Economia Politica

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 629–652 | Cite as

Write circular economy, read economy’s circularity. How to avoid going in circles

  • Jacopo ZottiEmail author
  • Andrea Bigano
Original Paper


Enthusiasm for the Circular Economy (CE) is widespread and overwhelming. However, confusion around its meaning and purpose still pervades the scientific debate. Our study has two objectives. The first one is to increase the theoretical clarity and the scientific relevance of this debate. An important step forward in this direction is the idea of economy’s circularity, which we introduce following a critical re-visitation of CE’s notion. The second objective is to study the environmental effects of circularity. Our notion of economy’s circularity is theoretically rooted in the materials-energy balance model, and points to the presence of circular matter and energy flows in the economy. A major strength of this definition is the conceptual separation of circularity (as an economy’s feature) from the strategies (e.g. recovery, remanufacturing, reusing…) for its implementation. On one hand, this separation prompts the construction of a coherent framework, which helps shed light on the entire debate. On the other hand, it paves the way towards a novel methodology for studying any type of circularity effect. Circularity effects are indeed the effects of circularity strategies. Since strategies are constantly evolving, this approach delivers an immediate result. Circularity effects are unavoidably ambiguous. With reference to the effects on the environment, we provide evidence for this ambiguity by accurately selecting and reviewing studies on various circularity strategies. In a policy perspective, our findings seriously challenge the idea of implementing circularity for the sake of circularity. Indeed, using circularity as an environmental policy may prove quite a daunting task.


Circular economy Economy’s circularity Environmental effects of circularity Policy role of circularity 

JEL Classification

Q01 Q51 Q53 Q57 



We thank the participants to the Sixth IAERE Annual Conference and to the SEBE Department Seminar of the University of Southern Denmark for valuable critique and encouragement. We are profoundly indebted to two anonymous referees for contributing thoughtful and constructive comments, which greatly improved the original manuscript.

Author contribution

The idea of this research and the structure of the paper are due to Jacopo Zotti, who wrote Sections 1–3 and 5, and contributed to Section 4. Andrea Bigano analysed the relevant literature, wrote Section 4, contributed to Section 5 and provided useful comments to the whole paper.


