How Circular is the Global Economy?: An Assessment of Material Flows, Waste Production, and Recycling in the European Union and the World in 2005

It is increasingly recognized that the growing metabolism of society is approaching limitations both with respect to sources for resource inputs and sinks for waste and emission outflows. The circular economy (CE) is a simple, but convincing, strategy, which aims at reducing both input of virgin materials and output of wastes by closing economic and ecological loops of resource flows. This article applies a sociometabolic approach to assess the circularity of global material flows. All societal material flows globally and in the European Union (EU-27) are traced from extraction to disposal and presented for main material groups for 2005. Our estimate shows that while globally roughly 4 gigatonnes per year (Gt/yr) of waste materials are recycled, this flow is of moderate size compared to 62 Gt/yr of processed materials and outputs of 41 Gt/yr. The low degree of circularity has two main reasons: First, 44% of processed materials are used to provide energy and are thus not available for recycling. Second, socioeconomic stocks are still growing at a high rate with net additions to stocks of 17 Gt/yr. Despite having considerably higher end-of-life recycling rates in the EU, the overall degree of circularity is low for similar reasons. Our results indicate that strategies targeting the output side (end of pipe) are limited given present proportions of flows, whereas a shift to renewable energy, a significant reduction of societal stock growth, and decisive eco-design are required to advance toward a CE.

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