11 September 2019

Circular economy research has yet to translate into practice

Although there is tremendous excitement about the circular economy among researchers, a gap between knowledge and practice still exists. Utrecht University’s circular economy experts Julian Kirchherr and Ralf van Santen have identified five barriers. They published their analysis in the Resources, Conservation & Recycling journal, and offer recommendations.

Lack of empirical work and extensive studies

Kirchherr and Van Santen, researcher and former research assistant at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, analyzed 160 papers on circular economy. Only 55% of the examined articles were empirical studies, whereas the remaining 45% were more conceptual. Such as the extensive literature study on 114 definitions of circular economy (and a concluding 115th one) written by Kirchherr himself. The researchers now believe there is lack of empirical work. “Practitioners don’t care about the definitional nuances, they want empirical work that provides evidence on how to make circular economy works”, they write. Furthermore, many of the empirical studies has been done in small numbers. Samples of less than 10 were seen in over 60% of the cases.

Foto: hroe via iStock
Practitioners don’t care about the definitional nuances, they want empirical work that provides evidence on how to make circular economy works. Image: hroe via iStock

Focus on industries and developed countries

Nearly all articles (95%) with an industry focus studied manufacturing industries. Less than 10% also looks at the service industry. Kirchherr and Van Santen find this problematic since 70% of the European GDP stems from the latter. In spite of this lack of research many academics surprisingly value sharing economy business models such as Peerby and Zipcar. In addition, the focus of their sample is more on developed countries (95%) than developing countries (5%). “This makes the majority of circular economy literature largely irrelevant to countries collectively representing 50% of the world’s population”, the researchers write.

If we in the scholarly community continue with business as usual, we will miss out on an opportunity to shape a more circular future.
Julian Kirchherr & Ralf van Santen

Lack of advice

Just over half of the examined articles include recommendations. But only a fifth of those are meant for businesses, and a mere 28% of the recommendations are towards policy makers. The majority of the articles though (80%) include recommendations advise other academics.

The article is concluded by recommending to keep in mind these five observations. Research on circular economy should be ‘out there’ and not linger within the academic world. Kirchherr himself is now working on a NWO project that studies to what extent and in what way circular start-up build ecosystems for their novel products and services. He concludes: “If we in the scholarly community continue with business as usual, it is also our firm conviction that the circular economy research community will miss out on an opportunity to shape a more circular future.”

Publication

Julian Kirchherr, Ralf van Santen, Research on the circular economy: A critique of the field, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 151, 2019