The circular economy: producing more with less

Namur, August 26, 2014

It is Professor Paul Duvigneaud, whom I met on the occasion of a private viewing of paintings in a Brussels art gallery, to whom I am indebted, at the rather belated age of thirty, for a lesson on ecosystems, industrial ecology and the principles of what nowadays is referred to as the “circular economy”. Using as a basis the example of the old Solvay sedimentation tanks near Charleroi, a case I had submitted to him with the aim of provoking him on the subject of the preservation of natural resources [1], and the manufacturing process for soda, the author of La synthèse écologique (Ecological Synthesis) [2], suddenly made these ideas make sense in my mind. At the same time, in a clear explanation typical of a skilled teacher, he linked them up with my rudimentary knowledge of the concepts of biosphere and complex system that I had found out about some ten years earlier in the Telhardian thinking [3]. In this way, reflecting in terms of flows and stocks, Duvigneaud was already supplementing the cycle of carbon and oxygen, at the level of an industrial and urban area, with that of phosphorus and heavy metals. For their part, some years later (albeit still only in 1983), Gilles Billen, Francine Toussaint and a handful of other researchers from different disciplines showed how material moved around in the Belgian economy. By also taking energy flows and data exchanges into account, they, too, provided an additional new way of looking at industrial ecology and came up with specific avenues of research for modifications to be made to the system, such as short and long recycling [4].

Today, after a few rotations of the world as well as a few more decades of our biosphere and our local environment deteriorating, the circular economy is coming back in force.

1. What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is understood as being an economy that helps achieve the aims of sustainable development by devising processes and technologies such as to replace a so-called linear growth model – involving excessive consumption of resources (raw materials, energy, water, real estate) and excessive waste production – with a model of ecosystemic development that is parsimonious in its extraction of natural resources and is characterised by low levels of waste, but which results in equivalent or even increased performance [5].

The Foundation set up in 2010 by the British navigator Ellen MacArthur, an international reference in the field of the circular economy, clarifies that the circular economy is a generic term for an economy that is regenerative by design. Materials flows are of two types, biological materials, designed to reenter the biosphere, and technical materials, designed to circulate with minimal loss of quality, in turn entraining the shift towards an economy ultimately powered by renewable energy [6]. This is a system, as the founder and navigator indicated, in which things are made to be redone.[7].

Even though the concept of circular economy may seem very recent, we have seen that it is actually in consonance with an older tradition dating back to the 1970s with the development of systems analysis and awareness of the existence of the biosphere and ecosystems and what is known as the industrial metabolism. In a work published at the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, Suren Erkman defined this industrial metabolism as the study of all the biophysical component parts of the industrial system. For the director of the ICAST in Geneva, the aim of this essentially analytical and descriptive approach is to understand the dynamics of flows and stocks of materials and energy associated with human activities, from extraction and production of the resources through to their inevitable return, sooner or later, in biochemical processes [8]. In a brief historical overview and inventory of schools of thought linked to the model of the circular economy [9], the MacArthur Foundation also recalls other sources such as the Regenerating Design of architect John Tillman Lyle (1934-1998), professor at the California State Polytechnic University of Pomona [10], the works of his fellow designer William McDonough with the German chemist Michael Braungart on eco-efficiency and the so-called Cradle to cradle (C2C) certification process [11], those of the Swiss economist and member of the Club of Rome Walter R. Stahel, author of research on the dematerialisation of the economy [12], those of Roland Clift, professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey (UK) and president of the International Society for Industrial Ecology [13], the works of the American consultant Janine M. Benyus, professor at the University of Montana, known for her research on bio-mimicry [14], and the written works of the businessman of Belgian origin Günter Pauli, former assistant to the founder of Club of Rome Aurelio Peccei and himself author of the report The Blue Economy [15]. Many other figures could be cited, who may perhaps be less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world but are by no means any less pioneering in the field. I am thinking here of Professor Paul Duvigneaud, to whom I have already referred.

2. The practices underpinning the circular economy

As noted in the study drafted by Richard Rouquet and Doris Nicklaus for the Sustainable Development Commission (CGCD) and published in January 2014, the objective of moving over to the circular economy is gradually to replace the use of virgin raw materials with the constant re-use of materials already in circulation [16]. These two researchers analysed the legislation and regulations governing implementation of the circular economy in Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and China, and demonstrate that, beyond the famous « three Rs » (reduction, re-use and recycling), this concept in fact leads to approaches and priorities that can sometimes differ considerably, in terms of nature and intensity, from one country to another. It could be added that within one and the same country or region, the way in which the circular economy is understood and interpreted varies very appreciably, meaning it can encompass a smaller or larger range of activities and processes.

Nonetheless, we can go along with the Agency for the Environment and the Harnessing of Energy (ADEME) when it includes seven practices in the circular economy [17].


