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Resource Conservation + Circular Economy

Resource Conservation + Circular Economy

Raw materials form the backbone of modern economies and are key ingredients for future development. Their use has severe environmental and social impacts, from extraction to disposal. Therefore, resource conservation aims at establishing a circular economy, which keeps products and raw materials in economically valuable loops, shifting from waste to resources.

Ecologic Institute's inter- and transdisciplinary research on resource conservation and the circular economy covers areas such as resource efficiency and productivity; sustainable production and consumption; raw materials management; waste prevention, reuse and recycling; and decoupling resource use and waste generation from socioeconomic development.

Our work builds on methods from empirical social research, action research, and transformation research. The team undertakes indicator-based qualitative and quantitative assessments of policy instruments and policy mixes on resource use. Furthermore, the team investigates trends, dynamics, and processes of change that could foster reductions in resource use. Closely involving stakeholders via participatory processes, the team identifies and co-designs policy and societal options to act.

Our team works with partners from academia, industry, civil society, and governments, from the municipal to the European level. We believe that cooperation is central to deriving societally relevant and robust findings to help drive forward resource conservation and the circular economy.

Resource use is growing worldwide and expected to continue to rise. Waste generation as well as environmental impacts associated with resource extraction, in particular emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), biodiversity loss and water stress, are also set to increase.

Key drivers for skyrocketing resource extraction encompass a growing world population with increasing income and changing consumption patterns. Further, infrastructures, value chains, institutions and governance systems rooted in linear thinking produce path dependencies. For example, a  continued increase in natural resource use and its associated environmental impacts put at risk reaching both the Paris climate target and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is not compatible with planetary space.

Therefore, action on reducing humankind's resource use and the associated ecological footprint is paramount. The Circular Economy constitutes a promising avenue for such a needed reduction.

The circular economy (CE) stands for an economy, which maintains the value of materials for as long as possible while minimising waste generation and emissions as well as generating employment by closing material loops along life cycles of products and services. The CE concept's life-cycle thinking helps to implement the waste hierarchy laid down in the European Waste Framework Directive by focusing on waste prevention (e.g. by designing out waste) as well as re-use and repair, and subsequently also recycling. For the CE to work, it needs to integrate actors and value chains from design to processing and production to consumption and after-use. Only then, can the CE exploit its potential to reduce the quantities of natural resources used and associated environmental impacts while maximizing well-being and utility. The CE holds promising potential to help achieve international climate targets in a cost-efficient way. Around one quarter of global GHG emissions are directly linked to industrial production of materials, with production of steel, cement, aluminum and plastics constituting the main source of industrial GHG emissions. Here, CE approaches can support decarburization via dematerialization. For instance, using secondary materials and designing products with alternative, low-carbon or renewable feedstock materials could reduce global CO2 emissions. Hence, the CE can be considered a key strategy to help achieving climate targets and the SDGs.

Overall, there is progress towards the CE. There are trends of diverting waste from incineration and landfilling, as the least circular and bottom-most approaches of the waste hierarchy to recycling. However, only a small fraction of material use in the European economy is sourced from secondary materials. Hence, in order to stay within planetary boundaries a system transition to mainstream and scale-up CE approaches is needed.

Implementing the CE concept systemically requires a shift from linear to circular systems, thus calling for system transformation in production, consumption and governance systems as well as in society. Hence, transitioning to the CE necessitates institutional, organizational, policy, social and technological innovation to go hand-in-hand. This presents a formidable challenge to existing systems and their (re-)design for transformation. Therefore, we need to improve our understanding of the potential economic, environmental and social (co-)benefits and impacts of such a transition. It is necessary to develop promising interventions in order to facilitate and trigger this transformation.

On the European level, and on the level of most of the EU member states, there exists a well-established and partly long-standing landscape of policies and legislation that aims at fostering the CE. However, a systemic, integrating and coherent policy seems lacking and horizontal policy integration between different policy areas is in its infancy.

Ecologic Institute focuses on analyzing trends, drivers and policies affecting the transition to a circular economy.


