August 21, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

A Whole New (re-cycled) World? An interdisciplinary conversation about the Circular Economy, Synthetic Biology and Sustainability Goals

This is a guest post by Penny Polson, Carmen McLeod, Sarah Hartley and Eleanor Hadley Kershaw


Introduction to the Circular Economy

The notion of a ‘circular economy’ has been gaining a lot of traction lately. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in particular, has raised the profile of this radical rethinking of how consumer goods are produced and consumed, aiming for an economy that is ‘restorative and regenerative by design’. The circular economy is presented as an evolution from previous movements to incorporate sustainability goals, but with an additional focus on an economy that promotes the continuous circulating and recovering of resources, rather than a linear one, focussed on making, using and disposing.

The idea of redesigning products with the end-of-functional-life in mind, is one of the underpinning values of the circular economy, which aims to reduce both waste and demand for ongoing resource extraction. Many people are becoming increasingly aware of the plastics entering oceans, of how ‘fast fashion’ is being dumped in landfills, and of gas emissions creating climate change and pollution. There is growing concern about the extraction of finite natural resources – but there is uncertainty about how to tackle these issues at a systems level.

The concept of “renewable” resources is often discussed in the context of energy, but significant amounts of other resources that are in limited supply (beyond fossil fuels), are also extracted for products. This ranges from precious metals used in smart phones, to copper used for wiring. Furthermore, fossil-derived petrochemicals form the basis of many everyday materials, such as plastics and synthetic rubber. While supermarkets are beginning to offer more options for reducing plastic packaging and straws will be eliminated from mainstream use by 2020, there are still significant steps to take in order to make manufacturing practices and consumer cultures sustainable in the UK and beyond. The idea of a circular economy offers possibilities for addressing these challenges by designing and connecting products for extended product life and for assimilation back into manufacturing of new items.

The Potential Role of Industrial Waste in the Circular Economy

The circular economy is proving increasingly popular among research funders, policymakers, industry and business globally. A key case that is often highlighted by proponents of the circular economy is the potential for industrial waste to become a sustainable and renewable resource, reflected in recent UK policy such as Enabling Technologies for a Sustainable Circular Bioeconomy: A National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030. In particular, synthetic biology has been forecast to revolutionise the national bioeconomy, with feedstocks from waste gases playing a key role in these expected environmental and economic benefits. This process involves bioengineering bacteria to feed on waste gases, in order to produce fuel and chemicals without using traditional petrochemical sources. An early exemplar of how this could operate in practice can be found in the work of start-up company, LanzaTech, who have developed a process that ferments waste emissions from a  steel mill to make ethanol.

In order to explore these emerging connections between the circular economy and novel biotechnology applications, social scientists, Carmen McLeod (University of Nottingham) and Sarah Hartley (University of Exeter), are leading on a project called: Circling Sustainability and Responsibility: Exploring Synergies between the Circular Economy, Synthetic Biology and Responsible Research and Innovation.* The promotion of synthetic biology as a vehicle towards a more sustainable future by UK and EU policy makers, has also been closely tied to the science governance framework Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The concepts of the circular economy, sustainable bioeconomy and RRI share similar elements – especially the idea of circulating resources and distributing responsibility – and appear to position synthetic biology in particular as a form of what has been described by some analysts as ‘sustainability-orientated innovation’.

In order to capture a broader understanding of the linkages between these concepts, and what implications this could have at both national and international policy levels, an interdisciplinary workshop was held in April this year. Delegates included social scientists and humanities researchers, bioscientists, policy makers and representatives from industry, as well as the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Key discussions points from the interdisciplinary workshop

Rental models, ownership and power within a circular economy

One strand of the workshop discussion centred around the circular economy as an enabler of new business processes through rental models, where ownership of manufactured products (and therefore responsibility for their reuse and recycling back into the system) are retained by those who create the product. It has been well established that ownership creates power dynamics, where individuals and companies become more influential based on how much they own. Participants in the workshop suggested that switching to predominately rental models still maintains structures where “owners” retain a greater proportion of wealth and power.  There is no doubt that the idea of increased responsibility of manufacturers for products is appealing, particularly considering recent scandals which have found coffee cups to be non-recyclable, or recycling waste sent overseas for processing, but dumped into landfills instead. Presumably the extension of manufacturer-owner responsibility throughout the product lifestyle would make steps towards avoiding underhand practices such as these.  But the workshop discussion also shed light on less beneficial impacts of adopting the manufacturer-owner rental model, such as the disempowerment of users in deciding how to recycle their products, which is (potentially) enabled through current systems.  

