Circles, spirals, pyramids and cubes: why the circular economy cannot work Keith Ronald Skene1


Circles, spirals, pyramids and cubes: why the circular economy cannot work

Keith Ronald Skene1

Received: 30 August 2016 / Accepted: 22 May 2017 / Published online: 5 June 2017

� Springer Japan 2017

Abstract The concept of a circular economy has become a

significant school of thought in sustainable economics over

the last 10 years. This paper critically analyses the key

principles underpinning the concept of the circular econ-

omy, specifically examining the thermodynamic and eco-

logical foundations upon which these principles are

apparently rooted. We examine issues related to recycling,

biological and technical nutrients, restoration, energy use,

elimination of waste, eco-efficiency, product lifetime and

economic growth under three headings: the pyramid of

waste, short cycles and eco-inefficiency. We reflect on how

the economy of nature is based on an open system, not a

closed system, that nature operates using short cycles, not

extended lifetimes, that nature is sub-optimal, not optimal

and that nature is eco-inefficient, not eco-efficient. Find-

ings are then discussed, and we explore what we can learn

from the natural world in terms of sustainability.

Keywords Bio-participation � Closed loop economy � Cradle-to-cradle � Sustainability � Sustainable economics � Thermodynamics � Biomimicry � Spaceship Earth


A circular economy: definitions and foundations

Over recent years, the concept of a circular economy has

become a significant school of thought within sustainable

economics (Murray et al. 2017). Championed by the Chi-

nese government, and integrated into its 5-year plans over

three cycles, Europe has also begun referencing it as a

major set of policies. According to the definition in the

Law to Promote Circular Economy in the People’s

Republic of China, the circular economy is the integration

of activities of reduction, reuse and recycling during pro-

duction, exchange and consumption (Shen and Qi 2012).

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular

economy as an industrial system that is restorative or

regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘end-

of-life’ concept with restoration, moves towards the use of

renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals

which impair reuse and aims for the elimination of waste

through the superior design of materials, products, systems

and, within this, business models (EMF 2012). Other

authors also observe that the circular economy is not

merely a preventative approach, reducing pollution, but

also aims to repair previous damage (Cooper 1999;

Nakajima 2000).

The concept of a circular economy is an essential

component of the resource efficiency initiative of the

EU2020 strategy. The EU has written that: ‘‘In a world

with growing pressures on resources and the environment,

the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a

resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular

economy’’ (EU 2012, p 1). Differences between the Chi-

nese and European interpretations of a circular economy

are discussed in Skene and Murray (2015).

Handled by Finn Tarp, University of Copenhagen, UNU-World

Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), Denmark.

& Keith Ronald Skene

1 Biosphere Research Institute, 5A The Den,

Letham DD8 2PY, Angus, UK


Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492



Europe, along with nations around the world, has agreed

the 10-year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable

Consumption and Production (10YFP) at the Rio?20

Conference, emphasizing circular economy-like principles

(Tukker et al. 2008). UNEP developed its definition of the

circular economy as featuring low consumption of energy,

low emission of pollutants and high efficiency, using it as a

generic term for an industrial economy which is, by design

or intention, restorative. The aims are to ‘design out’ waste,

to return nutrients and to recycle durables, using renewable

energy to power the economy (UNEP 2006).

Ghisellini et al. (2016) observe that in China, the cir-

cular economy is promoted as a top-down national political

objective and has been installed as its overarching envi-

ronmental policy, while in the European Union, the USA

and Japan, it is a tool to design bottom-up environmental

change. However, this is changing rapidly as can be seen in

recent circular economy literature. For example, the recent

paper by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF 2015),

entitled Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a

Competitive Europe, targets a political, top-down, trans-

national engagement. Proponents of the circular economy

model clearly see it as displacing current approaches, and

as the preferred suite of templates to deliver a sustainable


The circular economy is viewed as a better alternative to

the dominant economic development model (Ness 2008).

The EMF has set out to sign up large multinational com-

panies to its concept of a circular economy and clearly sets

out to put the circular economy forward as the fundamental

set of economic policies at local, national and global levels

(EMF 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Ghisellini et al. (2016) p 2

embraces the circular economy as the transcendent

approach, stating that the ‘‘circular economy contributes

positively to reconcile all the elements, thanks to its

underlying rationale, mainly rooted in environmental and

political as well as economic and business aspects’’. Mor-

iguchi (2007) claims that the circular economy is a grand

harmonization between industrialization and its natural

limits. It is described as a business model, a system and a

mode (Wu 2005; Zhijun and Nailing 2007; EMF 2012) and

has been applied across a wide number of fields including

agriculture, design, recycling and product service systems

(Skene and Murray 2015; Murray et al. 2017). Heshmati

(2015, p 5) claims that ‘‘The circular economy presents a

unique policy strategy for avoiding resource depletion,

energy conservation, waste reduction, land management

and integrated water resources management’’.

According to Baily et al (2013), the circular economy is

built on four principles: designing products with their

entire life cycles in mind; maximizing product life cycles;

recycling materials from end-of-life products; and reusing

materials across diverse industries and value chains.

Bakker et al. (2014) and Bocken et al. (2016) further

develop these ideas.

The core foundations of the circular economy are as

follows: recycling (Shen and Qi 2012; Baily et al. 2013);

restoration (Cooper 1999; UNEP 2006; EMF 2012; EU

2012; Nakajima 2000); renewable energy use (UNEP 2006;

EMF 2012; Preston 2012); elimination of waste (UNEP

2006; Shen and Qi 2012); elimination of toxic chemicals

(EMF 2012); eco-efficiency (Schmidheiny 1992; Von

Weizsäcker et al. 1997; UNEP 2006; EU 2012); biological

nutrient return (UNEP 2006); extended product life

(Boulding 1966; Schmidheiny 1992; Stahel 1998; Preston

2012; Baily et al. 2013); and economic growth (Schmid-

heiny 1992; EMF 2012; Stahel 1998).

