Talking Circularity

Professor Kevin Haines
February 2022

Circularity (or the circular economy) focuses on resource cycles, while sustainability is more broadly related to people, the planet and the economy. Circular economics is also a way of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, there is a strong relationship with SDG 6 (clean water), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (work and economic growth), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 15 (life on land). Aspects of the circular economy, such as recycling of household waste, e-waste and waste water, provide a ‘toolbox’ to comply with the SDGs.

What is the difference between a circular and linear economy?

The circular system and the linear system differ from each other in the way in which value is created or maintained. 

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A linear economy traditionally follows the “take-make-dispose” model. This means that raw materials are collected, then transformed into products that are used until they are finally discarded as waste. Value is created in this economic system by producing and selling as many products as possible.

The central aim of moving toward a circular economy is to improve resource productivity and hence economic value by keeping products and resources in use for as long as possible, through the 5R approach: recovery, reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling.

Put simply the logic behind the argument for a circular economy is: Consumerism rests on the assumption that the economy will grow and grow forever and pay for any excesses we allow ourselves today. But infinite growth is incompatible with a finite planet, finite resources, a finite ecology.


It has been argued that Moving towards a more circular economy will deliver benefits such as reducing pressure on the environment, improving the security of the supply of raw materials, increasing competitiveness, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth, creating jobs (over 500,000 in the EU alone). Clearly some materials (water) fit more easily into a circular economy than others (wood, beef). It is also important to balance the emphasis within a circular economy on raw materials with social concerns.

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