How do scholars approach the circular economy? A systematic literature review
2017, Merli, Preziosi & Acampora
Circular Economy (CE) aims to overcome the take-make-dispose linear pattern of production and consumption, proposing a circular system in which the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy as long as possible. In recent years there has been a proliferation of scholars’ publications on the topic. This study presents the results of a systematic literature review exploring the state-of-the-art of academic research on CE. The paper examines the CE body of literature with a systematic approach, to provide an exhaustive analysis of the phenomenon with rigorous and reproducible research criteria. The revisited material consists of 565 articles collected through the Web of Science and Scopus databases, and has been evaluated using specific structural dimensions to group literature into analytical categories. Starting from being a concept studied in connection with industrial ecology, CE has slowly acquired its independent role in academic research, framed mainly into environmental sustainability related studies. As a result of policies implementation, academic production is mainly concentrated in China and Europe, employing tools and methods for modelling processes and supporting decision-making for CE implementation (e.g. Life Cycle Assessment and Material Flow Analysis). CE studies follow three main lines of action: the first aims to change the social and economic dynamics at macro and administrative level; the second to support firms in circular processes implementation at micro level to spread new forms of consumption and product design; the third, developed at meso level, discusses industrial symbiosis experiences. CE is associated with a variety of concepts, and waste management emerges as the most relevant sub-sector. CE is also strongly connected with the concept of sustainability, proposing ways to operationalize its implementation at the environmental and economic level, while scholars only marginally consider social and institutional implications. The most explored practices are those related to cleaner production, aiming at reducing environmental impact and waste production along the life cycle of a product, and optimizing the performance and efficiency of processes. Conversely, studies on CE may devote greater attention to strategies for social and institutional changes, able to transform the upstream process of production and consumption. Considering business model strategies, scholars mainly focus on studying closing material loops strategy, while slowing the loops, which requires a radical change of consumption and production patterns, is only marginally included with respect to CE implementation. This study’s findings highlight CE as an evolving concept that still requires development to consolidate its definition, boundaries, principles and associated practices.