Defining the "circular economy"

Hi, my name is Nicolette. My organization Reuse Alliance Illinois is helping to organize OSCEdays in Chicago, USA. Because “circular economy” is not a popular term in the US, we are having trouble defining the event in our promotional materials. I am wondering if event organizers or participating cities have a clear, 1/2 sentence description of “circular economy” that would be helpful in explaining it to someone who is unfamiliar. We have many organizations in Chicago who are practicing in the circular economy, but they do not consider it this way (the term “sustainability” is much more popular, but also nondescript and therefore confusing). We would appreciate any resources or recommendations! Thanks.

Hi @nstosurbassett Nice to meet you! Erica here from London.

Interesting question and also good for us to be aware, think about the different terms, perspectives from around the world. I’ll check through the ogranising materials for simplified descriptions (also something we can look at in our communications). Here I would say Circular Economy is still a fairly niche phrase beginning to be adopted by larger corporates. This report from Fusion last year surveyed SME’s and used the description - “If the circular economy is defined as a model whereby products are repaired, reused or upgraded instead of being thrown away and recovered waste materials are reprocessed for remanufacture"

It will be great to build up resources, links that can help with this as well.

One nice example is a project I worked with here called The Rubbish Diet - we held a session on making the Circular Economy more real to people. A nice way to put it was would how would you describe it to Mark’s Grandma (Nan), who would say isn’t that just common sense :smile: . Anyway here’s a summary of some of the feedback from that.

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Hi @nstosurbassett,

great that you are planning to organize an event in Chicago!

It is always a bit difficult to describe a broad concept in 1-2 sentences. But you can find a rather short definition of circular economy in the OSCEDays mission statement: “A future where every product is designed for multiple cycles of use, and different material or manufacturing cycles are carefully aligned, so that the output of one process always feeds the input of another.”

You may also have a look at Wikipedia`s article on circular economy, Circle Economy, the EllenMacArthur Foundation, and Cradle to Cradle.

I very much like the description of circular economy by EllenMacArthur - its a bit longer though: "A linear economy where we take something, we make something out of it, and at the end of its life, we throw it away. But a) there is no away and the second question to ask is: So if we are [...] using things off rather than just using them, then what do we do about that? And the current solution was to use less. [...] To take a bit less out of the ground, to make a bit more out of it, and then to throw a bit less away. But even if we do that extremely well, with the population is increasing, and the use of materials is increasing, we never gonna solve it. All we are doing is buying ourselve more time and end up exactly here just a little bit later on. And what massage is that for the next generation? If their goal of their life is to do as little as possible, to use as little as possible, to travel as little as possible. [...] What we need is a systemic solution. [...] Its to actually redesign the entire system. And one suggestion for that is circular economy."
Ellen McArthur (min 9.55)

Best regards,

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Hey @nstosurbassett

Here is a policy white paper I wrote with some colleagues a couple of years back. there are a good few definitions in there: Circular Economy: Is it Enough?

I also wrote a section on this in my PhD, which I can share separately.

My main issue with the mainstream debate on CE is that it doesn’t internalise externalities ie lack of inclusion of environmental impacts. There is also scant regard for consumption patterns and poor understanding of energy systems.

Many of the academics working in this area promote CE as purely relating to material flows, resource efficiency and material criticality (such as rare earths). But, if it is the core environmental (design) movement of our time, then it should be holistic. And it can be!

This is another interesting paper that looks at steady-state economics as a counter-movement.
How Circular is the Global Movement?

Also worth looking at publications by Tim Gutowski at MIT and Walter Stahel’s work on the performance economy.


Hi Nicolette,

Good to meet you, greeting from nearby Indianapolis. You are right about the concept not being well understood in the States, I have the same experience. All the recommendations you have received are excellent.

I use a quite “non-catchy” definition: “The circular economy is an industrial model designed and managed around circular flows of renewable, long-lasting, high value, low carbon, low entropy, low waste, non-toxic resources, products and processes. It is the systemic solution for a sustainable advanced economy, operating within and not against natural processes and the Earth’s capacity to support life in all its diversity. It aims to have a positive impact and optimal performance on all three sustainability dimensions: society, environment and economy.”

For something more catchy, you might say: Nature does not create waste, we do. Nature operates in circles, we operate in lines. Nature changes slowly, we go fast. Circular economy brings man-made systems closer to ecosystems and that’s a good thing.

A picture might be the best explanation. There are plenty to choose from or it would be fun to create your own.


Thanks to all for these excellent recommendations! We are compiling these resources to be available for Chicago event organizers. I will share the link to this page when complete. Thanks again!

Here is a discussion about a new definition started here in the forum in October 2015