Circular economy

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A recycling (English circular economy ) is a regenerative system in which resources and waste production , emissions and waste of energy can be minimized by slowing, reducing and closing of energy and material cycles; this can be achieved through durable construction , maintenance , repair , reuse , remanufacturing , refurbishing and recycling . Recycling is usually the last resort.

The opposite of the circular economy is mostly called the linear economy (also known as the “throwaway economy ”); it is the currently prevailing principle of industrial production. A large part of the raw materials used is dumped or incinerated after the respective useful life of the products ; only a small proportion is recycled.


Comparison of the process chains in linear and circular economy

The global economic system has been linear since the industrial revolution : Lifestyles are therefore geared towards the consumption and one-off use of goods, which results in the sequence of removal, production and disposal in the supply chains . The production model behind it is thus steered in one direction: Natural resources serve as production input, which is then used for the production of mass-produced goods that are bought and often disposed of after one use. This linear economic model of mass production and mass consumption is obviously at odds with planetary boundaries and the idea of sustainability .

The basis for considerations on the cycle principle is therefore the knowledge that in a world with finite resources only production processes with a real material cycle can be continued without restriction. In a few decades or centuries, the previously used non-renewable raw materials will be used up as sources, while the material sinks available for waste and residues will be exhausted. Circular economy therefore takes the material cycle of nature as an example and tries to achieve cascading uses without waste ( zero waste ) and without emissions ( zero emission ).

In 2005, the material flow in the global economy was around 62 billion tons, with 58 billion tons coming from newly extracted raw materials and four billion tons (or approx. Six percent) from recycled goods. 44 percent of the total material flows (28 billion tons) were used to generate energy, in particular fossil fuels , which are consumed during use and therefore cannot be recycled due to their principle. The energy transition, the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies , is therefore an important prerequisite for achieving the circular economy.


Original human economy, as it still exists today in the traditional agricultural systems of the so-called developing countries, has always been a circular system, since the production energy used in the form of human and possibly animal muscle power came directly from the cultivated area and since both the waste from the products ( excretions, kitchen waste) and production residues (such as straw, ashes from slash and burn ) were returned directly to production.

The modern concept of circular economy was introduced in 1990 by the British economist David W. Pearce . It has evolved from the concept of industrial ecology (English industrial ecology developed), which advocates the reduction of resources and the use of clean technologies. In the circular economy, not only the use of the environment as a sink for waste and residues from industrial production, but also the use of new materials in production should be minimized.

At the end of the 1990s, the German chemist Michael Braungart and the American architect William McDonough developed the cradle-to-cradle principle (English, literally “from cradle to cradle”) as an approach for a continuous and consistent recycling economy. The aim is to achieve eco-effectiveness , i.e. products that can either be returned to biological cycles as biological nutrients or that are kept continuously in technical cycles as “technical nutrients”.

Realization of the idea

In September 1994, the law to promote the circular economy and ensure environmentally compatible disposal of waste, abbreviated to the circular economy and waste law (KrW- / AbfG), was passed in Germany, which formulated the principles of the expressly targeted circular economy: "Waste is primarily to be avoided In particular, by reducing their quantity and harmfulness, in the second place to recycle them or to use them to generate energy (energetic recovery) ”. Even if the term does not appear there, the basic idea can already be found in the directive of the Council of the European Community of July 15, 1975 on waste, which formulated the need to reduce waste generation and to reuse and recycle waste in order to preserve raw material and energy sources . A circular economy is also understood in the German law , which has been further developed since then and is only called the circular economy law (KrWG) in accordance with the ideal and its shift in focus , primarily as a means of conserving natural resources. In the meantime, the EU Waste Framework Directive formulates the transition to circular economy as a goal. It explicitly demands from the member states, for example, the promotion of sustainable production and consumption models and a durable design and repairability of electrical appliances, measures against food waste and planned obsolescence and information campaigns. At the same time, the emphasis on such aspects in the changes to be implemented by July 5, 2020 by Directive (EU) 2018/851 can be recognized as a reflection of a political insight that in reality the trend towards single-use goods, short life cycles, extreme transport routes for global material flows and The throwaway mentality, contrary to the lip service of market participants, seems unbroken.

Use of technologies

In many cases, technological solutions are discussed to enable the introduction of a circular economy. So will 3D printing as a potentially disruptive technology identified that the recycling economy by transforming the supply chain could achieve a breakthrough. In particular, this technology could be used for the local production of new goods from recycled plastic waste, which would result in advantages for the efficiency and effectiveness of the material cycle.


