News and Opinion, From the Editors

How to achieve sustainability? Through Circular Economy!

The goal of a truly sustainable society and economy is always topical, as also the discussion about the tools needed to reach it. A new scientific approach suggests that modern societies can accelerate their transition to sustainability following the relatively new concept of circular economy.

The discussion on sustainable society and economy as well as the appropriate tools to achieve them has been an ongoing process in recent decades. However, this discussion now needs a new meaning, narratives or, better, should be enriched with a new direction and scientific and epistemological theoretical frameworks. One significant contemporary scientific question is how modern societies can sustainably manage their resources (such as water, soil, energy, biodiversity and waste) applying procedures such as reuse, repair, and remanufacture practices? In other words, this question can take the form of how modern societies could give sustainable solutions under the concept of circular economy (CE).

CE is essentially a new-coming concept with increasing interest and merit since it creates the conditions to overcome the existing economic model (linear model of take - produce - dispose) limitations, which compromise the future economic growth due to the consumption of finite resources. CE emphasizes on the more efficient use of materials and further optimization of their flow through engineering advances to preserve natural resources, hence it opens new opportunities for innovation across fields such as product design, engineering, technological development, business models, economy, food, farming, recycling, biological feedstock, and entrepreneurship, while it examines the potential behavior of people who have to play a critical role in CE either as suppliers of raw materials (e.g., waste), or as consumers who buy recycled products or reuse existing products.

However, there are many open questions regarding the vision and implementation of CE principles and the necessary sustainable engineering solutions to satisfy those, e.g., the further development of strategies, tools and technological solutions, and how CE is measured in businesses, economies and technological innovation. Open questions also remain in the field of economy and management area (the second component of CE) where very little work has been carried out so far. Today, a mechanistic economic approach has limited the field of CE and provides meaningless answers to the complex environmental, social and economic problems. The obsession with the classical economic rationality that today confronts the CE leaves much of the literature of ecological and environmental economics and resources out of the discussion, a fact that limits effective solutions and especially solutions under the concept of sustainability. The increasing complexity of sustainability aspects means that traditional engineering process, business models and social fields cannot alone solve the new challenges and make progress in the field of CE and sustainability.

To achieve feasible sustainable solutions, the interface between economy, policy, and engineering, and implementation and production should be viewed from a different angle. Technological progress that is required to meet the new sustainability challenges should follow the environmentally benign route. The ultimate goal of a CE is to enhance the welfare, health and safety of people with the minimal use of natural resources, and paying due regard to the sustainability of resources, to maximize the social value and the economic optimization and to minimize the environmental impacts. We realize more and more that a purely environmental or technical approach is not sufficient enough, and wider perspective should be given to the way we deal with environmental issues and industrial processes to include goals such as social justice, poverty alleviation and global and local connections.

To get the answers we need, we should therefore view CE as a necessary vehicle for achieving the concept of sustainability, i.e., to realize that these two terms go hand-in-hand thanks to social equity, economic growth and environmental protection. The new concept of CE and sustainability should be built on three main pillars: (i) ecological engineering, (ii) business, management and economy, and (iii) society. The challenge now is to investigate the interconnections, interrelations, interactions and synergies between these three pillars and how these relations are or can be realized in the real world.

The new approach of sustainability and CE means that focus is placed not only on engineering efficiency but also on the synergies between technical and non-technical/social/management and economic aspects. Therefore, an improved understanding of the multiple connections between economy, technology, ecosystems, individuals and the society is required in order to expand the sustainability framework and capture the complexity of this new approach. This is exactly the scope of the new Springer journal ‘Circular Economy and Sustainability’ which will be launched in early 2021.

As CE is necessary today to promote the goals of sustainable development (SDGs), interdisciplinary approaches and multiple connections between diverse scientific areas are required not only to reach the SDGs but also to solve diverse environmental problems, expand technological limits and overcome potential economic disturbances. This approach is expressed with new policies tools (command and control, market-based instruments, and circular public procurement), technological suggestions (e.g. technical cycle solutions), environmental engineering technologies (e.g., waste management, 3r strategies, water recycle, wastewater treatment and reuse, renewable energy), circular business models, circular innovations, circular management solutions, consumers’ behavior in circular economy, share economy, new circular economy products labels and social acceptance in circular economy.

A classical context to make more comprehensive the concept of CE and sustainability should be examined under a threefold level context: the micro-level (firm-level engineering and managerial level), the meso-level (industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis, eco-clusters, and eco-industrial parks), and the macro-level (general policies, plans, green and sustainable entrepreneurship). With the suggested new journal we aim to cover and study exactly the multiple aspects of these two terms by examining relative strategies and policies at the macro-level, as well as new technological and development tools that realize these strategies in practice at micro- and meso-level. There is a wide and interdisciplinary field ahead for future studies and research to examine these topics using a new holistic approach. We wish to promote and encourage this new study field that will eventually lead us to a truly sustainable and circular society.