological innovation or on fair societal transformation. Rather, they rationally, and
perhaps cynically, describe the future of humankind and planet earth if nothing is done
to reverse current unsustainable trends. Yet, it is also clear that this is not a world where
anyone would like to live, except perhaps some wealthy elites who own key technologies
and industries and could thus maintain and grow their position of power.
One thing is certain, we live on a finite and fragile planet, that has its key boundaries
and limits, and if we keep overshooting them, the earth’s climate and ecosystems will
inevitably break down and collapse and key resources will be exhausted. If we decide to
believe in capitalism and the idea that technology can allow us to decouple economic
growth from environmental degradation, then we are bound to see key planetary
functions and ecosystems fail before our eyes. However, if we develop a society,
economy and way of life that can operate beyond economic growth, we might have a
chance of living in a society that we can aspire to. The real choice is thus not between a
TCE, RCS, TCS and FCE society but actually between a TCS and FCE society because
those are the only discourses that take the very real material limits of our planet into
account. Thankfully, there are a plurality of circular visions and ideas from the Global
North and South that have developed a wide range of post-capitalist and post-growth
societal visions (and TCS discourses described above are just the tip of the iceberg).
They are a breadth of inspiration that can help us overcome the socio-ecological
challenges of the 21st century. But we must be open to them and we must be aware of
the systemic limits of the system that we are currently living in. Otherwise, we will
replicate current patterns of ecological breakdown, climate change, resource scarcity and
social injustice.
As we mentioned above, various surveys suggest that transformative and socially just
circularity visions are preferred by most citizens. More inclusive and participatory
development of circularity policies, where citizens can openly deliberate and decide on
the course of the circularity transition in an informed and democratic manner, would
thus likely allow us to overcome current lock-ins and path dependencies. We must hence
first and foremost call for real democracy, one that empowers people through randomly
selected citizen councils, non-profit cooperatives, and other institutions that can break
powerful interests and lead the way to a socially legitimate and ecologically feasible
circularity transition.
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Thesis
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The Circular Economy (CE) has recently become a popular concept in sustainability discourses for both the public and private sectors. The proponents of this idea often espouse many social, economic, and environmental benefits from the application of CE practices. Given current socio-ecological challenges to overcome resource scarcity, climate change, and biodiversity loss, all while reducing global poverty and inequality, the CE could provide key solutions and opportunities for a transition to a sustainable, fair, and resilient future. However, the CE faces many limitations to deliver on those expectations. The CE is very much a contested concept in the sustainability discourse, with many actors proposing different visions of a circular future based on their particular socio-economic interests. Moreover, the economic, social, political, and environmental implications of different circular discourses and policies remain poorly researched and understood. This thesis addresses this research gap by answering the following question: what are the main societal discourses and policies on the CE, how can they be critically analysed, compared, and understood, and what are their sustainability implications? To answer this question, this thesis uses an interdisciplinary mixed-method approach including critical literature review, content analysis, text-mining, and Q-method survey. The case studies are European Union CE policies, Dutch CE policies for plastics and tyres as well as the CE action plans of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Glasgow. Results demonstrate the existence of a plurality of circularity discourses through history, which can be divided based on two main criteria. First, whether they are sceptical or optimist regarding the possibility of eco-economic decoupling, and second, whether they are holistic by including social justice concerns or have a segmented focus on resource efficiency alone. This leads to 4 core discourse types: Reformist Circular Society (optimist and holistic), Technocentric Circular Economy (optimist and segmented), Transformational Circular Society (sceptical and holistic), and Fortress Circular Economy (sceptical and segmented). Results from the selected case studies conclude that, although the CE discursive landscape is quite diverse, current policies focus on technical solutions and business innovations which do not address the manyfold social and political implications of a circular future. A technocentric CE approach is thus prevalent in the policies of the EU, the Dutch Government, and the city of Copenhagen. Results also find that the cities of Amsterdam and Glasgow have a more holistic approach to CE by acknowledging many social justice considerations. Yet the policies of these two cities remain limited in both their redistributive nature and their transformative potential. Moreover, results demonstrate that all the above case studies follow a growth-optimist approach, seeking to improve economic competitiveness and innovation to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. However, this approach has key scientific limitations, as research has shown that absolute eco-economic decoupling is neither happening nor likely to happen on a relevant scale to prevent climate change and biodiversity collapse. This thesis’s research has also found that academics and social movements from the Global North and South alike have developed a wide range of alternatives to the growth-centric approach to circularity, such as steady state economics, degrowth, voluntary simplicity, ecological swaraj, economy for the common good, permacircular economy, doughnut economics, buen vivir, and ubuntu. All these alternative discourses can be grouped under the umbrella concept of a circular society. Circular society discourses are united in their objective to create a democratic, fair and sustainable socio-ecological system, which works in harmony with the natural cycles of the biosphere to improve human and planetary wellbeing for current and future generations. More pluralism and inclusiveness of these alternative approaches in the debate surrounding circularity could help co-design and implement sustainable circularity policies, which subordinate economic growth to planetary boundaries, resource limits, and social imperatives. This is key to ensure the political legitimacy, social relevance and scientific validity of the circularity policies that are implemented to create a fair, sustainable, and democratic circular society. Keywords: Circular economy; circular society; policy analysis; discourse analysis; sustainability; environmental governance; pluriverse; degrowth.