The circular economy appears intuitively more sustainable than the linear economy . The minimization of the input of resources into the system and the loss of resources through waste and energy losses conserve raw material deposits and reduce environmental pollution. However, this consideration does not do justice to the potential weaknesses of the circular economy concept . For example, social issues tend to be neglected in many sources and there are cases where other strategies, such as sourcing more energy efficient technologies, are more environmentally beneficial. In a study, researchers from Cambridge and Delft were able to show that in addition to authors who see the circular economy as a prerequisite for a sustainable economic system, there are also scientists who see the circular economy considerations as one of many strategies or even describe the concept as disadvantageous .

It is also often pointed out that there are fundamental limits to the concept, which among other things are based on the laws of thermodynamics . According to the 2nd law of thermodynamics , all spontaneous processes are irreversible and associated with an increase in entropy . However, the idealized concept of the circular economy envisages a completely reversible cycle . From this it follows that in a real implementation of the concept one would either have to deviate from the perfect reversibility in order to generate an increase in entropy through waste production, which in the end would amount to linear economic shares or enormous amounts of energy would be required (which would have to be partially dissipated in order to thereby generating an increase in the total entropy) in order to enable complete reversibility. The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) comes to a similar conclusion in its statement.

See also


Individual evidence

  1. Martin Geißdörfer, Paulo Savaget, Nancy MP Bocken, Erik Jan Hultink: The Circular Economy - A new sustainability paradigm? In: Journal of Cleaner Production . tape 143 , February 2017, ISSN  0959-6526 , p. 757–768 , doi : 10.1016 / j.jclepro.2016.12.048 ( [accessed May 29, 2018]).
  2. Fang Läpple: Waste and circular economy transformation process in Germany and China: Analysis - Comparison - Transferability . Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg 2007.
  3. Esposito, M. et al., Introducing a Circular Economy: New Thinking with New Managerial and Policy Implications. In: California Management Review 60, Issue 3, (2018), 5–19, doi: 10.1177 / 0008125618764691 .
  5. ^ Haas et al., How Circular is the Global Economy? An Assessment of Material Flows, Waste Production, and Recycling in the European Union and the World in 2005. In: Journal of Industrial Ecology 19, Issue 5, (2015), 765-777, doi: 10.1111 / jiec.12244 .
  6. ^ Christian Lauk: Socio-ecological characteristics of agricultural systems. A global overview and comparison. In: Social Ecology Working Paper 78. Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna 2005. ISSN  1726-3816 . P. 24.
  7. ^ Mikael Skou Andersen: An introductory note on the environmental economics of the circular economy. Sustainability Science 2, 2007, pp. 133-140, doi: 10.1007 / s11625-006-0013-6 .
  8. § 1 and (quote) § 4 of the KrW- / AbfG of this basic version
  9. Art 3 and considerations of Directive 75/442 / EEC , the first waste framework directive
  10. Thus § 1, which has been the same since 1994 . It also defines the term as: Avoidance and recovery of waste, Section 3 Paragraph 19.
  11. Article 1 and Article 9 of Directive 2008/98 / EC
  12. Alysia Garmulewicz, Matthias Holweg, Hans Veldhuis, Aidong Yang: Disruptive Technology as an Enabler of the Circular Economy: What Potential Does 3D Printing Hold? In: California Management Review . tape 60 (3) , May 1, 2018, p. 112-132 , doi : 10.1177 / 0008125617752695 .
  13. a b Martin Geißdörfer, Paulo Savaget, Nancy MP Bocken, Erik Jan Hultink: The Circular Economy - A new sustainability paradigm? In: Journal of Cleaner Production . tape 143 , February 1, 2017, p. 757-768 , doi : 10.1016 / j.jclepro.2016.12.048 .
  14. ^ Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen: The Entropy Law and the Economic Process . Reprint 2014 edition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2014, ISBN 978-0-674-28164-6 .
  15. Jouni Korhonen, Antero Honkasalo, Jyri Seppälä: Circular Economy: The Concept and its Limitations . In: Ecological Economics . tape 143 , January 2018, p. 37-46 , doi : 10.1016 / j.ecolecon.2017.06.041 .
  16. " Recovery and recycling of materials that have been dispersed through pollution, waste and end-of-life product disposal require energy and resources, which increase in a nonlinear manner as the percentage of recycled material rises (owing to the second law of thermodynamics: entropy causing dispersion). Recovery can never be 100% (Faber et al., 1987). The level of recycling that is appropriate may differ between materials. " Circular economy: a commentary from the perspectives of the natural and social sciences - European Academies Science Advisory Council