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Paving the Path to Sustainability: The Promise and Challenges of Transitioning to a Circular Economy

Why the Interest in Circular Economies?

Over the past decade, the concept of a “circular economy” has rapidly gained momentum worldwide. This emerging economic model aims to decouple economic growth from resource consumption by applying principles such as recyclability, renewable energy usage, product life extension, and waste reduction across industrial systems. Proponents view the circular economy as a vital step for balancing economic development with ecological sustainability.

The Opportunities

However, the shift from today’s prevalent linear “take-make-dispose” economy faces systemic hurdles. Both opportunities and barriers exist in applying circular economy thinking more broadly.

On the opportunity front, circular business initiatives have shown economic promise while lowering carbon footprints. Some car companies are generating new revenue streams through remanufacturing programs that refurbish old car parts for resale. Governments too are piloting supportive policies – from tax incentives in China to public procurement standards in the Netherlands.

The Challenges

However, some unintended consequences have emerged. Studies indicate that efficiency gains from circular production methods can spur overall consumption, thus offsetting sustainability benefits. This “circular economy rebound” warrants careful monitoring. Additionally, research shows that cultural acceptance issues frequently impede adoption – consumers may resist buying refurbished goods, while linear thinking dominates at many corporations.

Evolving Frameworks and Policy Levers

As the circular economy lens expands from a narrow focus on waste management to encompass system-wide change, indicators and policy levers must also evolve. Beyond tracking recycling rates, measurement frameworks need to address the retention of material value across manufacturing, transport, and product use phases. Similarly, supportive regulations should utilize tools like eco-design mandates, circular public procurement criteria, and finance options for secondary material markets and product-as-service business models.

The Road Ahead

The path towards a thriving circular economy remains full of promise, but it also requires actively overcoming behavioral, policy and market structure challenges. With coordinated efforts across businesses, governments and societies – especially in clarifying this model’s socioeconomic implications – the global economy can progressively transition from the take-make-waste model to one that fosters renewable flows of resources, finances and knowledge.




Hartley, K., van Santen, R., & Kirchherr, J. (2020). Policies for transitioning towards a circular economy: Expectations from the European Union (EU). Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

Kirchherr, J., Piscicelli, L., Bour, R., Kostense-Smit, E., Muller, J., Huibrechtse-Truijens, A., & Hekkert, M. (2018). Barriers to the Circular Economy: Evidence From the European Union (EU). Ecological Economics.

Kristensen, H., & Mosgaard, M. (2020). A review of micro level indicators for a circular economy – moving away from the three dimensions of sustainability? Journal of Cleaner Production, 243, 118531.

Murray, A., Skene, K. R., & Haynes, K. (2017). The Circular Economy: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Concept and Application in a Global Context. Journal of Business Ethics, 140, 369-380.

Reike, D., Vermeulen, W., & Witjes, S. (2017). 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 and Recycling.

Zink, T., & Geyer, R. (2017). Circular Economy Rebound. Journal of Industrial Ecology.


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