Article
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The circular economy (CE) has become a key sustainability discourse in the last decade. The Netherlands seeks to become fully circular by 2050 and the EU has set ambitious circularity targets in its CE Action Plan of 2015. The plastics sector, in particular, has gained a lot of attention as it is a priority area of both the EU and Dutch CE policies. However, there has been little research on the different and often contested discourses, governance processes and policy mechanisms guiding the transition to a circular economy and society. This paper aims to fill these gaps by asking what circular discourses and policies are being promoted in the Netherlands and what sustainability implications and recommendations can be drawn from it. It does so through a mix of media analysis, policy analysis, semi-structured interviews, and surveys using Q-methodology. Results indicate a dominance of technocentric imaginaries, and a general lack of discussion on holistic, and transformative visions, which integrate the full social, political, and ecological implication of a circular future. To address those challenges, this research brings key policy insights and recommendations which can help both academics and practitioners better understand and implement the transition towards a sustainable circular plastics economy.
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The combined pressure of economic, environmental, and social crises, including bushfires, waste management, and COVID created conditions for a turn to the circular economy in Australia. In addition to a dominant circular discourse of ecological modernization in state and federal policy and business and public consultations, other more socially inclusive and ecologically sensitive discourses are circulating. The two main competing discourses are a techcentric circular economy and a reformist circular society, the latter reflected in ‘growth agnostic’ doughnut economics. In the context of unambitious federal and state policies, the circular transition is being supported by a range of intermediary organizations whose key representatives envision or ‘figure’ the sustainability transition in hybrid discursive combinations. Few studies of the circular economy transition in Australia exist and none focus on competing discourses and intermediation for sustainability transition. Since intermediary organizations both discursively reflect and lead the circular change, fuller understanding of how circularity is interpreted or ‘figured’ by key actors is crucial. This study identifies how twenty representatives from intermediating organizations actively ‘figure’ the process of the circular transition for Australia, including while managing the tension between personal positions and organizational missions. Employing the concept of figured worlds this qualitative thematic discourse interview study analyses how, drawing on available circular discourses, key actors and their organisations actively ‘figure’ the present and future circular transition. The study contributes to debates on circular discourses, nature, and the limitations of the circular economy in Australia, the relational space of intermediation, and the nature of MLP transitions for a sustainable circular transition economy in Australia.
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The European Union (EU) aspires to be an important global agenda-setter on how to treat and regulate the growing plastics problem. We present an analysis of the plastic policy narratives shaping European plastics governance, in particular through the European Commission's Plastics Strategy. Our aim is to first uncover the policy narratives at play, and then examine how actors make use of those narratives through strategic construction. Based on interviews with key stakeholders and document analysis, we identify four narratives: fossil feedstock dependency, resource inefficiency, pollution, and toxicity. We find that the resource inefficiency and pollution narratives figure most prominently in European plastics governance, and that the circular economy is being advanced as a policy solution that cuts across the different narratives. However, surface agreement on the need for 'circularity' hides deeper-lying ideological divisions over what exactly the circular economy means and the different directions this implies for plastics governance.
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The transition to a circular economy (CE) remains an anticipated future with alternative pathways for its fulfillment. Most research on CE is normative about technological approaches and interpretations for production and sustainable development. However, critical reviews of CE help understand that CE's emergence is constrained to current dominant goals. As a set of imagined futures, the visions of CE are produced and shared in discursive practices. We hypothesize that the existence of alternative discourses about CE originates from alignment with or divergence from current dominant goals. Green growth holds the dominant position as a goal in the European discourse about CE. In this study, we present an empirical case of an emerging CE in the region of Trøndelag in Norway. This case uses qualitative data collected through interviews with informants in the public and private sectors (profit and non-profit organizations). The analysis of these interviews involved the use of a discourse coalition framework as a method. We identified three discourse coalitions: 1) Waste as resources: a vision of better product design and waste sorting technologies making recycling more efficient. 2) Sharing economy: a vision of industrial symbiosis, and new business models for local commercial offerings in sharing, reuse, repair of products. 3) Reduction of individual consumption: a vision of individual changes in lifestyle, coupled with local services and skill acquisition/transfer for reuse and repair. The first two operate in alignment with the political goal of green growth. The third one diverges by questioning it and setting focus on individual consumption reduction. We found discursive competition in CE when the focus is on the goal underlying its enactment. From this finding, we raise the question of which kinds of technological implementation and political challenges would come from shifting CE's policy goal to reducing individual consumption. To illustrate an alternative CE that emerges from consumption reduction, we discuss its implications based on the insights from our empirical case. The main contribution of the article is to provide evidence and an example of an emerging aspect that can be integrated more prominently in CE and that requires a stance that is not based on economic growth.
