The Ellen MacArthur Foundation “works to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a positive future circular economy.” Their version of the circulate economy is somewhere between the Cradle to Cradle ethos where everything is designed to be reused, upcycled, or biodegrade, and “natural capitalism” which aims to account for overlooked costs and values like those of waste and finite resources. By the end of 2015, the European Commission “is aiming to present a new, more ambitious circular economy strategy late in 2015, to transform Europe into a more competitive resource-efficient economy, addressing a range of economic sectors, including waste.” The circular economy is gaining traction as an idea.

But what is the circular economy, exactly? Is it capitalism with better accounting? Is it about scaling up recycling and reuse? Is it about consuming and producing less, or consuming and producing fundamentally differently? Is it a different economy, or a tweak of the current one? Does it go so far as to advocate for a degrowth or steady state economies?
There are critiques that tweaking business as usual to be more resource-efficient so that growth and profit can continue will still lead to environmental and social degradation (see, for example, proponents of degrowth or explicit critiques of natural capitalism), as well as arguments that the circular economy is a way to repackage industrial recycling, small-scale reuse, carbon credits, and other technological fixes that have not stemmed the tide of climate change or toxic industrial substances (see special issue of Society and Space Forum, or some of the political debate around the European Commissions plan).

Diagram of the Circular Economy System by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Diagram of the Circular Economy System by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

One of the strengths of discard studies is its dedication to empirical case studies to test—and change—theories and assumptions about how economies work. We’ve written elsewhere about how, because waste is an economic concept that signifies value or valueless, accounting for and with waste and pollution helps ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do or will they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants?Starting today, the Ellen MacArther Foundating is hosting a three week long Disruptive Innovation Festival “that brings together entrepreneurs, designers, industry, makers, learners and doers to explore and respond to the changing economy.” We look forward to how speakers in the event, from Michael Braungart (Cradle-to-cradle) to George Lakoff (Professor of cognition at the University of California at Berkeley) to L. Hunter Lovins (President of Natural Capitalism Solutions) will deal with these questions.