Circular economy: preserving materials or products?

This paper draws on material entropy and life cycle thinking to develop the Resource States framework. This framework clarifies and systematises the language around resources within the circular economy (CE) discourse, such that insights from different tools and approaches that investigate different aspects of CE can be aggregated and a more comprehensive picture of complex circular systems can be compiled.

Circular economy: Preserving materials or products? Introducing the Resource States framework. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 156, 104698

While companies like Uber, Amazon and Netflix have changed how certain goods and services are consumed, the reality is that physical products continue to play a preeminent role in how economies function and prosper. Even without a DVD or Blu-ray, one still needs a device to stream content, and servers are required to host it, so questions must be asked around how we can minimize the impact of the purchase decisions we make.

The circular economy (CE) concept invites societies to rethink their relationship with waste and resources. The concept proposes the replacement of current ‘take-make-use-dispose’ systems, with systems that address structural waste – encompassing clearly visible, as well as hidden forms of waste. For instance, think of the possibility to recycle materials as opposed to burying or incinerating them, and using materials and products more intensively through cascading approaches, as well as sharing and access-over-ownership models.

Instrumental in addressing structural waste is the application of a range of circular strategies, which improve resource efficiency and productivity, and reverse resource loss. The aim of this new way of conducting waste and resource management is to create more societal, environmental, and economic value, whilst reducing, avoiding, and negating value loss and destruction. In this paper, the authors examine the challenges faced when instigating a truly circular economy and explore how they can be resolved.


A range of technical requirements need to inform the feasibility and desirability of circular strategies, such as resource quality and conservation and energy investment. There is certainly no one size fits all approach for a plethora of reasons, whether that be material, technical or societal reasons, to list just a few.

The authors highlight that various tools and approaches have been developed, covering different application areas in different stages of circular oriented innovation, and it is often challenging to use them alongside each other, to easily compare outcomes or to transfer learning across case studies.

While these methods were developed for the purpose of managing resources and revalorising waste they were also developed by different people or groups having different worldviews and different perceived good outcomes. This has as a result that the language and conceptual tools available for examining circular strategies is varied and unsystematic. For instance, some cycling operations that materials can undergo are referred to as ‘recycling,’ but by some also as ‘reuse’. Similarly, the cycling of products is also spoken of in terms of ‘reuse,’ and in terms of ‘recycling’. The authors suggest that this results in the different implementation scenarios of circular strategies being obscured, and opportunities for improvements and synergies overlooked.


When considering whether the circular economy should prioritise preserving materials or products, this article concludes that both perspectives are needed to create holistic circular approaches. This paper draws on material entropy – the process of degradation or running down – and life cycle thinking to develop what the authors call a ‘Resource States’ framework, with the aim to clarify and systematise the language around resources with the circular economy discourse.

The authors’ proposed framework – which links and integrates the two perspectives through the addition of the ‘part state’ – allows those active in the circular economy domain to:

1) Distinguish between circular strategies, as well as between different implementation scenarios of the same circular strategy;
2) Systematically explore and map synergies and trade-offs between combinations of circular strategies;
3) Link circular strategies with structural waste present in a given context.

While still relatively theoretical, these abilities provide an analytical framework through which the scope of research as well as practical initiatives can be understood. As a result, practitioners in business and policy can use the framework to perform a system level analysis of the contexts they operate in. Moreover, when knowledge, tools and approaches are organised in a way that it can easily be found, it should help practitioners to find the information they need to inform decision making more easily – in turn helping to foster a more effective circular economy.