Circular in circular economy is missing… its about linear slow-down.

Circular is “hot”. But the interpretation of ‘circular’ is crippled. As I can conclude after reading some recent reports on the topic. For sure when its coupled to economy, its more about business as about closing cycles or circularity. And money as a reference, is a artificial measuring unit, in its current form designed for making more money, create growth, and not designed to reduce emissions, or less resource use. Its no wonder that the motor behind circular economy is the Mac Arthur foundation, financed by many commercial multinationals. Unfortunately many international reports take the MacArthur approach for granted and use these as starting points{1,2,3] . Even governments and their advisory institutes. [4,5,6] Thats worrying, at the least.

Circular as a result is not well defined, and is stuck to some adaptations of the linear process. [7]

Let me try to specify this. To start with where we came from: A paradise world without people. After billions of years there is a balance in what the earth generates, driven by solar energy, and what all species, plants and animals consume. The resource flow of resources, food water energy, materials are constant, they are balanced. Next thing mankind turns up. Until the industrial revolution, mankind , with max 2 billion people, adapts to the flows as all the other species. The balance remains. At some moments things tend to go wrong, , but the system corrects this, cultures die out, plagues interfere, dirty cities create many deaths, and the system restarts. Flows are used, and wasted, but at a speed that the system can handle, like waste water from cities flowing to the seas , cleaned up and via rain replenishing the system. The same for food: its grown, eaten and defecated, and in may cultures used again as nutrients. In some regions in Chin you were supposed, after having dinner at someones place, to not leave until going to the toilet, to leave the nutrients behind.

Material resources were not always organic, steel and copper was used, but mostly mined and processed with manual labor , which assured the speed of use was within carnying capacity limits of the system: like bricks were made of clay coming from the mountains via rivers as erosion material: a natural and permanent flow, replenished by tectonic mountain push ups.

But some 150 years ago, the fossils are discovered, and moreover, their advanced use to drive machines. And all natural flows get disrupted. Mankind masters the technology to not only use the natural flows, but to increase the volumes and speed. Of course, there is suddenly not more rain , or solar radiation, but the hidden buffers built up in millions of years can now be depleted. Think of old water aquifers, fossil fuels, metal deposits or digging out mountains. In stead of waiting until the clay dust passes their habitat in a river. : eating mountains faster then they are pushed up.

The crucial issue here are flows diverted through the human habitat. Which can be either materials, water, energy or food. And a flow is not only characterized by the kind of source, but also by mass ( volume) speed and energy invested . As soon as people drain the flow , interfere in the natural flow, things start changing, and the balance is disturbed.

Take wood that enters the built environment, and flows with a certain speed and volume through the man-made system. Slow, if its used for construction, fast when used for heating. Its obvious that the less material is used, the impact on he main flow is reduced, similar as when the speed of use is slowed down, for instance by re-using. It does however not flow by itself through the built environment, so it requires energy to make it flow, to cut trees, process it in a sawmill and transport it. Or even to make it re-flow. Its a relation for each kind of resource, in mass , and energy ( embodied ) divided by time (speed) .

Its easy to sea that that if time of use increases ( the denominator), the impact per time unit decreases/ And will provide systems more time to recover. Same for mass or energy: the more , the less used, the lower the impact per same time unit. Time is crucial, since natural flows are also related to a certain mass flow per time unit. ( with tectonic, gravity volcanic and solar forces as the energy driver) .

Whats central in the circular economy are interventions like: reduce, repair, refurbish, recycling, re manufacture, recover and re-purpose. With the characterization of flows in mind, its easy to sea that all these measures enlarge the the time of the resources in the flow through mankind’s habitat, usually under suppletion of some extra energy to handle things. ( which is increasing the impact of another flow) . The numerator increases a bit, and the denominator a lot (time) . As a result the total impact on the flow decreases. Which literally is ‘delaying the linear process’ of flows through mans habitat.

So all the interactions are aimed at delaying and prolonged use. Which decreases the impact of the original tapped flow, but does not make it disappear! You can’t put the equation back to zero when recycling or reusing stuff… and restart from there, and neglect the effect on the total flow previously… Its still there, its only reduced by spreading impact over a longer period. Which is a good thing, but something else as what is described as “ the benefit of the avoided new resources” .

“But we reduced the new inflow of resources, why not calculate like that?” is a much heard argument.[8] Firstly, there is always impact, and you have of course broken the balance in the first place and created impact. Secondly , its not at all about avoided new inflow, but about the question: did you compensate for the original first time impact? Or has it been just a mathematical exercise back then? If not compensated, its still there, whatever you argue. The system is still suffering from your first time interference, some stock is still depleted. But its obvious now that even with that addition of reduced impact over time, its not ‘circular’ of course. And if the intake is larger then natural suppletion, the flow will dry up. Its easy to sea for rivers: many are already reported having stopped flowing, they don’t reach the sea anymore. Most famously the Colorado river. [9] The rivers beds dry up as more is taken out ever more upstream . Circularity requires that sources are regenerated, that the original situation is recovered.

And going back to the wood example: closing cycles implies regenerating the wood , otherwise the forest disappears, more is cut as regrown. Maintainable is only a situation in which stocks are kept in balance, in this case the land is reserved to have the sun as energy source do its work in the time required for it.

If we take resource depletion and side effects of resource use like climate change seriously, we will have to take responsibility for regenerating stocks*. Only then we can speak of closing cycles , and circular approaches . And not only about delaying linear flows.


* next blog.


[1] circular economy guide , juni 2017, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

[2] Circular economy , Denmark as a circular economy solution hub , State of Green, Version 1.0

[3] Journal of Industrial Ecology, Special Issue: Exploring the Circular Economy June 2017  Volume 21, Issue 3, Pages 471–795,

[4] EU communication: Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe

250914, {SWD(2014) 206 final}

[5] Circular Economy , Improving the Management of Natural Resources

Editing and coordination: Beatrice Huber. Swiss academies of arts and sciences

[6] circulaire economie , van wens naar uitvoering, Juni 2015, raad voor leefomgeving. Paragraaf 1.2 rli028

[7] SER, Werken aan een circulaire economie: geen tijd te verliezen SER Advies, Juni 2016


[9] When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century Paperback – March 15, 2007 , Fred Pearce, And:

Author: ronald rovers