Origins of the circular economy

In terms of the circular economy, the concept can be seen

to have emerged from established sustainable economics

thinking, including such schools of thought as industrial

ecology (Frosch and Gallopoulos 1989; Allenby 1998),

industrial symbiosis (Babbage 1835 p 217; Ayres and

Simonis 1994; Chertow 2007), biomimicry (Merrill 1982;

Benyus 2002), Cradle-to-Cradle (McDonough and Braun-

gart 2002), eco-efficiency (Schaltegger and Sturm 1989;

Schmidheiny 1992) and waste-is-food (Babbage 1835

p 217; Andersen 2007; Sherwin 2013). Skene and Murray

(2015) trace the genealogy of current schools of sustainable

thinking, exploring the historical lineages that have paved

the way to the circular economy and similar concepts.

The waste-is-food concept lies at the heart of the cir-

cular economy and has its origins in the distant past.

Underpinning industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, the cir-

cular economy, the closed loop economy and many of the

other major schools of modern thinking, waste-is-food can

be traced back to the beginnings of human civilization.

Some of the oldest urban archaeological evidence of

resource recovery comes from the late Stone Age city of

Çatal Hüyük, in central Turkey. Bones left over from food

were used in the manufacture of awls, punches, knives,

scrapers, ladles, spoons, bows, belt hooks, pins and cos-

metic sticks (Mellaart 1967).

As early as 1848, R.W. Hofmann, the first President of

the Royal Society of Chemistry, stated ‘‘In an ideal

chemical factory there is, strictly speaking, no waste but

only products. The better a real factory makes use of its

waste, the closer it gets to its ideal, the bigger is the profit’’

(in Lancaster 2002, p 10). The Danish writer, Peter Lund

Simmonds observed that: ‘‘one of the greatest benefits that

Science can confer on man is the rendering useful those

substances which being the refuse of manufactures are

either got rid of at great expense, or when allowed to

decompose produce disease and death’’ (Simmonds 1862,

480 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492




p 10). Karl Marx went further, claiming that industrial

waste recovery was ‘‘the second great branch of economies

in the conditions of production’’, the first being economies

of scale (Marx 1909, p 120–121).

Greyson (2007) claims that Kenneth Boulding was the

originator of the circular economy concept. Boulding

(1966, p 7–8) wrote: ‘‘Man must find his place in a cyclical

ecological system which is capable of continuous repro-

duction of material form even though it cannot escape

having inputs of energy’’. The term circular economy was

first used in the Western literature in 1980s (Pearce and

Turner 1990) to describe a closed system of economy–

environment interactions. More bizarrely, in a brazenly

revisionist swoop, Baily et al. (2013, p 10) accredit the

McKinsey Global Institute for coining the term, stating

‘‘circular economy is another term coined by the McKinsey

Global Institute’’. There is no evidence of this elsewhere in

the literature.

Recent literature has provided analysis of the application

of circular economy thinking to agriculture (Song et al.

2014), design (Bakker et al. 2014), recycling (Prendeville

et al. 2014; Sevignè-Itoiz et al. 2014) supply chain (Zhu

et al. 2010), business models (Bocken et al. 2016) and

product service systems (Tukker 2013). For a detailed

review of the development of the concept of the circular

economy, Hill (2015) and Ghisellini et al. (2016) should be


This paper critically analyses the key principles under-

pinning the concept of the circular economy, specifically

examining the thermodynamic and ecological foundations

upon which these principles are apparently rooted. We

examine issues related to recycling, biological and tech-

nical nutrients, restoration, energy use, elimination of

waste, eco-efficiency, product lifetime and economic

growth under three headings: the pyramid of waste, short

cycles and eco-inefficiency. Findings are then discussed,

and we explore what we can learn from the natural world in

terms of sustainability. Sustainability is defined as the

maintenance of capital, be that economic, social or envi-

ronmental capital. Strong sustainability states that natural

capital must be protected at all costs and cannot be

replaced with human-made capital. Weak sustainability

seeks to maintain total capital from generation to genera-

tion, through substitution. Thus, if natural capital declines,

provided that human-made capital increases by the same

amount, then total capital will be maintained (Skene and

Murray 2015).

Not only does this paper question the biological basis

claimed for the principles underpinning the circular econ-

omy, but, further, it explores whether or not these princi-

ples are relevant to meeting the challenges facing the world

at present.

Issues with the circular economy

The pyramid of waste

The Waste Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parlia-

ment (EC 2008) states that ‘‘waste means any substance or

object which the holder discards or intends or is required to

discard’’. In the National Standard of the Russian Federa-

tion, waste is defined as ‘‘residues of products or comple-

mentary products formed during or after certain activities

and are not used in direct connection with this activity’’

(GOST R 53691-2009). Moniruzzaman et al. (2011) define

waste as the unwanted matter coming from the production

and consumption of materials by human and animal

activities. Ezeah (2010) believes that any contemporary

definition of waste is dependent on the nature and source of

the waste, including its characteristics and/or the potential

to cause harm either to humans or the environment.

However, these definitions of waste miss the most sig-

nificant form of waste, which in reality dominates both

economic and biological arenas, that of energetic waste.

