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Circular economy term bank
Process of collecting the right volumes of products and materials of the right
quality for a reasonable price
Anaerobic digestion
Anaerobic digestion is a process in which organic matter is degraded by a
microbial population of bacteria in the absence of oxygen.
A physical object, such as a machine, building or material. Components of
objects are also described as assets because they are frequently treated
individually during or after a use cycle.
A material is bio-based if it is wholly or partly derived from biomass.
A material is biodegradable if it can, with the help of micro-organisms, break
down into natural elements (e.g. water, carbon dioxide, biomass).
Chemical recycling
A process to break down polymers into individual monomers or other chemical
feedstock that are then be used as building blocks to produce polymers again.
Circular economy
The circular economy is a novel economic model in which the focus is on reusing
materials and value, and on creating added value in products through services
and smart solutions. (Sitra)
A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and
which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility
and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.
(Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
The circular economy is a generic term for an industrial economy that is
producing no waste and pollution, by design or intention, and in which material
flows are of two types: biological nutrients, designed to reenter the biosphere
safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality in
the production system without entering the biosphere as well as being restorative
and regenerative by design. (Wikipedia)
An economic model based inter alia on sharing, leasing, reuse, repair,
refurbishment and recycling, in an (almost) closed loop, which aims to retain the
highest utility and value of products, components and materials at all times.
The circular economy concept is generally described as one in which products
and the materials they contain are highly valued, unlike in the traditional, linear
economic model, based on a 'take-make-consume-throw away' pattern. This
production and consumption model is based on two complementary loops
drawing inspiration from biological cycles: one for 'biological' materials (which
can be decomposed by living organisms) and one for 'technical' materials (which
cannot be decomposed by living organisms). In both cases, the aim is to limit the
leakage of resources as much as possible. (European Parliament Briefing
January 2016)
In a circular economy profits, jobs and growth come not from extracting, moving,
shaping, selling and dumping ever more resources, but from the work done and
value created by handling resources with sufficient care that ecosystems and
total natural resources actually expand, making it possible to meet human needs
everywhere. There would still be unwanted materials to ‘get rid of’ but they would
not end up accumulating in ecosystems, they would instead be regenerated as
new resources for the Earth and for the economy.
There are no material or non-material human needs that inherently require
resources to be lost as wastes in ecosystems. The daunting gulf between the
current waste-making economy and tomorrow’s waste-free economy may be
reimagined as a vast exciting source of work, jobs and growth.
Closing the loop
The three main business processes required to close loops are acquisition
(collect the right volumes of products or materials of the right quality for a
reasonable price), reprocessing (refurbish, remanufacture or recycle used
products or materials for a reasonable price) and remarketing (identify markets
that want to buy the reprocessed products or materials). Closing the loop on the
product or part level potentially generates much more value than on the material
Compostable materials can be either industrial or home compostable, see below.
The process of molecular unbinding of a compound due to physical, chemical or
biological actions (e.g. UV exposure, temperature, microbial activity) that may
lead to the loss of the initial properties of the compound.
The act of reducing or even eliminating the need for materials in a product, while
maintaining its utility.
Materials/products at the end of their primary use, that are collected and returned
to the same usage, or cascaded to a new one.
Replace old with advanced non-renewable materials, apply new technologies
(e.g. 3D printing or electric engines) and choose new products/services (e.g.
multimodal transport).
Any bulk raw material that is the principal input for an industrial production
Greenhouse gas
Any gaseous compound that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation. By
trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases are responsible
for the greenhouse effect, which ultimately leads to climate change.
Home compostable
Compostable in an uncontrolled environment (under naturally occurring
Industrially compostable
Compostable in a controlled environment.
Intelligent assets
Physical objects that are able to sense, record and communicate information
about themselves and/or their surroundings. This definition incorporates IoT
objects but also includes assets that are not continuously transmitting
information, and things that do not feature wireless communication.
Internet of things (IoT)
The networked connection of physical objects. For simplicity, this term is used in
this report to indicate all objects, systems and processes that are exchanging
information through the Internet, instead of differentiating them by additional
definitions (e.g. the Web of Things, Internet of Everything or Industrial Internet of
Materials that do not follow an intended pathway and ‘escape’ or are otherwise
lost to the system. Litter is an example of system leakage.
Used in the context of the linear economy; linear refers to any process that
follows the straight line of take, make and dispose. Once a material has been
used for its intended purpose it is discarded and lost to the system.
Linear economy
Take-make-waste is used to describe the Linear Economy.
Keep components and materials in closed loops and prioritise inner loops. For
finite materials, it means remanufacturing products or components and recycling
materials. For renewable materials, it means anaerobic digestion and extracting
biochemicals from organic waste.