  1. Allwood, J.M. (2014). Squaring the circular economy: the role of recycling within a hierarchy of material management strategies. In E. Worrell, M. Reuter (Eds.), Handbook of Recycling: State-of-the-art for Practitioners, Analysts, and Scientists (pp. 445–477).Google Scholar
  2. Andersen, M. S. (2007). An introductory note on the environmental economics of the circular economy. Sustainability Science, 2, 133–140.Google Scholar
  3. Ayres, R. U., & Kneese, A. V. (1969). Production, consumption and externalities. American Economic Review, 59, 282–297.Google Scholar
  4. Bhering Trindade, A., Escobar Palacio, J. C., González, A. M., Rúa Orozcob, D. J., Lora, E. E. S., Grillo Renó, M. L., et al. (2018). Advanced exergy analysis and environmental assesment of the steam cycle of an incineration system of municipal solid waste with energy recovery. Energy Conversion and Management, 157, 195–214.Google Scholar
  5. Beylot, A., & Villeneuve, J. (2013). Environmental impacts of residual Municipal Solid Waste incineration: A comparison of 110 French incinerators using a life cycle approach. Waste Management, 33, 2781–2788.Google Scholar
  6. Bilitewski, B. (2012). The circular economy and its risks. Waste Management, 32(1), 1–2.Google Scholar
  7. Blomsma, F., & Brennan, G. (2017). The emergence of circular economy. A new framing around prolonging resource productivity. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21(3), 603–614.Google Scholar
  8. Boulding, K. (1966). The economics of the coming spaceship earth. In H. Jarrett (Ed.), Environmental quality in a growing economy (pp. 3–14). Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future/Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bocken, N. M. P., de Pauw, I., Bakker, C., & van der Grinten, B. (2016). Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy. Journal of Industrial and Production Engineering, 33, 308–320.Google Scholar
  10. Boyden, A., Soo, V. K., & Doolan, M. (2016). The environmental impacts of recycling portable lithium-ion batteries. Procedia CIRP, 48, 188–193.Google Scholar
  11. Charonis, G. (2012). Degrowth, steady state economics and the circular economy: three distinct yet increasingly converging alternative discourses to economic growth for achieving environmental sustainability and social equity. In World Economic Association Sustainability Conference 2012. Available at:
  12. Cherubini, F., Bargigli, S., & Ulgiati, S. (2009). Life cycle assessment (LCA) of waste management strategies: Landfilling, sorting plant and incineration. Energy, 34, 2116–2123.Google Scholar
  13. Cucchiella, F., D’Adamo, I., & Gastaldi, M. (2017). Sustainable waste management: Waste to energy plant as an alternative to landfill. Energy Conversion and Management, 131, 18–31.Google Scholar
  14. Daly, H. E. (1977). Steady State Economics: the economics of biophysical equilibrium and moral growth. San Francisco: Freeman.Google Scholar
  15. Damgaard, A., Riber, C., Fruergaard, T., Hulgaard, T., & Christensen, T. H. (2010). Life-cycle-assessment of the historical development of air pollution control and energy recovery in waste incineration. Waste Management, 30, 1244–1250.Google Scholar
  16. de Jesus, A., Antunes, P., Santos, R., & Mendonça, S. (2018). Eco-innovation in the transition to a circular economy: An analytical literature review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, 2999–3018.Google Scholar
  17. Diaz-Elsayed, N., Helu, M., Jarvis, A., Tönissen S., Dornfeld, D. A., & Schlosser, R. (2009). Strategies for minimum energy operation for precision machining. Proceedings of MTTRF 2009 Annual Meeting.Google Scholar
  18. Dong, H., Geng, Y., Xi, F., & Fujita, T. (2013). Carbon footprint evaluation at industrial park level: a hybrid life cycle assessment approach. Energy Policy, 57, 298–307.Google Scholar
  19. EC. (2008). Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on Waste and Repealing Certain Directives. Available at
  20. EC. (2013). EU Ecolabel for Consumers. Available:
  21. EC. (2015). Closing the Loop—an EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy.
  22. EIB. (2017). The EIB in the circular economy. Available at
  23. Elia, V., Gnoni, M. G., & Tornese, F. (2017). Measuring circular economy strategies through index methods: A critical analysis. Journal of Cleaner Production, 142, 2741–2751.Google Scholar
  24. EMF. (2012). Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition.Google Scholar
  25. Faber, M., & Proops, J. L. R. (1993). Evolution, Time, Production and the Environment. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  26. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Krausmann, F., Giljum, S., Lutter, S., Mayer, A., Bringezu, S., et al. (2011). Methodology and indicators of economy-wide material flow accounting. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 15(6), 855–876.Google Scholar