Energetic waste such as heat waste or eutrophication is

here defined as any increase in energy flow through the

Earth system as a result of human activity. Energetic waste

is a particularly serious issue, leading to many devastating

consequences for the biosphere, including de-oxygenation

of water bodies. It is often ignored because energy is nei-

ther a substance nor an object, as referenced in most waste

definitions. Ultimately, it is energy that forms the currency

of life and business, and the flow of energy through both

human and natural economics shapes and directs both

spheres (Georgescu-Roegan 1971). Hence ignoring ener-

getic waste is a strategy of doubtful value. Energetic waste

fundamentally underpins the damage potential of human

activity. While human energy use has led to a significant

elevation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is not

merely the use of energy by humans that creates issues, but

rather the attempts by humans to increase energy flow

through agricultural ecosystems, and the release of exces-

sive fertilizer waste into natural ecosystems. Other ener-

getic waste includes heat energy released in open loop

cooling of thermonuclear power plants, where thermal

plumes decrease the concentrations of dissolved oxygen in

the receiving water and can cause significant changes to the

ecosystems involved, decreasing biodiversity (McDonald

et al. 2012; Madden et al. 2013). Thus, material that can be

recycled is not without cost, since recycling involves huge

associated energy waste. Embodied energy within recy-

cling processes, often ignored operationally within the

circular economy, with the exception of a few authors (e.g.

Allwood et al. 2012; Allwood 2014), is a major waste


Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492 481




The circular economy is based on the idea of a closed

loop, where materials and energy cycle through the system,

rather than a linear economy, where waste is continually

generated, creating problems of waste management and

resource depletion. This is thought to reflect how the nat-

ural world operates. However, in reality, nature’s economy

does not operate like this. Economists continue to use

antiquated ecological theory and imaginary constructs of

the planet far removed from real science (see Skene and

Murray 2015, for a detailed exegesis on how antiquated

science suffuses modern sustainability thinking). Modern

ecological research recognizes significantly different

underlying principles, including the fact that the Earth is an

open system, not a closed system, that the biosphere is best

understood using an emergent, complex system approach

rather than adopting a reductionist approach, that function

rather than form is central to any understanding of bio-

sphere resilience and recovery, and that dynamic equilib-

rium or non-equilibrium models are preferred to a static

equilibrium approach. While much of the work on the

circular economy has emphasized a ‘Homo habilis’

approach, where we attempt to ‘‘fix’’ nature by interven-

tion, other workers point to the importance of recognizing

systems theory and concentrating on real-time, multi-di-

mensional monitoring, aimed at discovering what impact

any change in human behaviour will have on the system

(e.g. Moriguchi 2007; Rodrigues et al. 2016).

We can refer to this reliance on a static equilibrium

model as the Garden of Eden fantasy. In this imaginary

world, which is a closed system, the equilibrium can be

restored by putting the pieces back in place through

ecosystem restoration. Everything circulates eternally and

balance is maintained as a climax community (Marsh

1965). Perpetual motion exists, and cycles continue, with

no waste, a truly circular economy. Many circular economy

protagonists emphasize the concept of zero waste as a

central plank to the overall concept (e.g. UNEP 2006; EMF

2012; Preston 2012).

What better example for a human economy? Tight

cycling, self-healing, waste-free, continually growing—an

economist’s paradise and an Enlightenment dream.

Spaceship Earth (Boulding 1966) became the dominant

metaphor. However, modern ecology recognizes that

replacing forms will not restore the equilibrium. Rather,

nature is dynamic and emergent, meaning that because of

the countless interactions and pervading laws of thermo-

dynamics, we cannot hope to restore an equilibrium state,

even if it was warranted. Nature continuously changes,

with forms replacing other forms constantly.

Although a few authors (e.g. Allwood et al. 2012; All-

wood 2014) reference flow of materials through the econ-

omy, while Cooper (2005) emphasizes the sufficiency of

resources, at a fundamental level, a circle is a circle, zero

waste means zero waste and a closed loop is a closed loop.

Thus, the terminology associated with the circular econ-

omy is clearly misrepresentative, re-enforcing the idea that

nature can somehow inform a revolution in sustainable

economics, because it is a closed, zero waste, circular


Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Referencing

nature in any attempt to justify zero waste, eco-efficiency,

optimization or circularity is, at best, misleading. Further-

more, sufficiency of resources cannot be considered as an

isolated phenomenon, but must be assessed alongside

energy flows. Energy flow poses the greatest threat to the

planet in terms of sustainability (via eutrophication, cli-

mate destabilization and food web disruption). Without the

flow of energy through the planet continuously, life would

cease to exist, no matter if the material all remained on the

planet. This is because natural recycling depends on

energy-expensive processes, linked to reduction and oxi-

dation processes. Without this energy, the biological cycles

break down.

Earth is not a closed system nor is it a spaceship. Earth is

an open system (Brillouin 1949). Our universe is a closed

system, but all that lies within the universe must obey the

second law of thermodynamics, which states that disorder

(or molecular randomness) will increase within the closed

system up to the point of maximum disorder and a tem-

perature of absolute zero (Clausius 1867). The only reason

we have increasing complexity on Earth at present is

because of the increasing disorder in the Sun, which is

slowly consuming itself, releasing vast amounts of radia-

tion as it does so. Some of this radiation impacts the Earth,

and a small fraction of this is converted into chemical

energy. A tiny amount of radiation is also emitted from the

core of the Earth which is still cooling following its for-

mation and is released through hydrothermal vents and

volcanic activity. However, any constructive activity on

Earth always produces disorder. Indeed, in thermodynamic

terms, complexity represents a means of producing disor-

der. Whether it is growth or maintenance, free energy is

converted to waste.

Hence, the Earth as a whole is generating disorder, or

waste, in accordance with the second law. This applies to

both biological and technical cycles (Ulanowicz 1997;

Kleidon and Lorenz 2004; Kleidon et al. 2010; Martyushev

and Seleznev 2013). Lovelock (1965, p 568) observed that

‘‘Life is one member of the class of phenomena which are

open or continuous reaction systems able to decrease their

entropy at the expense of substances or energy taken in

from the environment and subsequently rejected in a

degraded form’’. As the biosphere becomes more complex,

more energy is required and more waste is produced.

Toussaint and Schneider (1998, p 3) state that ‘‘As

biosystems grow and develop, they should increase their

482 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492




total dissipation [waste production]’’. Thus, complexity is

an expected outcome of the second law, provided that

adequate free energy is available (e.g. a neighbouring star).

