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CiRcular Economy: SusTainability Implications and guidING progress

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CRESTING (CiRcular Economy: SusTainability Implications and guidING progress)

Reporting period: 2018-01-01 to 2019-12-31

Establishing a circular economy (to maximise the use made of resources and minimise waste generation) is a major policy area within the European Union and elsewhere. Explicitly seen as increasing economic competitiveness and laying a foundation for environmental employment, circular economy policies are designed to increase resource efficiency and decrease carbon dependency.
The many different fields of activity involved in developing a circular economy (e.g. re-use, recovery, recycling, eco-design) have been shown to operate with varying degrees of effectiveness in different places and for different materials. Limited research has been done that critically analyses these activities as interrelated social, technical, environmental and geographical phenomena. Thus the consequences of the radical changes implied by a truly circular economy are unknown. Increasing contextual understanding of developments promoting and implementing circular economy activity is therefore a research priority.
CRESTING has recruited 15 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) to train in cutting edge systematic analysis of CE-related activity and initiatives in a range of geographic and economic settings. The purpose of this is to translate critical assessment to lessons for managing the transformation to a CE.
The project asks the following questions:
• To what extent have CE-practices already occurring in public and private sector policy and practice?
• What are the environmental, social and economic implications of developing the CE, and how do these vary by scale (locally, nationally, and globally)?
• How can current CE practice be applied in different geographic/industry contexts?
• What methodologies of impact measurement and sustainability indicators can be developed for public and/or private sector organisations in the context of a CE?
• How can the CE in practice be understood beyond the policy and other aspirational definitions of the term?
Enrolled on PhD programmes at their host university, the ESRs have settled in to locations and are fully engaged in the training programmes of their institutions. Although teaching is in English, several ESRs (e.g. in Italy, Portugal and France) are learning the language of their host country. To date, four of the six planned workshops have been delivered for and with input from the ESRs. They are demonstrating increasing levels of understanding of the research process and also of the circular economy as a policy ambition. A highly experienced and critical audience for the ESRs’ presentations has been provided by the advisory board (at the third workshop), who in turn shared insights from their own experience. Secondments have provided with ‘hands-on’ experience of circular economy-related activity as well as in some cases the opportunity to collect data to inform the ESR’s research.

All ESRs are now in at least the early stages of data collection. Results from the research so far include:

Businesses may be aware of the circular economy, but are still responding to regulations (such as extended producer responsibility, EPR) that date from the era of prioritisation of diverting waste from landfill, rather than preventing waste by strategies such as eco-design. This is evidenced by interviews in the Netherlands and Austria to date.

Cresting research will help to improve engagement with the circular economy, for example through the development of models for how product service systems could be extended to incorporate circular economy principles by drawing on their ‘territoire’ (‘locality’); how to promote circularity through business model innovation; how to assess the sustainability and circularity of products. Derived from extensive literature review and document analysis, models are being refined through stakeholder consultation (including workshops and interviews).

Our research indicates that public sector bodies in Portugal are already implementing a range of activities that can be seen as circular, although the effectiveness of this and barriers to further development remain to be examined. A survey of residents in the Hull, UK, indicates that people tend to think of repair in terms of what they can do for themselves rather than as a service to be purchased. Fieldwork into the experiences of community networks with the circular economy is being extended from Austria and the UK to Chile to provide a Global South perspective.

Finally, a major theme of the research how both companies and public sector bodies can assess the circularity of their products and organisation respectively. This work is being carried out in close cooperation with several different companies and a national public body.
The theoretically driven and empirically grounded research in this project substantially advances previous work in the field. Through the project partners, advisory board and other professional connections, we are engaging closely with private sector, local, regional, national and international public organisations (up to and including the United Nations), and third sector bodies.

We are providing contextualised understandings of both public and private sector practices, which will be vital in the development and implementation of the circular economy strategies we are also producing. These strategies relate to product design, business model innovation, product services systems and how to assess sustainability and circularity at the company or organisational scale. Different aspects of this work are being undertaken in close cooperation with national government bodies in several countries and will be shared internationally. The research further indicates the continuing significance of policy in supporting advances in social and environmental practices, notwithstanding circular rhetoric.

Understandings of the significance of place to the circular economy are being advanced by this research. The social importance comes from indications of the geographic and economic implications of a circular economy (which have implications for regional development). New ideas are emerging from this research about how companies relate to the places where they are located (for example in using local resources, engaging with local government initiatives), and how that relationship influences and is influenced by others such as supply chain relationships. This work provides important context to understanding the geographic distribution of circular economy employment opportunities; we are also examining the likely quality of those opportunities.

By the end of the project we will also be able to reflect on the training experience in order to make recommendations for future researcher and PhD training in particular. This will include consideration of the various institutional and national contexts in which the ESRs are based, what can be transferred as best practice between contexts and how to make the most of the opportunities from secondments.
Workshop Programme - Lisbon, September 2019
List of Conferences the ESRs have presented abstracts, papers etc
Dr Pauline Deutz (PI) Opening 4th Workshop in Troyes, France (linkedin Post)
ESRs at the Workshop in Hull, September 2018