114 + 1 Definitions for a Circular Economy – Finding a Common Language

By Julian Kirchherr and Ralf van Santen


Julian Kirchherr is a researcher at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Ralf van Santen is a former research assistant at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

10 Sep 2019 -

With the circular economy (CE) concept now being a significant hype, it is receiving ever increasing attention from both scholars and practitioners. It holds the promise for societies to transition away from unsustainable linear economies that ultimately deplete finite resources. This configuration converts resources into products and discards them as waste at their end of life. A CE does the opposite; it effectively eliminates waste by endlessly circulating and repurposing materials.

Despite this attention, various writings on the topic claim that a commonly accepted CE definition lacks, and that many different understandings of the concept persist. Indeed, when we investigated its core principles, aims and enablers, we found 114 CE definitions set forth by scholars and practitioners over the last years.

We uncovered two core principles. First, a serious dependence on the use of the Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) framework, and second an emphasis on systems perspective.  

First, the R framework represents the ‘how-to’ of a CE and reflects a waste hierarchy. There is significant disagreement, however, regarding what Rs. The most common component is recycling (79%), followed by reuse and reduce (75% and 55%, respectively). These three are also the most frequently featured combination of Rs (35%-40%), while no other combination is mentioned more than 10%. Strikingly, 7% of definitions depict a CE as merely recycling.

In our view, it is a system that represents four Rs. Reduction of resource consumption is preferred, followed by material reuse. Resources unfit for reuse should be recycled, with recovery of energy trough waste incineration as the last option, as also reflected in European Union policies. Yet only 4% of definitions describe a CE as such.

Particularly practitioners do not include reduction in their definition. Businesses may have little interest in curbing consumption, and thus economic growth, provided they do not shift towards circular business models, such as product-as-a-service.

Additionally, a waste hierarchy is only mentioned by 30% of definitions, with practitioners including it sparsely (11%). Not mentioning a hierarchy though, may lead to organisations adopting only incremental changes, for instance recycling, rather than deep transformations throughout their supply chains.
Various writings describe a systems perspective as a second core principle; it highlights the need for changing the entire fabric of an economy. Of all definitions, 42% consider this element, yet with little agreement on what levels of the economy are included. The majority of definitions, 21% and 24% respectively, focus on the macro (national) and meso (regional) level, with only 19% including the micro (product) level. This indicates that a transition is considered to require especially efforts on the regional level, rather than simultaneous change on all three levels.

While we expected sustainable development to be a CE’s aim, as described by several authors, only 12% of definitions make an explicit link with the concept. Moreover, of those definitions only 13% refer to all three dimensions, i.e. economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social equity. Instead, the main focus lies with the prior.

This especially holds true for practitioners, who oftentimes depict a CE as a pathway to economic growth (53%). This is problematic; an economy that does not consider social equity, for instance, is unsustainable. Moreover, it is only considered once as a long-term undertaking that benefits future generations. In this way, it frames a CE as a strategy for quick wins instead.

Business models and consumers are supposed to be crucial enablers, as argued by several authors. They are considered the driving force behind a transition. Yet only 11% and 19%, respectively, include them. Practitioners emphasize their role more frequently. A probable explanation for this finding is that these players may regard circular business models as ‘the nuts and bolts’ of a CE.

Our results indicate that the CE is shrouded in conceptual blurriness, as also critiqued by other authors. This is problematic; little agreement on what it entails may make knowledge development and far-reaching implementation difficult. Indeed, there is a vast gap between understanding it merely as ‘recycling-plus’, compared to a completely overhaul of the economy. It could even lead to only minimal changes being implemented, rather than the promised structural transformations that could accomplish sustainable development.

Following our analysis, we developed the 115th definition. While we acknowledge that our definition is at least partially subjective, we hope it creates clarity around the numerous CE discussions. This could assist practitioners in building further on the concept by providing them with a common language, required to make implementation more pragmatic.

Our definition reads: “an economic system that replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco-industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations. It is enabled by novel business models and responsible consumers.”

The original research paper underlying this publication can be accessed here.

Julian Kirchherr is a researcher at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Ralf van Santen is a former research assistant at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

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