If energy is not supplied continuously from the Sun, then

complexity is lost. Sixty-five million years ago, through a

combination of dust ejected into the atmosphere from a

colliding comet and a huge volcanic eruption (the Deccan

Plains), sunlight was blocked from the Earth in what is

called an impact winter (Retallack 1996; Yang and Ahrens

1998). The Earth was starved of free energy, with calcu-

lations indicating that solar transmission was reduced to

10–20% of normal for a period of 8–13 years, producing a

decade of freezing and near-freezing temperatures (Pope

et al. 1994).

Thus, Earth is not a closed system or an air-tight

spaceship, as imagined by Boulding (1966). Instead it is an

open system, reliant on a huge river of energy flowing

through it. Cut off the energy supply and the whole thing

collapses. If we were to base our economy on a natural

model, we would have to imagine billions of tons of gold

continually being sent down to Earth from some philan-

thropic alien every day. Nature is a dependent economy,

hooked on sunlight. The only way to reduce waste pro-

duction is by reducing complexity (de Man and Friege

2016). Easily said, but the reality of this would be extre-

mely unpleasant for the human race. A zero waste econ-

omy would require zero complexity.

Some advocates of the circular economy promote the

concept of holonic distribution (Christensen 1994; Lin and

Solberg 1994; Gwamuri et al. 2014), defined as ‘‘a new

pattern of interfirm relationships evolving network-wide

integration by creating different forms of inter-entity pro-

cesses’’ (Kühnle 2010, p 2). Advocates of distributed

manufacturing promise potential benefits over centralized

manufacturing, including reduction in production waste,

maximization of material use efficiency and a contribution

to rural community wealth creation in the developing world

(Gwamuri et al. 2014).

The atom economy, as developed in the green chemistry

approach (Anastas and Warner 1998), focuses on recycling

individual elements, but given the complexity of many

alloys and polymers utilized in manufacturing, the ener-

getic costs, the associated chemistry and the diverse geo-

economic contexts within which the waste material is

generated, this is at present a difficult concept to follow.

In terms of recycling, another central theme in the cir-

cular economy, materials are degraded during this process

and require energy to restore them (e.g. through the oxi-

dation/reduction cycle). But crucially, recycling creates yet

more waste. Wear and tear are unavoidable consequences

of use within an entropic universe. Prevention of degra-

dation requires less recyclable materials, which means that

greater energetic cost is incurred in recycling. Thus,

maintenance is required just to stand still. This is an

important point. For an economy to grow [and remember,

thermodynamics applies equally to human economic

activity as it does to cosmic events (Georgescu-Roegan

1971)] not only must energy be degraded to achieve the

growth, but energy must also be degraded to maintain all of

the previous growth. Over time, energy use continues to

rise since the estate requiring maintenance must increase if

growth [0. Even at zero growth or de-growth, a large amount of estate previously grown still requires


Meadows et al. (1992) emphasize that a sustainable

society must emphasize sufficiency. Daly (1996) pointed to

a need to move to a steady-state economy, but emphasized

that this could not represent a circular economy because of

thermodynamic considerations (Daly 1977). Princen (2005)

also advocates sufficiency. Lamberton (2005, p 53) high-

lights the problem that exists between a growth-based

economic model and the need to reduce material use,

writing: ‘‘the sustainable sufficiency concept reinforces the

view that neoclassical economic principles provide a bar-

rier to achieving the social and ecological objectives con-

tained within contemporary interpretations of sustainable

development.’’ While the circular economy attempts to de-

materialize growth, it also relies on an economic model

that has been set out to maintain the neoclassical economic

principles so beloved of the dominant advocates of glob-

alization, of which growth is an inherent necessity (Skene

and Murray 2015).

Food pyramids are a clear demonstration that waste

dominates the biosphere. Figure 1 represents the difference

between the natural world and the circular economic

interpretation. In nature, significant inefficiency exists,

wherein 90% of energy is lost at each trophic level,

meaning that a small number of top consumers, such as

humans, require major primary and secondary productivity

to sustain them. Hence, the energy flow through ecosys-

tems diminishes with each level of consumption, with

waste energy far outweighing useful energy at each stage.

Thus, the tropic pyramid tapers sharply. The Garden of

Eden fantasy, as employed by the circular economy, por-

trays nature as a perfect cube, where no waste occurs. This

is simply incorrect. Furthermore, these pyramids are actu-

ally inverted, with humans at the bottom. We rely on the

trickle-down effect, with energy passing from the Sun to

photosynthetic organisms and then through numerous ani-

mals before reaching us. This makes us extremely vul-

nerable to the functioning biosphere above us, whose very

operation is threatened by our activities.

Also, it does not matter whether the energy is green,

blue or black, disorder will still increase, requiring further

energy. Green energy will not deliver any form of solution.

The only way forward is to reduce energy expenditure and

Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492 483




this can only be achieved through de-growth. This is why

we reach asymptotes, or ceilings in nature, be it in popu-

lation size, organismal development, ecological succession

or evolutionary diversification (Skene 2013). There is a

maximum amount of disorder that can be produced at any

level of organization, beyond which the system would

collapse. This is called the maximum entropy production

principle (MEPP), where ‘‘non-equilibrium thermodynamic

systems are organized in steady state such that the rate of

entropy production is maximized’’ (Kleidon et al. 2010,

p 1298). Unless an asymptote is recognized and put in

place early enough, production of disorder will not only

increase the need for more free energy for maintenance, but

the disorder will eventually destabilize the entire system.

This can be seen in a lake where fertilizers applied in

excess to surrounding agricultural fields drain into the

water body. Fertilizers function by increasing productivity

of crops, allowing more solar energy to be converted into

chemical energy (sugar). However, in the lake, the fertil-

izers have the same effect, massively increasing primary

productivity in algae. When the algae die, increasingly

large bacterial populations break them down, consuming

vast amounts of oxygen in a highly energetically wasteful

process, and destabilizing the entire ecosystem. Fish die

and bacterial toxins increase, leaving the lake all but dead.