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Susanne Langsdorf
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Resource Conservation + Circular Economy

Linda Mederake
Co-Coordinator Plastics

Resource Conservation + Circular Economy

Dr. Aissa Rechlin
Co-Coordinator Resource Conservation & Circular Economy
Senior Fellow
Selected Projects for Resource Conservation + Circular Economy
To strengthen climate protection in Germany, the amendment of the Climate Protection Act in 2021 further tightened the greenhouse gas emission targets for 2030 and set the goal of climate neutrality for the year 2045. An important step in the energy sector is the phase... Read more
The project "Circular City Berlin – from potential towards implementation (CiBER 1)" analysed and promoted innovative approaches to the circular economy in various sectors in Berlin. In view of the expected further growth, urban densification and increased economic... Read more

Circular City Berlin – From potential towards implementation (CiBER 1)

| © Ecologic Institut
Infrastructure systems are undergoing a process of profound transformation. They are under great pressure to change in order to contribute to changing social objectives. Expectations and challenges with regard to climate adaptation and climate protection, the circular... Read more
Global extraction of primary raw materials has been growing continuously for decades, and absolute decoupling between economic growth and resource consumption, let alone environmental impacts associated with the use of natural resources, has not yet been achieved.... Read more

Textiles, including clothing, are a priority product category for the circular economy and one of the focus sectors of the new Circular Economy Action Plan. The textiles sector is a relevant economic sector in the EU, both in terms of job and value creation, as well as... Read more

Photo by La Miko on Pexels

Thuringia is one of the first German states to draft its own resource conservation strategy. This requires a solid data basis on the resource flows of the state. In the ThüRess project, Ecologic Institute and the Institute of Economic Structures Research (GWS) are... Read more
Climate and resource policy are important fields of action at international and national level. In contrast to climate protection, there is no international policy regime for resource conservation and its societal relevance appears lower than for climate protection.... Read more
All projects on Resource Conservation + Circular Economy
Selected Publications for Resource Conservation + Circular Economy
Sustainable use of natural resources in the long term requires not only the application and dissemination of resource-saving technologies and infrastructures, but also changes in individual and collective behaviour and social practices. Against this background,... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, M.; Araujo Sosa, A.; Zwiers, J.; Hackfort, S.; und Schipperges, M. (2020). Methodentriangulation zur Ermittlung und Bewertung von gesellschaftlichen Trends und ressourcenpolitischen Maßnahmen. Teilbericht aus dem Trendradar-Projekt. UBA TEXTE 160/2020. Umweltbundesamt, Dessau-Roßlau.

This article (written in German) examines various policies and approaches that are currently being implemented or planned as solutions to the plastics crisis. It becomes clear that in national and international policies plastics are mainly described as a problem of... Read more

Mederake, L., Araujo Sosa, A. und Hirschnitz-Garbers, M. (2020): Mehr Kohärenz bitte! Plastikpolitik in Deutschland, Europa und weltweit. Politische Ökologie, Band 161, 76-82.

While circular processes offer potential for small and large companies, such processes are not (yet) established across the board. For circular processes to be applied widespread, exchange between science and companies must be improved. As part of an national research... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, M.; Sittel, H; Wilhelm, R. (2020). Circular economy und Nachhaltigkeitsinnovationen – Forschungsergebnisse mit der Praxis diskutieren. GAIA 29/1(2020): 68 – 69. DOI 10.14512/gaia.29.1.16

Technological developments and trends can contribute significantly to resource conservation. However, the concrete impact of these developments and trends always depends on the social context. Here, in addition to political framework conditions, social routines,... Read more

Hackfort, Sarah, Jakob Zwiers, Martin Hirschnitz-Garbers and Michael Schipperges (2020). Die Zukunft im Blick: Sozio-ökonomische und sozio-kulturelle Trends der Ressourcenschonung. German Enviroment Agency, Dessau Roßlau.

RECREATE Policy Brief No. 9
This policy brief explores and explains the concept and rational of co-creation, both as a general concept as well as in the specific context of sustainability science. Furthermore, it takes a detailed look at its use and potential in the framework of European research ... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, Martin (2018). Co-creation in Sustainability Science. Challenges and potential ways forward in implementing co-creation in  European research and innovation funding. RECREATE Project Policy Brief No. 9.

