How to achieve sustainability? Through Circular Economy!

The goal of a truly sustainable society and economy is always topical, as also the discussion about the tools needed to reach it. A new scientific approach suggests that modern societies can accelerate their transition to sustainability following the relatively new concept of circular economy.

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The discussion on sustainable society and economy as well as the appropriate tools to achieve them has been an ongoing process in recent decades. However, this discussion now needs a new meaning, narratives or, better, should be enriched with a new direction and scientific and epistemological theoretical frameworks. One significant contemporary scientific question is how modern societies can sustainably manage their resources (such as water, soil, energy, biodiversity and waste) applying procedures such as reuse, repair, and remanufacture practices? In other words, this question can take the form of how modern societies could give sustainable solutions under the concept of circular economy (CE).

CE is essentially a new-coming concept with increasing interest and merit since it creates the conditions to overcome the existing economic model (linear model of take - produce - dispose) limitations, which compromise the future economic growth due to the consumption of finite resources. CE emphasizes on the more efficient use of materials and further optimization of their flow through engineering advances to preserve natural resources, hence it opens new opportunities for innovation across fields such as product design, engineering, technological development, business models, economy, food, farming, recycling, biological feedstock, and entrepreneurship, while it examines the potential behavior of people who have to play a critical role in CE either as suppliers of raw materials (e.g., waste), or as consumers who buy recycled products or reuse existing products.

However, there are many open questions regarding the vision and implementation of CE principles and the necessary sustainable engineering solutions to satisfy those, e.g., the further development of strategies, tools and technological solutions, and how CE is measured in businesses, economies and technological innovation. Open questions also remain in the field of economy and management area (the second component of CE) where very little work has been carried out so far. Today, a mechanistic economic approach has limited the field of CE and provides meaningless answers to the complex environmental, social and economic problems. The obsession with the classical economic rationality that today confronts the CE leaves much of the literature of ecological and environmental economics and resources out of the discussion, a fact that limits effective solutions and especially solutions under the concept of sustainability. The increasing complexity of sustainability aspects means that traditional engineering process, business models and social fields cannot alone solve the new challenges and make progress in the field of CE and sustainability.

To achieve feasible sustainable solutions, the interface between economy, policy, and engineering, and implementation and production should be viewed from a different angle. Technological progress that is required to meet the new sustainability challenges should follow the environmentally benign route. The ultimate goal of a CE is to enhance the welfare, health and safety of people with the minimal use of natural resources, and paying due regard to the sustainability of resources, to maximize the social value and the economic optimization and to minimize the environmental impacts. We realize more and more that a purely environmental or technical approach is not sufficient enough, and wider perspective should be given to the way we deal with environmental issues and industrial processes to include goals such as social justice, poverty alleviation and global and local connections.

To get the answers we need, we should therefore view CE as a necessary vehicle for achieving the concept of sustainability, i.e., to realize that these two terms go hand-in-hand thanks to social equity, economic growth and environmental protection. The new concept of CE and sustainability should be built on three main pillars: (i) ecological engineering, (ii) business, management and economy, and (iii) society. The challenge now is to investigate the interconnections, interrelations, interactions and synergies between these three pillars and how these relations are or can be realized in the real world.

The new approach of sustainability and CE means that focus is placed not only on engineering efficiency but also on the synergies between technical and non-technical/social/management and economic aspects. Therefore, an improved understanding of the multiple connections between economy, technology, ecosystems, individuals and the society is required in order to expand the sustainability framework and capture the complexity of this new approach. This is exactly the scope of the new Springer journal ‘Circular Economy and Sustainability’ which will be launched in early 2021.

As CE is necessary today to promote the goals of sustainable development (SDGs), interdisciplinary approaches and multiple connections between diverse scientific areas are required not only to reach the SDGs but also to solve diverse environmental problems, expand technological limits and overcome potential economic disturbances. This approach is expressed with new policies tools (command and control, market-based instruments, and circular public procurement), technological suggestions (e.g. technical cycle solutions), environmental engineering technologies (e.g., waste management, 3r strategies, water recycle, wastewater treatment and reuse, renewable energy), circular business models, circular innovations, circular management solutions, consumers’ behavior in circular economy, share economy, new circular economy products labels and social acceptance in circular economy.

A classical context to make more comprehensive the concept of CE and sustainability should be examined under a threefold level context: the micro-level (firm-level engineering and managerial level), the meso-level (industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis, eco-clusters, and eco-industrial parks), and the macro-level (general policies, plans, green and sustainable entrepreneurship). With the suggested new journal we aim to cover and study exactly the multiple aspects of these two terms by examining relative strategies and policies at the macro-level, as well as new technological and development tools that realize these strategies in practice at micro- and meso-level. There is a wide and interdisciplinary field ahead for future studies and research to examine these topics using a new holistic approach. We wish to promote and encourage this new study field that will eventually lead us to a truly sustainable and circular society.

Alexandros I. Stefanakis

Editor in Chief, Circular Economy and Sustainability / Asst. Professor, Technical University of Crete

Dr Stefanakis is Assistant Professor at the School of Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Crete in Greece. He is also Visiting Professor at the German University of Technology in Oman, and Regional Coordinator for Africa and Middle East for the ‘Wetlands for Water Pollution Control’ Specialist Group of the International Water Association. He is Editor-in-Chief of the journal ‘Circular Economy and Sustainability’, and Associate Editor of the journal ‘Environmental Science and Pollution Research’. He is an environmental engineer and researcher focusing on water engineering and specifically on nature-based solutions and ecological engineering. He is an expert on sustainable and decentralized water and wastewater treatment systems. He has designed, managed, and constructed several wastewater treatment facilities across Europe, Middle East, Africa, USA and South America. In the past, he worked as researcher and lecturer at the the University of Brighton in the UK, the University of Beira Interior in Portugal, the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZ in Germany, and the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece. His publication record includes articles in international scientific journals and conference proceedings, as well as two books and several book chapters. He is also the co-editor of an upcoming two-volume work on Circular Economy that covers its multiple aspects from business and policy till engineering and society by 202 contributors from academia, industry, business and the policy-making environment and practice. He is known in the related international field as an enthusiast of green technologies for water management and reuse, always trying to promote and disseminate such technologies and transfer his knowledge to young engineers and students.

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Adam Loch
Adam Loch 26 days ago

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Go to the profile of Dheeraj Verma
Dheeraj Verma 24 days ago

In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for implementing the concept of resource efficiency and circular economy has proposed a government policy framework by launching a National Resource Efficiency Policy (NREP) 2019. The policy focuses on the 6R concepts of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refurbish, Redesign, Remanufacture. This policy is currently in draft stage and circulated for public comments. The likely implementation is from the year 2022 in phased manners in different sectors e.g automotive, plastic packaging, building and construction, electrical and electronic, steel, aluminium etc. 

Reduce - Less use of material                                                                                              Reuse - Use of goods or items again by different set of consumers or by re-purposing them for a different use.
Recycle - Transformation of the good into raw material that can be reshaped into a new product.                                                                                                                                  Refurbish - Restoration of a used product for its intended use by performing minor
alterations.                                                                                                                                      Redesign - Product designed to minimize use of materials, facilitate recyclability and reduce environmental impacts.                                                                                                    Remanufacture - Rebuilding a product to specifications of the original product using reused, repaired and also new parts. 

Dheeraj Verma                                                                                                                                dheerajverma5316@gmail.com