2.1. Ecodesign

Ecodesign is a strategic design management process that takes account of environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of packaging, products, processes, services, organisations and systems. It makes it possible to distinguish what falls under waste and what falls under value [18]. The good or service that has thus been eco-designed aims to fulfil a function and meet a need with the best possible eco-efficiency, i.e. by making efficient use of resources and reducing environmental and health impacts to a minimum [19].

2.2. Industrial ecology

Broadly speaking, industrial ecology can be defined as an endeavour to determine the transformations liable to make the industrial system compatible with a “normal” functioning of the biological ecosystems [20]. Pragmatically and operatively speaking, the ADEME defines it as a means of industrial organisation that responds to a collective logic of mutualisation, synergies and exchanges, is set in place by several economic operators at the level of an area or a region, and is characterised by optimised management of resources (raw materials, waste, energy and services) and a reduction of the circuits [21]. Industrial ecology is based first and foremost on the industrial metabolism, i.e. the analysis of the materials flows and energy flows associated with any activity.

2.3. The economy of functionality

As ATEMIS points out, the Economy of Functionality model meets the demand for new forms of productivity based on efficiency of use and regional efficiency of products. It consists in producing an integrated solution for goods and services, based on the sale of an efficiency of use and/or a regional efficiency, making it possible to take account of external social and environmental factors and to enhance the value of intangible investments in an economy henceforth driven by the service sector [22]. The economy of functionality therefore favours use over possession and, as the ADEME says, tends to sell services connected with the products rather than the products themselves.

2.4. Re-use

Re-use is the operation by which a product is given or sold by its initial owner to a third party who, in principle, will give it a second life[23]. Re-use makes it possible to extend the product’s life when it no longer meets the first consumer’s requirements, by putting it back into circulation in the economy, for example in the form of a second-hand product. Exchange and barter activities are part and parcel of this process. Re-use is not a method for waste processing or conversion, but one of the ways of preventing waste.

2.5. Repair

 This involves making damaged products or products that are no longer working fit for use again or putting them back into working order, in order to give them a second life. In fact, these processes run counter to the logic of disposable items or planned obsolescence.

2.6. Reutilisation

Reutilisation implies waste being dealt with in such way as to have all of it or separate parts of it brought into a different circuit or economic sector or business, with a qualitative choice and the aim for sustainability [24]. The development of the resource centres in the framework of the social and solidarity-based economy plays a part in this.

2.7. Recycling

As highlighted by the ADEME, recycling consists in a reutilisation of raw materials stemming from waste, in a closed loop for similar products, or in an open loop for use in other types of goods [25].


3. Policies that go from the global to the local but become increasingly concrete as and when they get closer to companies

The inclusion of the circular economy as one of the aims of sustainable development meets a special requirement. Indeed, the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future (1987), had drawn attention, in its Chapter 8, Industry: Producing more with less, to the fact that if industry takes materials out of the patrimony of natural resources and at the same time introduces products and pollution into the human being’s environment. In general, industries and industrial operations should be encouraged that are more efficient in terms of resource use, that generate less pollution and waste, that are based on the use of renewable rather than non renewable resources, and that minimize irreversible adverse impacts on human health and the environment. (…) To sustain production momentum on a global level, therefore, policies that inject resource efficiency considerations into economic, trade, and other related policy domains are urgently needed, particularly in industrial countries, along with strict observance of environmental norms, regulations, and standards. The Report recommends that the authorities and the industries include resource and environmental considerations must be integrated into the industrial planning and decision-making processes of government and industry. This will allow, writes the Norwegian Prime Minister, a steady reduction in the energy and resource content of future growth by increasing the efficiency of resource use, reducing waste, and encouraging resource recovery and recycling [26].

A major tool serving sustainable development, the industrial ecology model is also, as Christian du Tertre points out, the model of the circular economy, which innovates in the field of regional governance: it is not only an entrepreneurial model, but is also interested in transforming relations between players in a particular region. Its circular nature implies the mutualisation among different players of certain investors and resources, both tangible and intangible. For the economics professor at the Université Paris-Diderot, inter-industrial relations are no longer solely a matter of a traditional trade relationship, but concern a long-term partnership that can lead to the establishment of a collective intangible patrimony: sharing of skills, of research centres, of intangible investments, etc. [27]

The circular economy thus appears to be a major line of development with a global-to-local structure and underpinning systemic and cross-disciplinary policies pursued at European, national/federal, regional and divisional level. These policies are intended to fit together and link up with each other, becoming more and more concrete as and when they get closer to the officers in the field, and therefore companies.

This is what I will be expounding in a subsequent paper.

Philippe Destatte

[1] Paul DUVIGNEAUD et Martin TANGUE, Des ressources naturelles à préserver, dans Hervé HASQUIN dir., La Wallonie, le pays et les Hommes, Histoire, Economies, Sociétés, vol. 2, p. 471-495, Bruxelles, La Renaissance du Livre, 1980.