Addressing climate change and natural resource depletion has been key to the international and national sustainability agenda for almost 30 years. Despite existing efforts, global CO2 emissions and raw material use levels continue to grow. This seems to suggest the need... Read more

Meyer, M.; Hirschnitz-Garbers, M.; Distelkamp, M. (2018). Contemporary Resource Policy and Decoupling Trends – Lessons Learnt from Integrated Model-Based Assessments. Sustainability 2018, 10(6), 1858; doi:10.3390/su10061858

The national and international political agenda shows that resource conservation is a central task for environmental policy: In Germany, Europe and globally, there are political programmes and strategies aimed at fostering sustainable resource use. In five theses, this... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, Martin, Susanne Langsdorf, Ullrich Lorenz 2018: Ressourcenschonung als Zukunftsaufgabe – Ansatzpunkte für eine systemische Ressourcenpolitik. Umweltbundesamt: Dessau-Roßlau.

Prevailing resource use patterns of the global socio-industrial metabolism are unsustainable. For effective resource policies, drivers for such unsustainable resource use and their effects need to be better understood and mapped. In the context of the FP7 research... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, Martin; Adrian Tan; Albrecht Gradmann and Tanja Srebotnjak 2015: “Key drivers for unsustainable resource use – categories, effects and policy pointers”. Journal of Cleaner Production.

| Quelle: Ekvall, T. et. al. (2016): Development of DYNAMIX Policy Mixes – Deliverable D4.2, revised version. Gothenburg, Sweden: IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
Increasing material use efficiency is important to mitigate future supply risks and minimize environmental impacts associated with the production of materials. The policy mix presented in this paper aims to contribute to reducing the use of virgin metals in the EU by 80... Read more

Ekvall, T., Hirschnitz-Garbers, M., Eboli, F. and Śniegocki, A. (2016). A Systemic and Systematic Approach to the Development of a Policy Mix for Material Resource Efficiency. Sustainability 2016, 8(4), 373; doi:10.3390/su8040373.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the economy and a key player to steer our economy towards a more circular model. However, their small size means that they face unique challenges on the path to closing loops and improving resource efficiency... Read more

Vasileios Rizos, Arno Behrens, Wytze van der Gaast, Erwin Hofman, Anastasia Ioannou, Terri Kafyeke, Alexandros Flamos, Roberto Rinaldi, Sotiris Papadelis, Martin Hirschnitz-Garbers and Corrado Topi, "Implementation of Circular Economy Business Models by Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs): Barriers and Enablers", Sustainability 2016, 8(11), 1212, doi:10.3390/su8111212

Studie für die GD Umwelt
In order to support businesses in improving their resource efficiency, Member States use a variety of approaches, ranging from voluntary to regulatory measures. This study assesses the scope of application of ten relevant measures and provides good practice cases across... Read more

Hirschnitz-Garbers, M., Hinzmann, M., Watkins, E., ten Brink, P., Milios, L. and Soleille, S. (2015). A framework for Member States to support business in improving its resource efficiency. Final Report for DG Environment, November 2015.

All publications on Resource Conservation + Circular Economy
Selected Events for Resource Conservation + Circular Economy
|© Henning Sittel
On 17 June 2019, the NaWiKo workshop "Sustainable management in companies based on the example of bioplastics" took place at the facilities of Bio-Molkerei Söbbeke GmbH, a sustainable creamery, in Gronau near Münster. The aim of the workshop was for company... Read more
| Fotolia_© kalafoto
Ecologic Institute supported the German Environment Agency in hosting the workshop "Decarbonisation – 100 % Renewable Energy and more: Transformation pathways to a greenhouse gas neutral and resource efficient society," which took place on 17 October... Read more
NaWiKo Logo
The international "SustEcon Conference – The contribution of a sustainable economy to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals" took place on 25 and 26 September 2017 at the Freie Universität in Berlin. It was organised by the project NaWiKo, which coordinates 30... Read more
| Fotolia © Carol Meneses
The Federal Environment Agency was hosting the 3rd National Resources Forum with support of Ecologic Institute on 11 November 2016. The conference took place in the "Ludwig Erhard Haus" in Berlin. The NRF 2016 brought together 300 participants. The aim of the... Read more

Conference:National Resources Forum 2016

Berlin, Germany
| Fotolia © asray
Ecologic Institute supported the Federal Environment Agency in organising the 3rd European Resources Forum from 9 until 10 November 2016. The conference took place in the "Ludwig Erhard Haus" in Berlin. The ERF addressed European decision-makers and experts... Read more

Conference:3rd European Resources Forum 2016

Berlin, Germany
All events on Resource Conservation + Circular Economy