The fertilizers removed the asymptote formerly limiting

productivity, leading to the demise of the ecosystem as

excessive energetic flow destabilized the system.

The circular economy seeks to maintain an economy

based on growth, energy use and technology, avoiding the

need to challenge the incumbent economic system. How-

ever, sustainability must embrace social, economic and

environmental issues and each of these components must

contribute positively to the others. The circular economy

merely tinkers with the current modus operandi, whereas

this can never deliver an economic model that allows for

environmental and social sustainability. Circles are not

spirals, and for growth to occur, spirals with ever-in-

creasing radii are required. Furthermore, spirals of eco-

nomic growth create equivalent spirals of environmental


Short cycles, not extended lifetime

Another central theme in circular economy thinking is the

idea of extended lifetimes. Walter Stahel’s concept of

improved durability was drawn directly from Boulding

(1966, p 12) who wrote: ‘‘I suspect that we have under-

estimated, even in our spendthrift society, the gains of

increased durability’’. Stahel (1998) emphasized that long-

lived goods and service-for-life extension combine to close

material loops and reduce the speed of the resource flow,

through prolonged utilization of goods. Furthermore, Sta-

hel suggests that this increased service sector would bring

economic growth. This becomes economically problematic

at the level of geography. Many of the products utilized in

Europe are made in Asia. If we reduce demand for these

goods and increase the service sector to prolong the life of

these products, then the economic benefits (increased

employment in the service sector) will rest in Europe,

whereas the economic costs (reduced sales and employ-

ment in the manufacturing sector) will occur in Asia.

The concept of ‘product as service’, where a product is

owned by the supplier and the customer rents the use of the

product, is emphasized by some circular economy thinkers

(see Goedkoop et al. 1999; Mont 2002). Product–service

system approaches can create benefits for struggling com-

panies in terms of allowing the supplier to mitigate the

effects of labour costs, leverage any advantages in com-

petencies and in many cases strengthen the relationship

with the customer (Aurich et al. 2010; Andersen et al.

2013). The consumption of scarce resources and environ-

mental degradation can also be minimized through col-

laborative consumption (Baines et al. 2007; Piscicelli et al.

2015), although environmental benefits are not guaranteed,

as seen in car sharing programmes, and requires careful

monitoring (Pigosso and McAloone 2016). However, the

servicing engineers require transport, replacement parts,

longer-lasting materials, service centres and a large support

network globally, all amounting to significant financial and

environmental costs. Furthermore, as mentioned above,

manufacturing rarely occurs in the same locality as sales,

recycling and servicing, meaning that any benefits are

likely to be externalized.

There is also the challenge of whether a greater envi-

ronmental benefit is achieved through extending the life-

time of the product, rather than replacing it with a new,

more energy-efficient model. Comparisons relating to vir-

tual water (Allan 1998) and embodied energy (Costanza

The amazing

zero-waste, circular

economy food cube

a b

Fig. 1 Circular economy and ecological reality. a The circular economy, like many other schools of sustainability, strives for zero

waste. In this rationale, a food chain would be a cube, with no waste.

b A real ecosystem has a food chain that is a pyramid, with 90% loss of biomass at each stage, supporting fewer and fewer organisms. The

peak predators are few in number and are reliant on the levels below

for the energy needed. Waste of biomass and energy is de rigueur in

the real natural world From Skene and Murray (2015)

484 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492




1980; Miró et al. 2015) are required in order to assess

properly how beneficial extended lifetimes really are rel-

ative to faster turnover. Fundamentally, ecosystem func-

tioning [i.e. the combined study of solar energy flow,

mineral cycling, water cycling and ecological succession

(see Loreau et al. 2001)] is the only way to test the overall

impact of this and any other approach, and so system-based

studies must be carried out, rather than reductive laboratory

studies (Skene and Murray 2015). Given that nature is an

emergent system, it is only at the ecosystem level that the

true impact of production choices can be assessed and thus

ecosystem level indicators are central to any such analysis.

Yet again, nature does not follow the circular economy

script here. In fact, the long cycle is eschewed in the bio-

sphere. We find that fast cycling is the most common

approach (Vogt et al. 1986). Material is quickly recycled

for immediate use in most cases. Soils are particularly good

at this. In rainforests, soil is shallow (10–15 cm deep), yet

huge amounts of material rapidly flow through it (Vitousek

and Sanford 1986). This is important otherwise these

nutrients would be washed away in the large volumes of

rainwater (Likens et al. 1970).

Speed is of the essence. Fast turnover is also observed in

coral reefs and many other ecosystems. This is why

eutrophication (the leakage of fertilizers from agricultural

fields into natural ecosystems) has such a rapid and dev-

astating effect (Jessen et al. 2013). Rapid recycling leaves

natural systems extremely vulnerable to change in energy

flow, a direct impact of fertilizers (which, after all, are

designed to increase energy flow in agricultural systems).

The key truth is that the biosphere has existed on a limited

set of nutrients until recent times and has evolved to

recover and circulate them rapidly.

We often consider resources to be of two types: tech-

nical (i.e. synthetic materials not normally found in the

biosphere, such as plastics) and biological nutrients (pro-

duced by, cycling within and consumed by living organ-

isms). However, when this material, either biological or

technical, is inherently toxic or toxic at unnatural levels,

the biosphere suffers. So not only do we need to try to

avoid releasing technical nutrients into the environment,

but the release of biological nutrients must also be carefully

done so as not to exceed the appropriate levels (Reijnders

2008). The circular economy emphasizes recycling of

biological nutrients, but if this is not done carefully, at a

tempo in resonance with the natural order, it will seriously

disrupt our ecosystems. Tempo is particularly significant in

seasonal latitudes, because the addition of biological

nutrients at different times of the year will have signifi-

cantly different impacts (Rheuban et al. 2014).