[2] Voir Paul DUVIGNEAUD, La synthèse écologique, Populations, communautés, écosystèmes, biosphère, noosphère, Paris, Doin, 2e éd., 1980. (La première édition intitulée Ecosystèmes et biosphère has been published in 1962 by the Belgian Ministery of Education and Culture.) – Gilles BILLEN e.a., L’Ecosystème Belgique, Essai d’écologie industrielle, Bruxelles, CRISP, 1983.

[3] Pierre TEILHARD de CHARDIN, L’homme et l’univers, p. 57-58, Paris, Seuil, 1956.

[4] Gilles BILLEN e.a., L’Ecosystème Belgique…1983.

[5] Jean-Claude LEVY & Xiaohong FAN, L’économie circulaire : l’urgence écologique, Monde en transe, Chine en transit, Paris, Presses des Ponts et Chaussées, 2009. – Bibliographie du CRDD, Economie circulaire et déchets, Août 2013.

[6] the Circular Economy, Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Rethink the Futur, t. 1, 2013.

[7] Ellen MACARTHUR, Rethink the Future, L’Economie circulaire, Ellen MacArthur Foundation – YouTube, 4 octobre 2010.

[8] Suren ERKMAN, Vers une écologie industrielle, Comment mettre en pratique le développement durable dans une société hyper-industrielle ?, p. 12-13, Paris, Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer, 2e éd., 2004 (1998). – S. ERKMAN & Ramesh RAMASWAMY, Applied Industrial Ecology, A New Platform for Planning Sustainable Societies, Bangalore, Aicra Publishers, 2003.

[9] The Circular Model, Brief History and Schools of Thought, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Rethink the Futur, 4 p., s.d.

[10] John T. LYLE, Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development, New York, John Wilmey & Sons, 1994.

[11] William Mc DONOUGH & Michael BRAUNGART, The Next Industrial Revolution, in The Atlantic, October 1, 1998. – W. McDONOUGH & M. BRAUNGART, Cradle to Cradle, Créer et recycler à l’infini, Paris, Editions alternatives, 4e éd., 2011.

[12] Walter R. STAHEL, The Performance Economy, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

[13] Roland CLIFT, Beyond the « Circular Economy », Stocks, Flows and Quality of Life, The Annual Roland Clift Lecture on Industrial Ecology, November 6, 2013.

[14] Janine M. BENUYS, Biomimicry, Innovation inspired by Nature, New York, William Morrow, 1997. – Biomimétisme, Quand la nature inspire les innovations durables, Paris, Rue de l’Echiquier, 2011.

[15] Gunter PAULI, The Blue Economy, 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs, Taos N.M., Paradigm, 2010.

[16] Richard ROUQUET et Doris NICKLAUS, Comparaison internationale des politiques publiques en matière d’économie circulaire, coll. Etudes et documents, n° 101, Commissariat général au Développement durable, Janvier 2014.

[17] Osons l’économie circulaire, dans C’est le moment d’agir, n° 59, ADEME, Octobre 2012, p. 7. – Smaïl AÏT-EL-HADJ et Vincent BOLY, Eco conception, conception et innovation, Les nouveaux défis de l’entreprise, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2013.

[18] Sharon PRENDEVILLE, Chris SANDERS, Jude SHERRY, Filipa COSTA, Circular Economy, Is it enough?, p. 2, Ecodesign Centre Wales, March 11, 2014.

[19] Economie circulaire : bénéfices socio-économiques de l’éco-conception et de l’écologie industrielle, dans ADEME et vous, Stratégie et études, n° 33, 10 octobre 2012, p. 2.

[20] Suren ERKMAN, Vers une écologie industrielle…, p. 13.

[21] Osons l’économie circulaire…, p. 7. – Thomas E. GRAEDEL et Braden R. ALLENBY, Industrial Ecology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1995.

[22] Atemis, Analyse du Travail et des Mutations de l’Industrie et des Services, 28 janvier 2014. – voir Christian du TERTRE, Economie de la fonctionnalité, développement durable et innovations institutionnelles, dans Edith HEURGON dir., Economie des services pour un développement durable, p. 142-255, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007.

[23] Réemploi, réparation et réutilisation, Données 2012, Synthèse, p. 6, Angers, ADEME, 2013.

[24] The conservation of resources through more effective manufacturing processes, the reuse of materials as found in natural systems, a change in values from quantity to quality, and investing in natural capital, or restoring and sustaining natural resources. Paul HAWKEN, Amory LOVINS & L. Hunter LOVINS, Natural Capitalism, Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Little, Brown & Cie, 1999.

[25] Ibidem.

[26] Gro Harlem BRUNDTLAND, Our Common Future, United Nations, 1987.

[27] Christian du TERTRE, L’économie de la fonctionnalité, pour un développement plus durable, Intervention aux journées de l’économie Produire autrement pour vivre mieux, p. 3, Paris, 8 novembre 2012. http///


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