  27. Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N. M. P., & Hultink, E. J. (2017). The circular economy—a new sustainability paradigm. Journal of Cleaner Production, 143, 757–768.Google Scholar
  28. Geng, Y., & Doberstein, B. (2008). Developing the circular economy in China: Challenges and opportunities for achieving “leapfrog development”. The International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 15, 231–239.Google Scholar
  29. Genovese, A., Acquaye, A. A., Figuero, A., & Lenny Koh, S. C. (2017). Sustainable supply chain management and the transition towards a circular economy: Evidence and some applications. Omega, 66, 344–357.Google Scholar
  30. Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1971). The entropy low and the economic process. Harward University Press: Cambridge Mass.Google Scholar
  31. Ghisellini, P., Cialani, C., & Ulgiati, S. (2016). A review on circular economy: The expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems. Journal of Cleaner Production, 114, 11–32.Google Scholar
  32. Grimaud, G., Perry, N., & Laratte, B. (2016). Life cycle assessment of aluminium recycling process: Case of shredder cables. Procedia CIRP, 48, 212–218.Google Scholar
  33. Guo, B., Geng, Y., Ren, J., Zhu, L., Liu, Y., & Sterr, T. (1997). Comparative assessment of circular economy development in China’s four megacities: The case of Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Urumqi. Journal of Cleaner Production, 162, 234–246.Google Scholar
  34. Haas, W., Krausmann, F., Wiedenhofer, D., & Heinz, M. (2015). How Circular is the Global Economy? An assessment of material flows, waste production, and recycling in the European Union and the World in 2005. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19(5), 765–777.Google Scholar
  35. Hahladakis, J. N., Velis, C. A., Weberb, R., Iacovidoua, E., & Purnella, P. (2018). An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 344, 179–199.Google Scholar
  36. Heshmati, A. (2015). A review of the circular economy and its implementation. IZA Discussion Paper No. 9611.Google Scholar
  37. Hirsch, P. M., & Levin, D. Z. (1999). Umbrella advocates versus validity police: A life-cycle model. Organization Science, 10(2), 199–212.Google Scholar
  38. Jiao, W., & Boons, F. (2014). Toward a research agenda for policy intervention and facilitation to enhance industrial symbiosis based on a comprehensive literature review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 67, 14–25.Google Scholar
  39. Jin, H., Afiuny, P., McIntyre, T., Yih, Y., & Sutherland, J. W. (2016). Comparative life cycle assessment of NdFeB magnets: Virgin production versus magnet-to-magnet recycling. Procedia CIRP, 48, 45–50.Google Scholar
  40. Kalmykova, Y., Sadagopan, M., & Rosado, L. (2018). Circular economy—From review of theories and practices to development of implementation tools. Resources, Conservation & Recycling, 135, 190–201.Google Scholar
  41. Kamigaki, K., Matsumoto, M., & Fatimah, Y. A. (2017). Remanufacturing and refurbishing in developed and developing countries in Asia—A case study in photocopiers. Procedia CIRP, 61, 645–650.Google Scholar
  42. Kirchherr, J., Reike, D., & Hekkert, M. (2017). Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 127, 221–232.Google Scholar
  43. Kneese, A. V., Ayres, R. V., & d’Arge, R. C. (1970). Aspects of environmental economics: A materials balance-general equilibrium approach. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Kurle, D., Schulze, C., Herrmann, C., & Thiede, S. (2016). Unlocking waste heat potentials in manufacturing. Procedia CIRP, 48, 289–294.Google Scholar
  45. Landi, D., Vitali, S., & Germani, M. (2016). Environmental analysis of different end of life scenarios of tires textile fibers. Procedia CIRP, 48, 508–513.Google Scholar
  46. Lewandowski, M. (2016). Designing the business models for circular economy. Towards the conceptual framework. Sustainability, 8(1), 1–43.Google Scholar
  47. Mathews, J. A., & Tan, H. (2011). Progress toward a circular economy in China. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 5, 435–457.Google Scholar
  48. Merli, R., Preziosi, M., & Acampora, A. (2018). How do scholars approach the circular economy? A systematic literature review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 178, 703–722.Google Scholar
  49. Mugge, R., Jockin, B., & Bocken, N. (2017). How to sell refurbished smartphones? An investigation of different customer groups and appropriate incentives. Journal of Cleaner Production, 147, 284–296.Google Scholar
  50. Nabavi-Pelesaraei, A., Bayat, R., Hosseinzadeh-Bandbafha, H., Afrasyabi, H., & Chau, K. (2017). Modeling of energy consumption and environmental life cycle assessment for incineration and landfill systems of municipal solid waste management—A case study in Tehran Metropolis of Iran. Journal of Cleaner Production, 148, 427–440.Google Scholar