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Since the publication of the European Union's Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015, this new sustainability paradigm has become a guiding force behind the environmental and economic policies of the Junker Commission. The European Union (EU) has taken a particular approach to circularity, with high expectations to increase competitiveness, promote economic growth and create jobs while reducing environmental impacts and resource dependency. However, the circular economy (CE) is a contested paradigm, for which many competing interpretations exist, each seeking varying degrees of social, ecological and political transformation. Considering the emerging and contested state of the academic literature on CE, the EU's embrace of the concept is a remarkable phenomenon, which remains poorly researched. The aim of this paper is thus to address this research gap by analysing the CE discourse and policies of the Junker Commission (2014-2019) in order to critically discuss their sustainability implications and develop key policy recommendations. To do so, this research uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods. The paper first critically analyses the EU's discourse based on a typology of circularity discourses. It then reviews the complex set of concrete CE policies and actions adopted by the EU and compares them to its discourse. Results show a dichotomy between words and actions, with a discourse that is rather holistic, while policies focus on “end of pipe” solutions and do not address the many socio-ecological implications of a circularity transition. Several actions are thus recommended to tackle the systemic challenges of a circular future from a plural perspective.
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The circular economy (CE) emphasises closing material loops to retain material value. The current practice of tyre recycling in the Netherlands, through a system of extended producer responsibility (EPR), appears an overwhelming success, with claims of 100% recovery. Yet, there is limited critical understanding regarding the system's circularity, considering alternative value retention options and resource recovery outcomes. This study analyses this Dutch tyre EPR system and reflects on how it can be improved from a systemic CE perspective. It uses a qualitative case study approach, using interviews and a review of policy, legal and EPR reporting documents. This paper assesses the governance of this sector and reflects on the existing system, including its circularity and value retention outcomes. Our analysis reveals seven central issues concerning how the EPR system currently functions, resulting in limited circularity and sustainability outcomes, despite high material recovery levels. To address these issues we recommend the continuous improvement of recovery and sustainability targets beyond a single product life cycle, a more transparent and inclusive governance system, as well as a greater focus on sufficiency strategies, e.g. design for durability and a broader transformation of transport models. This paper adds a practical understanding of the capacity of EPR to contribute to CE. Full text available (open access): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652620320898
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Strategies toward ambitious climate targets usually rely on the concept of “decoupling”; that is, they aim at promoting economic growth while reducing the use of natural resources and GHG emissions. GDP growth coinciding with absolute reductions in emissions or resource use is denoted as “absolute decoupling”, as opposed to “relative decoupling”, where resource use or emissions increase less so than does GDP. Based on the bibliometric mapping in part I (Wiedenhofer et al., this issue), we synthesize the evidence emerging from the selected 835 peer-reviewed articles. We evaluate empirical studies of decoupling related to final/useful energy, exergy, use of material resources, as well as CO2 and total GHG emissions. We find that relative decoupling is frequent for material use as well as GHG and CO2 emissions but not for useful exergy, a quality-based measure of energy use. Primary energy can be decoupled from GDP largely to the extent to which the conversion of primary energy to useful exergy is improved. Examples of absolute long-term decoupling are rare, but recently some industrialized countries have decoupled GDP from both production- and, weaklier, consumption-based CO2 emissions. We analyze policies or strategies in the decoupling literature by classifying them into three groups: (1) Green growth, if sufficient reductions of resource use or emissions were deemed possible without altering the growth trajectory. (2) Degrowth, if reductions of resource use or emissions were given priority over GDP growth. (3) Others, e.g. if the role of energy for GDP growth was analyzed without reference to climate change mitigation. We conclude that large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and GHG emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates, hence decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets. More research is needed on interdependencies between wellbeing, resources and emissions.
Article
Circular economies are often framed as addressing a trio of problems: environmental degradation, economic stagnation, and social ills, broadly defined. Our paper centers on this last claim – that circular economies promise social benefits. There is a dearth of literature focused on the social dimensions of circular economies (Geissdoerfer, Martin, Paulo Savaget, Nancy M. P. Bocken, and Erik Jan Hultink. 2017. “The Circular Economy – A New Sustainability Paradigm?” Journal of Cleaner Production 143 (February): 757–768. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048.), and even less attention to the meaning of social justice in the context of circular economies, let alone how it might be enacted in policy and practice. Drawing on data generated from focus groups with circular economy experts and a content analysis of US-based governmental, NGO, and business literature on circular economies, we explore whether and how justice emerges in circular economy discourse. We explore the narratives that these actors use to describe justice, and the barriers they see in achieving just and inclusive circular economies. We aim to identify the ways in which social justice is defined and discussed – or not – by the actors who seem to be most actively pushing for a circular economy (CE). Our work addresses the critical need to articulate clearly what it is we mean by social justice in relation to the CE. For if the CE is to contribute to sustainable social transformations, justice must be more than a buzzword – the CE must be just by design.