BLOG: Why ‘just’ recycling isn’t necessarily a Circular Economy

If you recycle harmful ingredients, you will be making a harmful product. That seems obvious. Yet, not all companies that claim to be using the principles of Circular Economy, are actually doing so. It’s not just about using recycled materials, writes Diana den Held, Circular Economy strategist and lecturer at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), in this blog which she wrote during the Week of the Circular Economy.

In a Circular Economy (CE) we reuse resources at the end of use. It’s an alternative to the linear economy, in which raw materials are extracted from the earth, used and disposed when the user is ‘done’ with the product. 

No single interpretation

What makes CE so attractive, is at the same time the biggest pitfall: it’s flexibility in interpretation. CE does not have one defined origin, and throughout the years many academics, policy makers and business professionals have given it their own swing.

It’s common in business to claim to work ‘according to CE principles’ but overemphasise financial benefits while simplifying environmental benefits, according to research by Martin Geissdoerfer et al. I’ve met business developers that announced they were working ‘Circular’ because they were implementing a pay-per-use sales model, instead of the usual buy-and-own model. They had never even looked at the product itself or its positive or negative impact on people or the environment.

Reuse, Reduce and Recycle

Many different ways of using materials are connected to Circular Economy today. In 2017, Dr Julian Kirchherr, Denise Reike and Prof. Marko Hekkert from Utrecht University found and analysed 114 definitions of CE, and discovered that it’s most frequently depicted as a combination of three Rs: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle.

A reason for focusing on these three Rs can be found by looking at semantics. Circular Economy and Linear Economy were deliberately set up as antonyms. Simply phrased: a linear economy converts raw materials into waste through production and use, a Circular Economy forms systems where resources are managed in cycles and waste is designed out of the equation, according to research by Prof. Alan Murray, Keith Skene and Prof. Kathryn Haynes

People, planet and profit

I agree that CE strategies can indeed redefine the way people use materials. But we’re not there yet when we start reusing materials without asking questions.

A possible solution on how to deal with materials when ‘doing CE’ can be found in the final part of Kirchherr, Reike and Hekkert’s suggested definition of CE: “A Circular Economy describes an economic system (…) with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, which implies creating social, environmental and economic benefits for current and future generations.”

Bringing these three pillars of sustainable development (people, planet and profit) into the debate helps CE goal-setting and develop strategies that go further than a cheap deal in material purchasing. 

Environmental and health criteria

One of the first things I teach my students and tell my clients is that if we want to recycle and reuse in a Circular Economy way, we need to know which materials we are reusing. Only from a financial perspective is it entirely valid to reuse any material, no matter if it’s healthy for the environment or anyone that comes into contact with it, such as the user, the producer and the recycler. Taking a CE perspective however, urges us to start using environmental and health criteria that I’d like to illustrate with a few simple questions:

  • Does it make sense to reuse a material that is known to increase the chances of children developing asthma, for example when making carpets out of recycled PVC, as Shu et al show in their research
  • Does it make sense to reuse leather that is tanned with a material that pollutes our ground water? Kanagaraj and Elango ask questions about the use of Chromium in the leather industry in their research.
  • Does it make sense to reuse an ingredient that is known to irritate our skin, like sodium lauryl sulphate, as Prof. Manigé Fartasch shows us?
  • Does it make sense to reuse a material that is associated with developing Alzheimer by using aluminium in textiles or cosmetics? A question we can ask when reading Prof. Stephen Bondy’s research on the use of Aluminum.

Obviously, the answer to all of the above is no.

I’ve developed a simple principle to help CE decision-making on material use: ‘crap in = crap out’. Because if you recycle harmful ingredients, you will be making a harmful product, no matter how hard you try to ‘recycle’ or help to reduce the mining of a material. This may generate a fantastic turnover. But it doesn’t make it Circular. 

Do you want to go Circular? You now know: when offered to reuse a material, start by asking which ingredients are in there. 

Diana den Held is lecturer in Circular Economy at RSM, and a strategist with 24 years of professional experience. She has worked for IKEA, Yamaha, Telfort and ABN Amro, and won a silver Esprix award and a FEDMA-’Best of Europe’ award at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. From 2008 to 2016 she worked as strategic advisor for one of the two founders of "Cradle to Cradle"; Michael Braungart and William McDonough. In that time, she built up substantial expertise on Cradle to Cradle and following from that, Circular Economy. Diana is also CE-expert assessor for the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions and contributes to Het Groene Brein, an initiative in which scientists support entrepreneurs who want to work more sustainably.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ivo Martijn, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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