Another circular economy mantra stresses the need for

renewable energy. Yet the jolly green giant of renewable

energy, while low in carbon, casts its own shadow upon the

biosphere. Rare earth metals, central to wind power,

require complex and toxic processes to release and con-

centrate them from their source materials (Li et al. 2013),

but their chemistry makes them irreplaceable in terms of

alternatives (Skene and Murray 2015). Solar panel pro-

duction also produces significant pollution (Jacobs 2011).

Palm oil production has devastating impacts on habitats

(Mukherjee and Sovacool 2014). Many renewable energy

approaches also use huge vast amounts of water (Dom-

inguez-Faus et al. 2009). Thus, renewable energy may not

be as green as generally perceived, and since it forms a

central part of the circular economy, this is concerning. To

be low on carbon dioxide production does not mean it is

ecologically sustainable.

Excessive energy use is a signature of the current human

condition and underpins much of the environmental dam-

age that we have delivered. Thus, an emphasis upon the

reduction in energy use, rather than the use of alternative

energy sources, must be prioritized, while full ecological

analysis is needed in order for consumers to understand the

ecological impact of alternative energy sources.

One interesting application of energetics is in the field of

sustainable transitions. The Viennese school of social

ecology proposes the use of socio-metabolic profiling,

focusing on resource use within social structures and

exploring how these structures correspond to human modes

of subsistence. According to the Viennese approach, the

key to a transition is a society’s energy system or meta-

bolism. Major changes in socio-metabolic profiles were

characterized by substantial increases in metabolic rates,

corresponding, in turn, to substantial increases in entropic

output (Fischer-Kowalski and Rotmans 2009; Haberl et al.

2011, 2016).

Eco-inefficiency, not eco-efficiency

Another central tenet of circular economy thinking is that

nature is extremely efficient, and that by increasing effi-

ciency we can attain greater sustainability. Eco-efficiency

is defined as a reduction in material intensity, a reduction in

energy intensity, reduced dispersion of toxins, improved

recyclability, maximum use of renewable resources,

greater durability and increased service intensity (Sch-

midheiny 1992).

Problems arise with this approach. As we have noted,

nature is extremely wasteful, converting low entropy

resources into high entropy waste, which requires vast

amounts of energy to recycle, and, in turn, produces further

high entropy waste. Nature has high energy intensity and it

does not generally work towards greater durability, but,

rather, fast recycling.

Eco-efficiency flies in the face of modern ecological

knowledge. The biosphere is a system, made up of a

Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492 485




number of subsystems, each working sub-optimally for the

overall functioning of the system. System theory demands

this, and we see it throughout the natural world (Skene

2011). Squirrels do not remember where they hid all of the

nuts (Crawley and Long 1995; Steele and Smallwood

2001). DNA does not perfectly correct itself, allowing for

mutations and consequent variation, while foxes do not eat

all of the rabbits. Indeed, inefficiency and sub-optimality

are both central to the functioning of any ecosystem (Ab-

bott and Quink 1970; Forget 1992; Tomback 2001).

Sub-optimality arises in any situation involving mul-

tiple challenges. Farnsworth and Niklas (1995) point out

that as the number of challenges increase upon a pro-

cess, only solutions that are increasingly sub-optimal for

each challenge will work. Thus, the idea that increased

optimization at the level of the human organism will

bring sustainability to the biosphere is wholly incorrect

and dangerous.


This paper set out to examine two premises. Firstly, that the

circular economy is rooted in the same set of principles that

underpin the natural world, and, secondly, that the princi-

ples underpinning the circular economy will increase the

probability of a sustainable future. The Ellen MacArthur

Foundation (EMF) clearly states that ‘‘The concept of the

circular economy is grounded in the study of nonlinear

systems, particularly living ones’’ (EMF 2012 p 22).

However, this current paper clearly demonstrates that the

natural world operates in a very different way from that

portrayed in the circular economy literature. Table 1 sums

up the findings, presenting the ‘natural’ principles adopted

by circular economy thinkers (with references to where

each principle is identified) and then contrasting this with

the scientific research which clearly refutes the validity of

these contrived principles.

The biosphere works very differently to any notion of a

circular economy, primarily because of thermodynamic

and system-related issues. In thermodynamic terms, the

Earth is an open system and bears no similarity to any

concept of spaceship Earth, closed loop nor circularity.

Rather there is a massive flow of energy through the planet,

and life works to convert free energy to waste energy,

under the auspices of the second law of thermodynamics.

Indeed, life is ultimately concerned with waste production.

Increasing complexity requires increasing waste. There-

fore, the concept of ‘‘zero waste’’ has no place in the

natural world. More fundamentally, the concept of waste

cannot be limited to considerations of materials and

objects, but energy. The production of energetic waste lies

at the base of ecosystem and economic functioning.

The idea stated by the EMF that biological components

‘‘are at least non-toxic and possibly even beneficial’’ (EMF

2012 p 22) lies at the heart of another significant error in

much circular economic thinking (with exceptions such as

the cradle-to-cradle approach) that technical and biological

waste can be considered separately, the former requiring

greater attention than the latter because of the differences

in toxicity. Yet some of the greatest threats to the

ecosystem services of our planet come from biological

nutrients. Eutrophication threatens much of the biosphere

and is the direct outcome of increased levels of biological

nutrients, while climate destabilization is mostly

attributable to biological nutrients, as is ocean acidification.

Furthermore, biological nutrients are often non-renewable,

since cycling relies on appropriate diversity and fluxes,

which are damaged upon initial harvesting. The New-

foundland cod collapse did not recover despite fishing

quotas, partly because the remaining, weakened popula-

tions became displaced by different species, which conse-

quently altered the entire nutrient cycle (Hutchings and

Reynolds 2004).

