Development in the Circular Economy Concept: Systematic Review in Context of an Umbrella Framework
3.1. Analysis of Development in CE Definition
To carry out content and thematic analysis, the sampled definitions of the CE were chosen through a snowball technique. The snowball technique continues the collection of samples until the researcher obtains a sufficient number of needed pieces (Goodman, 1961). The following section lists 27 CE definitions (chronological order) that were thought to be impactful by the researcher during this study and later processed in Nvivo12 for further assessment.
The circular economy is a political strategy aiming to alleviate resource scarcity and reduce pollution, so it is essential to find effective ways to educate or train people so that they can implement the concept into their everyday work and life (p. 30).
[CE] an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models (p. 7).
The circular economy aims to eradicate waste—not just from manufacturing processes, as lean management aspires to do, but systematically, throughout the various life cycles and uses of products and their components. Indeed, tight component and product cycles of use and reuse, aided by product design, help to define the concept of a circular economy and distinguish it from recycling, which loses large amounts of embedded energy and labor (p. 5).
The CE is a crucial way to protect the environment and resources and to achieve sustainable development; it can transfer a traditional linear growing economy that depends on resource consumption into an economy that relies on the development of ecological resources circulation (p. 488).
A circular economy describes an economic system that is based on business models which replace the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling, and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes, thus operating at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso station (eco-industrial parks), and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), to accomplish sustainable development, which implies creating environment quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations (p. 229).
In a circular economy, the economic and environmental value of materials is preserved for as long as possible by keeping them in the financial system, either by lengthening the life of the products formed from them or looping them back into the system to be reused (p. 517).
The CE supports the harmonization of human needs for sustainable long-term development by optimizing resource usage so that you consume as little and re-use as much as possible. Optimizing natural resource use reaches a balance threshold where the number of natural resources consumed net does not endanger their rhythm of natural restoration for future generation needs (p. 101).
The CE is an economic system that represents a change in paradigm in the way that human society is interrelated with nature and aims to prevent the depletion of resources, close energy and materials loops, and facilitate sustainable development through its implementation at the micro (enterprises and consumers), meso (economic agents integrated into symbiosis), and macro (city, regions, and governments) levels. Attaining this circular model requires cyclical and regenerative environmental innovations in how society legislates, produces, and consumes (p. 610).
The CE is a sustainable development initiative to reduce the societal production-consumption systems’ linear material and energy throughput flows by applying materials cycles, and renewable and cascade-type energy flows to the linear system. The CE promotes high-value material cycles alongside more traditional recycling and develops systems approaches to the cooperation of producers, consumers, and other societal actors in sustainable development work (p. 547).
The circular economy is a regenerative production-consumption system that aims to maintain extraction rates of resources and generation rates of wastes and emissions under suitable values for planetary boundaries through closing the system, reducing its size, and maintaining the resource’s value as long as possible within the system, mainly leaning on design and education, and with the capacity to be implemented at any scale (p. 14).
CE is the set of administrative planning processes for creating and delivering products, components, and materials at their highest utility for customers and society through effective and efficient utilization of ecosystem, economic, and product cycles by closing loops of concerning resource flows (p. 18).
Further nodal analysis was conducted in Nvivo to explore the themes generated across the sampled CE definitions; authors were found quoting the CE’s environmental and economic dimensions more frequently than the social dimensions. Likewise, the CE was referred to as the strategy and approach for achieving sustainable development. A few authors referred to terminologies like business model, reverse logistic, and a moderate use of language like waste management, design focus, value enhancement, and geography.
It can be seen that some of the concepts like a closed-loop strategy, sustainable development, and environmental and economic implications, along with resource-saving have been present throughout the sampled period. Interestingly, the CE’s research and development has increased after the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s establishment. Further, it can be observed that from 2016 onwards, new terminologies like CBM, regeneration, restoration, social impact, organization aspects, and system thinking of the CE have come into existence.
Observation and Analysis: CE Definition Evolvement
3.4. Confusions and Contradictions in the Development of the Circular Economy
List of papers stating the confusions around the CE.
List of papers stating the confusions around the CE.