Materials recycling
• Functional recycling. Recovering materials for their original purpose or for other
purposes, excluding energy recovery
• Downcycling. Converting materials into new materials of lesser quality and
reduced functionality
• Upcycling. Converting materials into new materials of higher quality and
increased functionality, also by improving on a downcycling process.
Mechanical recycling
Operations that recover after-use plastics via mechanical processes (grinding,
washing, separating, drying, re-granulating, compounding), without significantly
changing the chemical structure of the material.
Natural capital
Natural capital refers to the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include
geology, soil, air, water, and all living things.
Negative externalities
Negative externalities can be defined as cost suffered by a third person or society
as a whole resulting from an economic transaction, e.g. pollution including CO2
emissions or noise, health issues including obesity, asthma or allergies.
Increase performance/efficiency of a product; remove waste in production and
supply chain (from sourcing and logistics, to production, use phase, end-of-use
collection etc.); leverage big data, automation, remote sensing and steering. All
these actions are implemented without changes to the actual product or
Performance models
A business agreement in which the customer pays for the use, or the
performance, of a product rather than the product itself. The rationale is that there
is no inherent benefit in owning the product. On the contrary, ownership can entail
additional costs (upfront investment), risk (unpredicted repair, maintenance or
obsolescence), and end-of-use treatment costs. Performance models go under
several names with different specifics, e.g. service contracts or ‘servitisation’,
leasing or asset centralisation. The emergence of IoT has also led to the popular
notion of ‘anything-as-a-service’.
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into reusable objects to
prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh
raw materials, energy usage, air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution
(from landfilling) by decreasing the need for "conventional" waste disposal and
lowering greenhouse gas emissions compared to plastic production. Recycling
is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the
"Reduce, Reuse and Recycle" waste hierarchy. (Wikipedia)
Recycling of waste is defined as any recovery operation by which waste materials
are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original
or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not
include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used
as fuels or for backfilling operations. (EU Directive 2008/98/EC)
A process of returning a product to good working condition by replacing or
repairing major components that are faulty or close to failure, and making
‘cosmetic’ changes to update the appearance of a product, such as cleaning,
changing its fabric, painting or refinishing it. Any subsequent warranty is
generally less than issued for a new or a remanufactured product, but the
warranty is likely to cover the whole product (unlike repair). Accordingly, the
performance may be less than as-new.
Shift to renewable energy and materials; reclaim, retain, and regenerate health
of ecosystems and return recovered biological resources to the biosphere.
A process of disassembly and recovery of an asset at a product and component
level. Functioning, reusable parts are taken out of a used product and rebuilt into
another. By definition, the performance of the remanufactured component is
equal to or better than ‘as new’.
This process includes quality assurance and potential enhancements or changes
to the components.
Renewably sourced
Derived from renewable sources, either biomass or captured greenhouse gases.
To put a material that has been used through another industrial process to
change it so that it can be used again
A flow or stock of materials or energy that can be transformed into assets or
consumed to make assets function.
The use of a product again for the same purpose in its original form or with little
enhancement or change.
Reverse logistics
The process of moving goods from their typical final destination to concentrate
them at a central location, either for the purpose of capturing value (through
reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishment, parts harvesting or recycling), or for
proper disposal.
Keep product loop speed low and maximise utilisation of products, by sharing
them among different users (peer-to-peer sharing of privately owned products or
public sharing of a pool of products), by reusing them through their entire
technical lifetime (second hand), and by prolonging their lifetime through
maintenance, repair, and design for durability.
Value creation
The performance of actions that increase the worth of goods, services or even a
business. Many business operators now focus on value creation both in the
context of creating better value for customers purchasing its products and
services, as well as for shareholders in the business who want to see their stake
appreciate in value. (
Value creation occurs when the result of a work task or activity makes a product
or service worth more in terms of potential customer appeal than at the start.
Dematerialise resource use by delivering utility virtually: directly, e.g. books or
music; or indirectly, e.g. online shopping, autonomous vehicles, virtual offices.
wasteful use of something valuable, loss of something by using too much of it or
using it in a way that is not necessary or effective
Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)
Discarded electrical and electronic devices that still contain significant valuable
materials, including metals (e.g. steel, copper, rare minerals) and plastics.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2016. The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking
the Future of Plastics
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2016. Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular
Economy Potential
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2015. Delivering the circular economy: a toolkit
for policymakers
World Economic Forum, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey &
Company. 2014. Towards the Circular Economy Vol. 3: Accelerating the scaleup across global supply chains
Delft University of Technology. 2016. Circular Economy: an introduction. MOOC
course at