The return of nutrients to the biosphere will not neces-

sarily precipitate recovery or restoration, a core objective

of the circular economy. Furthermore, the concept of eco-

effectiveness, set out by the EMF, claims that ‘‘The goal is

not to minimize the cradle-to-grave flow of materials, but

to generate cyclical, cradle-to-cradle ‘metabolisms’ that

enable materials to maintain their status as resource’’ (EMF

2012, p 23). However, in the global market, few products

are made, bought, disposed of and recycled in the same

geographic location, and thus there is a vast export and

import of nutrients associated with products across the

globe. The problem here is that the biosphere consists of

many local metabolic ecosystems, and if we do not return

materials to the same geographic location from which we

took them, then no form of localized metabolism can exist.

Complete circles do not exist in manufacturing. Vast

amounts of materials are farmed in one location and

divested across the globe. Furthermore, the tempos of

extraction and re-deposition rarely match, and there is no

consideration of seasonal changes, so important in natural

metabolic cycling.

In nature, cycling requires vast amounts of energy, yet

considerations of cycling in the circular economy fail

completely to account for the energetic waste production

associated with such processes, particularly in terms of

‘renewable’ energy. A fixation with carbon also fails to

take account of the broader ecological footprint of such

processes (Skene 2010).

Having clarified that the self-proclaimed principles of

the circular economy bear no resemblance to those that

underpin the natural world, we must then consider if the

circular economy could still be a useful human-generated

486 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492




Table 1 Key principles of the circular economy discourse, and issues related to these, with relevant literature

Element Issue

Recycling1,2 Renewable resources are actually less

recyclable than non-renewable

resources and pose a greater risk.

Ecosystem services are central to the

recycling of natural resources. Soil,

forest, fisheries and coral reefs

cannot be recycled. Recycling is


Restoration5,6,7,8,9 As an emergent system, the biosphere

is self-healing and cannot be

reconstructed by humans.

Reductionist, enlightenment

thinking will not work10,11,12,13

Renewable energy use6,9,14 Most renewable technology (wind,

photovoltaic, green fuel) is highly

polluting in its manufacture and

recycling or destroys habitats. Many

approaches also use vast amounts of

water (green fuels,


Elimination of waste1,9 Defeats waste-is-food concept if waste

is reduced during production. It is

thermodynamically impossible to

grow economically while reducing

waste. Energetic waste is as

damaging as material waste. Nature

operates as a waste pyramid, not as a

perfect cube. Biological waste is as

damaging as technical waste (e.g.


Eliminating toxic

chemicals6 Periodic table dictates that many toxic

elements, either directly or in the

process of mining and purifying,

have unique physico-chemical

properties that make them

irreplaceable e.g. rare earth


Eco-efficiency7,9,26,27 Nature is eco-inefficient. This is a

consequence of systems theory,

where each level is sub-optimal in

order that the overall system

functions. Optimality at the human

level threatens all other levels28,29

Biological nutrient cycling9 Biological nutrients, at inappropriate

concentrations and at the wrong

times, are highly toxic to ecosystems

(e.g. eutrophication and climate

destabilization). There is a lack of

awareness of this. They cannot just

be poured back into nature30,31

Extended product

life2,14,26,32,33 The long cycle is eschewed in the

biosphere. Rapid turnover is key.

Long-lived products cannot be easily

replaced by greener new


Table 1 continued

Element Issue

Economic growth6,26,33 Circles cannot deliver growth, only

spirals can. Furthermore, increased

service industry sector comes at a

geographically separated cost to


1 Shen and Qi (2012) 2 Baily et al. (2013) 3 Homer-Dixon et al. (1993) 4 Skene and Murray (2015) 5 Cooper (1999) 6 EMF (2012) 7 EU (2012) 8 Nakajima (2000) 9 UNEP (2006) 10 Harrisson and Buchan (1934) 11 Trosper (2005) 12 Skene (2011) 13 Cai et al. (2015) 14 Preston (2012) 15 Gardner (2007) 16 Zhang et al. (2000) 17 Farigone et al. (2008) 18 Fitzherbert et al. (2008) 19 Hurst (2010) 20 Jessen et al. (2013) 21 Li et al. (2013) 22 Talbot (1920) 23 Andersen (2007) 24 Cohen (2007) 25 Reller (2011) 26 Schmidheiny (1992) 27 Von Weizsäcker et al. (1997) 28 Farnsworth and Niklas (1995) 29 Tomback (2001) 30 Reijnders (2008) 31 Binzer et al. (2016) 32 Boulding (1966) 33 Stahel (1998) 34 Vitousek and Sanford (1986) 35 Vogt et al. (1986) 36 Torras and Boyce (1998) 37 Dietz et al. (2012) 38 Fujii and Managi (2013) 39 Dominguez-Faus et al. (2009)

Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492 487




concept in terms of delivering sustainability. Problems

immediately arise here. Firstly, not only do the founding

principles find no place in nature, but they actually work in

the opposite direction. Take for example the concept of

efficiency. Technological solutions tend towards efficiency,

and target an optimized human condition. As this paper

emphasizes, nature is sub-optimal at every level of orga-

nization, since complex systems require sub-optimality to

function. If we accept that a sustainable future relies on the

continuance of ecosystem services, then any move towards

efficiency will threaten the very fabric of the biosphere.

Indeed, as Table 1 indicates, almost all of the principles

underpinning the circular economy have the potential to

destabilize the biosphere if they are applied in the real

world. The consideration of biological nutrients as non-

toxic is a dangerous error. The emphasis on renewable

energy greatly threatens many ecosystems around the

world. A proper ecological footprint, not solely reliant on

carbon, needs to be calculated in order to assess how

‘green’ and renewable much of this energy is, while sig-

nificant issues exist concerning water use in ethanol pro-

duction, rare earth metals in wind turbines, a shortage of

graphite and lithium for battery-powered vehicles and a

shortage of uranium for nuclear reactors (Skene and Mur-

ray 2015).