|Freire-Gonzalez and Puig-Ventosa (2015) 
|Bocken et al. (2016) 
|Stressed a need for more coherent terminologies and taxonomies to facilitate a transition from a linear to a circular economy
|Kirchherr et al. (2017) 
|Transparency provides coherence to the CE concept, or else a concept may either collapse or remain in a deadlock due to permanent conceptual contention
|Murray et al. (2017) 
|Lack of study in the field of business and sustainability
|Kirchherr et al. (2017) 
|Lack of social dimension and time horizon perspectives
|Zink and Geyer (2017) 
|Kallis et al. (2018) 
|Expressed the skepticism for the achievement of the CE in the capitalist economy by stressing degrowth
|Homrich et al. (2018) 
|Still, the study is exploratory, lacking a confirmatory approach and empirical validation, and further needs homogeneity in the nomenclature
|Velis (2018) 
|Lack of an effective economic model and precise indicators have made the CE tougher to be followed and bring common points at large, which may ultimately lead to the collapse of the CE construct
|Reike et al. (2018) 
|Argues the CE rather than being a fresh concept is a refurbished concept of preexisting notions and adding circularity has been a notion in EU for years
|Homrich et al. (2018) 
|Described the CE as in the stage of inception; it still lacks structured definition
|Babbitt et al. (2018) 
|The circular theories should be tested in the real-world scenarios to measure its effectiveness
|Reike et al. (2018) 
|Lack of coherence, standardization, and uniformity in terminologies and semantics has also generated delusions
|Garcia-Barragan et al. (2019) 
|CE still lacks unambiguous definitions
|Friant et al. (2020) 
|45% of the global population is under poverty and it can be challenging to restrain the consumption of resources
|Friant et al. (2020) 
|The definition, objectives, and form of implementation of the CE are unclear, inconsistent, and contested
|Luis and Celma (2020) 
|The passivity of countries like the USA and Canada to express their commitment towards CE can have a global implication
|Korhonen et al. (2018) 
|Mentioned the lack of CE-related studies to examine its impact on social values, societal structures, and cultures
|Sassaneli et al. (2019) 
|The CE performance assessment methods still lacks a common approach
|Kirchherr and van Santen (2019) 
|Lack of empirical evidence to support circular transition and stressed limited research carried in service sector to support CE transition in the service industry
|Muradin and Foltynowicz (2019) 
|Lack of agreed global vision on circularity
|Inigo and Block (2019) 
|Responsible research and innovation (RRI)
|Millar et al. (2019) 
|The existence of inconsistency across the literature on the ability of CE to achieve sustainable development
|Geipele et al. (2018) 
|The transition to CE is still blurred; the global enterprise with high public coverage has still not been an agent to foster the CE
|Christensen & Hauggaard-Nielsen, (2020) 
|Derived from pre-existing concepts
|Velenturf and Purnell (2021) 
|The CE is an emerging practical ideology which lacks enough evidence-based theoretical framework to guide its implementation
|Centobelli et al. (2020) 
|Lack of effective studies to support company to transition from the LE to the CE model of P&C
|Hosseinian et al. (2021) 
|Though there is an increasing interest in the CE across multiple domains, the CE is still more focused on the end-of-life strategy like recycling which has overshadowed important circular activities like designing circular products, dematerializing society, and developing service-based business models
|de Oliveria et al. (2021) 
|Existence of nano-level (product-level) circularity indicators driven by environmentally and economically objectives and noted the lack of social dimension
3.4.1. Critical Assimilation and Impressions
After conducting a systematic literature review of the topic, the following developments in the field of the circular economy were pointed out.
Nature of study
Throughout the study period, the studies related to the CE were exploratory. Most of the works focused on understanding the taxonomies and developing the concepts. The studies still lack enough empirical and quantitative data-driven results. Throughout the sampled period from 2016 to 2021, authors have frequently studied the conceptual development in the CE through bibliometric analysis.
Progressive growth, evolving, and testing: Repetition with complexity
The growth in the field of the CE has been progressive. The same research topics were often repeated during the sampled period, but studies have become more complex. The CE matrixes, indices, and indicators have become inclusive and have been proposed and examined in diverse industries.
The exploratory research has a subjective orientation which can create a bias at the time of deriving inferences and conclusions. The literature review during the study period was subject to the researcher’s understanding, and objective orientations in studies were not found in significant numbers.
Availability of data
The primary reason for the absence of quantitative research in the field of the CE in the USA and Asia regions was the lack of the availability of CE-related data. The lack of archival data on the CE from recognized institutions has made it challenging to run empirical tests and has missed the objective orientation of CE-related research.
Ambiguity and lack of homogeneity
There has been no precise and standard definition related to the CE, the domain has been diversifying, and multiple concepts have appeared. Though it has provided multiple domains for analysis, it has also created confusion among practitioners.
CE and Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)
With an increasing interest in the CE, the impact of technology is also being studied. The 4IR, signified by AI, blockchain, and 3D printing, can enhance resource productivity. It might not be wrong to say the CE is diverging and diffusing.
Disproportionate studies across industries
Throughout the study period, the CE-related studies were focused more on the manufacturing industry. Though the service industry significantly contributes to the economy’s GDP, there is still a lack of exploratory and empirical research related to the CE in the service industry.
Presence of confusion and clarity
Though study related to the CE has increased drastically, confusion about the CE still exists. Throughout the study period, authors were found working to clarify and define the CE.
CE indicators, matrices, and indices
With time, tests and studies related to the CE are rising, but there is still a lack of adequate and holistic indicators, matrices, and indices to measure the CE. Business entities have been unable to implement the CE due to the lack of circular toolkits and measurement instruments.
Fragmented verse integrated approach
While the CE was seen and studied as a fragmented and isolated subject before, now it is seen as a transdisciplinary domain. It incorporates multiple domains and cross-industry knowledge.
Concentrated approach on end-of-life strategy
Studies have listed a multiple CE approach related to closed-loop strategies and RLES; this includes a management strategy throughout the product life cycle for efficient utilization of resources. Still, in a practical word, businesses are found to be more focused on end-of-life strategies like recycling. Less focus has been placed on circular design and innovations.
3.4.2. Reconciling with the Umbrella Framework
The CE and its impact on sustainability and sustainable development were studied from 2016 to 2021. Most authors before 2016 and the aftermath of 2016 have pointed to the CE as a medium to achieve sustainable development. In the same way, exploratory studies related to the CE were prevalent in each sampled year. Most of these studies were focused on citation and bibliometric analysis through the systematic review of literature whose focus was to understand the definitions and development in the concept of CE across the period. Still, at the same time, scientific studies related to the practical application of the CE are lacking.
3.4.3. CE Concept and CE Development: Progressive but Still in the Validity Phase
While countries in the EU, Japan, and China have firmly accepted and adopted the CE, countries in the least developed countries (LDC) and developing countries are still unaware of the CE and its consequences. Contemporarily, most of the development in the CE has been in developed and advanced economies. Based on the previous literature studies and findings, we can infer that the CE is in the validity phase of umbrella framework. But also, at the same time, the theory is not widely accepted due to the lack of system-wide holistic studies.
Through the sample period (2016 to mid-2021), there have been a lot of concepts and application-based development in the CE. But still, the CE has not become homogeneously accepted in the global arena. As depicted, it is received and acknowledged in developed countries, but still, its adoption has been minuscule in the other half of the globe.
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