Research Unit

Circular Economy

Germany and the European Union target a comprehensive transition towards a circular economy, in which waste should be avoided, products and their components should be used as long as possible, and waste is regarded as a potential resource. Related challenges and questions focused on the design of infrastructures, policy mixes and governance structures, and necessary innovation processes are the starting point for research in the unit Circular Economy at the Wuppertal Institute.

Research at the Wuppertal Institute relating to the challenges of the circular economy is characterised by an integrated and interdisciplinary view of quantitative and qualitative key questions:

  • We see the circular economy from a clear resource efficiency perspective: where can avoiding, re-using and recovering waste save resources? Which materials, products or waste streams shall be targeted by the circular economy?
  • We focus on the necessary political framework of the circular economy: Which policy approaches are necessary and appropriate for such a comprehensive transformation from the local to the global level? Where are crucial obstacles and how can they be overcome?
Circular Economy and Resource efficiency

Even the vision of a completely closed circular economy does not change the limited availability of those natural resources that can flow circularly or that are necessary to recovery raw materials from waste. Also the compensation by bio-based materials is limited due to the global availability of agricultural space. Avoiding, re-using and recovering waste therefore is not a goal itself, but should contribute to a sustainable and resource-efficient economy in the long-term.

We analyse how the circular economy should be designed regarding optimised resource efficiency: Which raw materials can reasonably flow circular? Where can repair of products contribute to resource savings? Which products and waste streams shall be targeted by avoiding waste?

Currently the circular economy focuses on economic issues like potential cost savings or job creation potentials. Considering new circular business models is not yet strongly developed. Recently evolving concepts like Sharing Economy or “Use not Own” can contribute to resource efficiency, but also enhance the overuse of resources (rebound effects). Here we develop integrated and interdisciplinary perspectives in order to connect economic and ecological potentials to the maximum.

Policy approaches for a transformation towards a circular economy

The transformation towards a circular economy also includes a technical challenge. Primarily, however, this will require completely new governance approaches that connect isolated themes like product design, sustainable consumption or resource efficient economizing with waste related issues: What is a product able to flow in a circular way? How can waste infrastructure be planned that is not dependent on constant waste inputs?

Simultaneously, the circular economy will involve a closer relationship from the local to the global level: product design can only be influenced on international levels, whereas concrete consumption patterns require strategies adapted to the local context. And finally the problem of transboundary waste shipments to countries that increasingly avoid the legislative frameworks for waste.

Related to these issues we analyse and develop innovative policy approaches that target the entire product life cycle – from raw material extraction to disposal. We analyse and evaluate specific policy instruments with regard to their effects, implementation and triggered innovation processes.