Fundamentally, we must realize that the circular econ-

omy works against both the laws of thermodynamics and

the underpinning principles of nature. Given this, it is

highly unlikely that this concept will pave the way to a

sustainable future.


We conclude by considering what a school of sustainability

truly ‘‘grounded in the study of nonlinear systems, partic-

ularly living ones’’ (EMF 2012 p 22) would look like.

Given that the biosphere has existed as a functioning entity

for over three billion years, proving resilient across at least

five mass extinction events and the snowball Earth of the

Varangian glaciation, and that we have only been a part of

this system for 0.001% of its existence (three million years

compared to its three billion years), then it would seem

sensible to view sustainability as an emergent biosphere

property rather than a human construct. Our re-engagement

with the biosphere requires us to embrace a number of its

pivotal properties that have proved central to its longevity.

1. Sub-optimality: given that the biosphere is a system

made up of a number of interacting levels of organi-

zation, each of these levels is expected to be sub-

optimal and constrained by system-based asymptotes

within which a sustainable system emerges.

Optimization at the human level is therefore a strategy

of doubtful value. Artificial intelligence (the branch of

computer science concerned with making computers

behave like humans) constrains computing systems to

reinforce the failings of humans in terms of our

detrimental impact on the planet. Artificial intelligence

also tends towards the optimization of a process.

Instead, we suggest that new technology should adopt

ecological intelligence as its mentor, in terms of

referencing sub-optimality rather than task-oriented


2. Pyramids, not cubes: nature is a waste-generating

entity, and the cycling and re-energizing processes

must be within natural limits. While recycling of

biological nutrients is important, it must be at a rate

and tempo that resonates with the natural world in

order to avoid serious, toxic repercussions. Embodied

energy relating to recycling must be included in any

assessment of ecological footprints.

3. Bio-participation, not biomimicry, must be the over-

arching philosophy, where context is king. Bio-partic-

ipation advocates the re-integration of humans within

the biosphere system, representing strong sustainabil-

ity, where participation rather than knowledge transfer

ensures deeper symbiosis, as opposed to biomimicry,

an example of weak sustainability, where natural

processes, knowledge and designs are lifted into a

new context for human use as substantive technology

(Skene and Murray 2015). Transferring pieces of the

biosphere into human activity and espousing this as a

means to a sustainable future fails to grasp that the

biosphere is an emergent system, not some tower made

of little bricks. A reductionist approach will not resolve

the issues facing us.

We have the capacity to monitor impact on ecosystem

functioningwith technologies such as remote sensing and

thus can evaluate the emergent consequences of our

actions upon the planet. Remote sensing and other related

Earth observation technologies offer a synoptic view of

the Earth’s surface, with records going back 30 years.

These satellite sensors present new frontiers for biodi-

versity observations offering unprecedented global cov-

erage at high spatial resolution with sophisticated

measurements of the structure, composition, biochemical

and biophysical properties of the Earth’s ecosystems.

It is a mistake to think that remote sensing technology is

limited to monitoring net photosynthetic primary pro-

duction. Satellite remote sensing can contribute signifi-

cantly to four of the key areas in monitoring progress in

sustainability: essential biodiversity variables, natural

capital, biodiversity indicators and ecosystem services

(Strand et al. 2007; Ayanu et al. 2012; Skidmore et al.

2015). Applications include species traits (leaf nitrogen,

488 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492




phosphorus and chlorophyll content, specific leaf area),

species populations (occurrence, demography, disease

prevalence), ecosystem structure (distribution, fragmen-

tation, heterogeneity, land cover, vegetation height) and

ecosystem function (productivity, vegetation phenology,

inundation and fire occurrence), while measurement of

atmospheric dust content acts as a proxy for erosion

(Nagendra et al. 2013; LaRue et al. 2014; O’Connor et al.

2015; Pettorelli et al. 2016). Acoustic remote sensing

sensors allow for production of detailed maps of

bathymetry as well as the geological and biological

components of the seabed, providing a wealth of infor-

mation for mapping and analysing benthic habitats

(Brown et al. 2011).

4. Appropriate asymptotes: as a system, each level of

organization should operate within limits set by the

overall system. This requires sensitive feedback.

Again, technologies such as remote sensing can help

here. Natural ceilings should be respected.

5. Real-time feedback: Nature is in constant communi-

cation with itself. Short cycles allow rapid change, and

function predominates, rather than structure. Remote

sensing offers the potential for appropriate feedback,

allowing us to assess the impact of our actions at a

system level. In an emergent system, you cannot

predict what will happen, but you can measure it. It is

essential to prioritize such ecological feedback as the

central priority in terms of assessing the benefits or

otherwise of our sustainability efforts.

The circular economy relies on tight loops, zero waste,

extended lifetimes and a closed system, built on the Garden

of Eden fantasy established by Boulding (1966) and rein-

forced in later work. But these observations of an imagi-

nary garden are a fantasy and can never deliver

sustainability. It is like believing in a flat Earth. No one can

sail around a flat Earth. Ironically, circles can also never

deliver growth. You need ever-increasing spirals for that.

For economic growth requires maintenance respiration and

growth respiration, and the more growth, the more

expenditure is required to maintain the ever-expanding

estate (Daly 1977). This is important and extremely con-

cerning because it undermines the use of the circular

economy concept as a means to a sustainable end, even in

economic terms.


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492 Sustain Sci (2018) 13:479–492



  • Circles, spirals, pyramids and cubes: why the circular economy cannot work
    • Abstract
    • Introduction
      • A circular economy: definitions and foundations
      • Origins of the circular economy
    • Issues with the circular economy
      • The pyramid of waste
      • Short cycles, not extended lifetime
      • Eco-inefficiency, not eco-efficiency
    • Discussion
    • Conclusions
    • References

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