  51. OECD. (2009). Sustainable manufacturing and eco-innovation: Framework, practices and measurement. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.Google Scholar
  52. OECD. (2017). The macroeconomics of the circular economy transition: a critical review of modelling approaches. Environment Directorate Environment Policy Committee.
  53. Pearce, D. W., & Turner, R. K. (1989). Economics of natural resources and the environment. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Perrings, C. (1987). Economy and environment: A theoretical essay on the interdependence of economic and environmental systems. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Potting, J., Hekkert, M., Worrell, E., & Hanemaaijer, A. (2017). Circular economy: measuring innovation in the product chain. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Policy Report 2544.Google Scholar
  56. Preston, F. (2012). A Global Redesign? Shaping the Circular Economy. Briefing Paper.
  57. Rammelt, C., & Crisp, P. (2014). A systems and thermodynamics perspective on technology in the circular economy. Real-world Economics Review, 68, 25–40.Google Scholar
  58. Reike, D., Vermeulen, W. J. V., & Witjes, S. (2018). 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. Resources, Conservation & Recycling, 135, 246–264.Google Scholar
  59. Sacchi Homrich, A., Galvão, G., Gamboa Abadia, L., & Carvalho, M. M. (2018). The circular economy umbrella: Trends and gaps on integrating pathways. Journal of Cleaner Production, 175, 525–543.Google Scholar
  60. Sauvé, S., Bernard, S., & Sloan, P. (2016). Environmental sciences: sustainable development and circular economy: alternative concepts for trans-disciplinary research. Environmental Development, 17, 48–56.Google Scholar
  61. Schut, E., Crielaard, M., & Mesman, M. (2015). Circular economy in the Dutch construction sector: A perspective for the market and government.
  62. Su, B., Heshmati, A., Geng, Y., & Yu, X. (2013). A review of the circular economy in China: Moving from rhetoric to implementation. Journal of Cleaner Production, 42, 215–227.Google Scholar
  63. Tukker, A., Poliakov, E., Heijungs, R., Hawkins, T., Neuwahl, F., Rueda-Cantuche, J. M., et al. (2009). Towards a global multi-regional environmentally extended input–output database. Ecological Economics, 68, 1928–1937.Google Scholar
  64. Tukker, A., Koning, A., Wood, R., Hawkins, T., Lutter, S., Acosta, J., et al. (2013). EXIOPOL—Development and illustrative analyses of a detailed global MR EE SUT/IOT. Economic Systems Research, 25(1), 50–70.Google Scholar
  65. Wang, H., Hashimoto, S., Yue, Q., Moriguchi, Y., & Lu, Z. (2013). Decoupling analysis of four selected countries. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 17(4), 618–629.Google Scholar
  66. Wang, Y., Lai, N., Zuo, J., Chen, G., & Du, H. (2016). Characteristics and trends of research on waste-to-energy incineration: a bibliometric analysis, 1999–2015. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, 66, 95–104.Google Scholar
  67. Webster, K. (2015). The Circular Economy: a Wealth of Flows. Isle of Wight: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.Google Scholar
  68. van Weelden, E., Mugge, R., & Bakker, C. (2016). Paving the way towards circular consumption: exploring consumer acceptance of refurbished mobile phones in the Dutch market. Journal of Cleaner Production, 113, 743–754.Google Scholar
  69. Winans, K., Kendall, A., & Deng, H. (2017). The history and current applications of the circular economy concept. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 68, 825–833.Google Scholar
  70. Wysokińska, Z. (2016). The “New” environmental policy of the European Union: a path to development of a circular economy and mitigation of the negative effects of climate change. Comparative Economic Research, 19(2), 57–73.Google Scholar
  71. Yu, Y., Chen, D., Zhu, B., & Hu, S. (2013). Eco-efficiency trends in China, 1978e2010: decoupling environmental pressure from economic growth. Ecological Indicators, 24, 177–184.Google Scholar
  72. Yuan, Z., Bi, J., & Moriguichi, Y. (2006). The circular economy; a new development strategy in China. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 10, 4–8.Google Scholar
  73. Zhou, G. M., Peng, H., & Cao, F. Z. (2007). Circular economy and industrial eco-efficiency index system. City Environment and City Ecology, 6, 13–17. (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  74. Zhou, H., Meng, A., Long, Y., Li, Q., & Zhang, Y. (2015). A review of dioxin-related substances during municipal solid waste incineration. Waste Management, 36, 106–118.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TriesteTriesteItaly
  2. 2.Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC)LecceItaly
  3. 3.European Institute on Economics and the Environment (RFF-CMCC)MilanItaly
  4. 4.Ca’ Foscari UniversityVeniceItaly

Personalised recommendations