The pursuit of happiness: the good life through circular living

One of the engaging aspects of the circular economy is that it offers a framework for a systems-level approach that potentially not only mitigates current harm, but offers seemingly workable positive solutions. There was general agreement in the workshop that this framework needed to be carefully considered before implementation. Participants raised the question as to what the circular economy would look like if it was not driven by guilt, fear, and/or our responsibility to do no harm, but rather towards idealised conceptions of what our lives should look like in the future, and how such lives can be serviced by truly sustainable practices. Ideas of “circular living” and “the good life” were raised in relation to what the individual or collective level of the circular economy might look like. This might entail redesigning systems to match our collective visions of happiness in more sustainable ways than are afforded by current systems. However, this topic brings significant questions and challenges of its own. Is it possible to develop common and collective visions of “circular living” or “the good life”? Can the CE meet these needs or desires? What are the values we associate with goods and ownership and might these differ between and within societies, communities and individuals?

The challenges of networks and scale

Workshop discussion also focused on the problem of how individual people or companies could not ‘be circular’, or achieve circularity, on their own and that in order to enable a circular economy, there needed to be collaborative and systems-oriented thinking and action. This was further related to the notion of distributed responsibility, which might be necessitated by the complex networks and ecologies in which products (and people) are embedded, are made up of, and pass through during their manufacture, lifetimes, and after use. The contribution that biotechnology could make within the circular economy – especially synthetic biology – was discussed. The potential for synthetic biology applications to use waste gases as feedstock had a positive response. However, there was also discussion about the potential limitations of just focussing on ‘carbon recycling’ in biotechnology applications, rather than taking a broader ecological and systemic approach. In other words, there is a need to develop approaches for thinking beyond the immediate process of converting waste gases to products. Consideration should also be given to the uses and impacts of those products, the sources of waste gas feedstocks, and the multiple other inputs, outputs, actors and relationships enacted through a circular economy system which involves synthetic biology and waste gases. This could include factoring in all of the materials that are needed to support the process, such as bioreactors, and also extend to consider the socio-cultural and moral implications of such processes.

Concluding thoughts – Democratising decision-making in the circular economy

Overall, the workshop discussion identified that lives could be radically changed by implementing a circular economy, both at a local and global scale. It confirmed that while the mechanisms of the circular economy have been relatively well thought through, particularly in relation to some product cycles and sectors, insufficient attention has been paid to ‘the social’ in relation to circular economy, and the social aspects of circular economy may generate important challenges. The idea of the ‘missing social’ has been raised as a critique of the circular economy (both at the workshop, and more widely) and needs further consideration.  This is perhaps not surprising, considering that the field of sustainability has faced challenges in incorporating the “social” pillar alongside environmental and economic sustainability goals. In order to begin to taken into account the highly complex and networked nature of contemporary production and consumption systems, the concept of RRI was discussed as a way of extending decision-making capacities to include a more diverse pool of stakeholders and further distributing responsibility for the circular economy. However, while RRI might be a promising approach for considering broader dimensions of responsibility, a new set of important questions emerged through the workshop discussion, regarding how the circular economy might be mobilised across varied and complex social contexts. These included:

  • Is the circular economy valued enough by all relevant actors to gain enough traction? Are there inherent challenges in creating something with such radical and ambitious goals? Are these goals shared?
  • Will those who steer conversation be a “coalition of the willing” with predetermined agendas?
  • How can we create a decision-making process that is not inherently top-down/oppressive?
  • How can multiple notions and practices of circular economies be enabled, rather than a singular circular economy?
  • Is there a risk that responsibility will be devolved down to the individual consumer, negating the accountability of large corporations and other private and public organisations who currently have (or should have) significant responsibility, both in their own creation and treatment of waste, and in how they build products to last?
  • What sort of research is needed to place circular economies in context and consider their social, systemic and ecological dimensions?

Together with Eleanor Hadley Kershaw and Penny Polson, the project leads are working on two publications from this research, including a report for decision-makers and an article for an academic journal. 


  • Penny Polson is PhD candidate at University of Manchester Alliance Business School, and Research Assistant on the Circling Sustainability and Responsibility
  • Dr Carmen McLeod is Senior Research Fellow and Social Science Lead in the Interdisciplinary Responsible Research and Innovation Group (IRRIG) at University of Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre.
  • Dr Sarah Hartley is Senior Lecturer in Management Studies at University of Exeter Business School.
  • Dr Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is Research Fellow in the Interdisciplinary Responsible Research and Innovation Group (IRRIG) at University of Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre, and social science researcher on the ENGICOIN

* This project is funded by the University of Nottingham’s Governance and Public Policy Research Priority Area and the Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre.

Image: Pixabay

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