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Is circular always sustainable?

Circularity is important – but there is no equals sign between ‘circular’ and ‘sustainable’. For example, driving your car a long distance to a recycling station with some plastic packaging may be circular, but it isn't necessarily resource efficient or sustainable.

“A more circular economy can make significant and important contributions to sustainable development. At the same time, if we are to create the most sustainable society possible, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls arising from discussions about various sustainability initiatives,” says Peter Stigson, research and business developer at RISE.

As Chair of the Circularity From a Systems Perspective expert group within the Delegation for Circular Economy, he considers it important to provide a more nuanced view of how a circular economy contributes to a more sustainable society.

“We must ensure that circular economy does not become another buzzword in politics and business. All too often, an equals sign is placed between ‘circular economy’ and ‘sustainable development’. And the same applies to ‘circular’ and ‘resource efficient’. It can be true or false in both cases. Without an understanding of potential goal conflicts, well-intentioned initiatives risk contributing less to sustainability.”

Different perceptions of what is circular

In a meta-study of the term ‘circular economy’  a whopping 114 different definitions were analysed. It was found that many who use the term equate circularity with recycling. For others, it meant reusing, reducing, eliminating need through design, ceasing use, repairing or finding new uses.

“If you have such a different understanding of what circular economy means, you risk comparing apples to oranges. Companies that think they are sustainable and circular based on a certain definition need to be aware that they risk being accused of greenwashing by others who have a completely different definition.”

Stigson sees resource efficiency as the goal and that a circular economy is a means to an end, while others argue that a circular economy is the key, and that it is implied that circularity should be carried out sustainably.

Some may feel this comes down to semantics, but if we lift the lid, it becomes clear that circular, sustainable and resource-efficient are concepts that come with challenges.

We will never be completely circular or sustainable

5 problematisations of the circular economy

  •  When does a producer contribute to the circular economy?
    If recycled plastic is used but joined in such a way that prevents it from being recycled at a later stage, has the producer contributed to or broken the circular economy chain?
  • When does a material become circular?
    Should it be defined by the number of product life cycles? Is it preferable for a material to be reused/recycled in 4-5 different basic products over a period of 15 years, than for the same material to remain in the corresponding product type with higher quality and a service life of 15 years instead of 3?
  • What behaviours are people willing to change in a circular economy?
    Most people have no problem sleeping in sheets that other hotel guests have used before (reuse), but would never buy second-hand underwear no matter how clean they are.
  • When is a sharing economy preferable, and when will it become unsustainable despite its circularity?
    If you share an old two-stroke moped, the environmental benefits of sharing are anything but obvious. Or if a person buys a camping tent for the purpose of renting it out, there is no guarantee that the tent will be used several times, or even once. Does the tent then offer any circular benefit, or will it have a rebound effect and increase consumption?
  • Is it circular when homes change owners?
    If someone buys a used lawnmower and the function of mowing grass is transferred to someone else without the need for new resources for the function to be performed, it is resource efficient and circular. But when a house changes owners, it does not count as a contribution to the circular economy. Even if the housing function is transferred to someone else. And what about when more or fewer people move in compared to the previous owner?

Unintentional goal conflicts

“We will never be completely circular or sustainable,” says Stigson. “But to become more sustainable as a society at a faster pace, we need to define the concepts and terms, know what we mean, discuss what is possible and what it may cost to achieve certain goals. Within the framework of the 2030 Agenda, the UN has listed 169 targets based on the 17 main goals. Some of the targets will inevitably end up in conflict with the pursuit of more circularity and resource efficiency, and vice versa.”

How does this affect countries and companies with less economic might, such as when more and more companies retain ownership over, for instance, the vehicles they produce? No one knows for sure, because it is an ongoing journey.

“Believing that no goal conflicts will arise is naïve. When big systems change, there are always winners and losers. It is therefore important that we do not circulate for its own sake, but that circular initiatives are employed in a larger system perspective. Our priorities affect behaviour, production, transport, energy resources, and business models in different ecosystems.

Today’s understanding of circularity frequently lacks a critical approach to these system issues. The consequence is that goal conflicts are created unintentionally and that synergies are not utilised. This complexity needs to be understood and simplified when organisations seek to develop towards a higher degree of circularity.”

Let RISE help

Dialogue on circularity and resource efficiency is important and has an obvious place on the sustainability agenda. At the same time, more and more research projects are emerging that twist and turn these questions and address the pitfalls that need to be addressed.

Companies can make important contributions to sustainability, but in order for it to be as sustainable as possible, it is necessary to carry out life cycle analyses and examine life cycle effects, among other things.

If you would like help to evaluate, develop and measure the circularity of your business model, and to take a closer look at effects from a life cycle perspective –  or simply to understand what is happening in this area – contact RISE. RISE wants to contribute to collaborations where circularity develops positively and as sustainably as possible.

We have strategists who visit companies’ operations and help them become more circular in ways that are sustainable.  We also offer training to help companies identify profitable circular business opportunities and how they can work to realise them.

Peter Stigson

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Peter Stigson


+46 10 516 66 73

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