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Circular Economy A to Z

We’re not keen on jargon, acronyms and ‘buzzword bingo’! So we thought it would be useful to create an A to Z of the Circular Economy.

Most of these are from the Glossary in Catherine Weetman’s award-winning book: A Circular Economy Handbook: How to Build a More Resilient, Competitive and Sustainable Business, with others chosen to highlight the work of the circular economy’s leading thinkers and researchers.

Here’s the first batch of ‘essentials’ – and we’ll be adding more… just click the + sign on the left-hand side of each term to open up the description.

Do let us know if you’d like us to include others, or if you disagree with our definitions! Please email us:

Circular Economy A to Z

External factors (outside the business) supporting circular objectives, such as collaborative initiatives and partnerships, independent assessments and certifications, government policy and legislation.

Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider “smart”, performing cognitive functions in a similar way to humans – for example,  finding information, reasoning and decision making. 

Large, complex data sets, with challenges for analysis, capture, data curation, search, sharing, storage, transfer, visualization, querying, updating and information privacy. The term may also refer to the use of predictive analytics or certain other advanced methods to extract value from data, and seldom to a particular size of data set.

‘an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies’.  Biomimicry is design that works like nature, rather than merely looking like nature.  It asks the question ‘how can we fit on earth as elegantly as the living systems around us?’  Its aim is to create new ways of living, including products, processes and systems, which are sustainable over the long term.  

Materials from the biosphere, that are/have been living things, eg food, fibres, timber

A theory, or story, to describe how an organization creates, delivers and captures value

A by-product is an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture or synthesis of something else, for example, zinc is a byproduct of the glazing process.

“zinc is a byproduct of the glazing process”

An organisation that provides circular economy services to a range of customers, processing and recirculating materials originally produced by another manufacturer or brand. Examples include a specialist recycler, independent remanufacturer or reseller. 

Products or materials are recovered for use again by the same company – whether for use in the same product or process, or for a different product or process.

Design for Disassembly (DfD) is the process of designing products so that they can easily, cost-effectively and rapidly taken apart at the end of the product’s life so that components can be reused and/or recycled.

Converting end-of-use products or materials into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. eg plastic recycling, converting mixed plastics (of one or more different compositions) into lower grade materials

An approach that aims to minimize the overall environmental impact of a product or service, by considering the entire lifecycle, from extraction or harvesting of raw materials, through production, distribution and use, all the way to end-of-use recycling, ‘repair-ability’ and disposal. 

The Ecological Footprint measures the supply of and demand on nature. On the supply side biocapacity represents the planet’s biologically productive land areas including our forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries. These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also absorb much of the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions.

Biocapacity can then be compared with humanity’s demand on nature: our Ecological Footprint. The Ecological Footprint represents the productive area required to provide the renewable resources humanity is using and to absorb its waste.  The productive area currently occupied by human infrastructure is also included in this calculation, since built-up land is not available for resource regeneration.

the sum of all the resources (materials, energy and water) required to produce any goods or services, as if that resource was incorporated or ’embodied’ in the product itself.  

Used within the organisation to support circularity, including thinking differently (eg systems thinking, biomimicry, ecodesign, green chemistry), using innovative materials or adopting new technology.

(EoL) the point at which a product is destroyed at the end of its useful life.  This term is used to highlight lost opportunities for reuse, repair, remanufacture, recycling etc

the point at which a product reaches the end of a ‘use cycle’, and is exchanged or returned for reuse (eg reselling or renting), repair, remanufacture, recovery of resources etc

(EPR) Product stewardship regulations requiring companies to extend their responsibility for a product to include management of the end-of-use product, and potentially its packaging too.

Externalities are the unaccounted-for consequences of our actions for others, including future people. Examples include pollution, deforestation, obesity, and many more.

The IMF defines economic externalities as ‘what happens when prices do not fully capture costs’ –when economic decisions we make – to make, consume or invest in something – indirectly affects those not involved in the transaction. Externalities can be positive or negative, and the negative effects may cause problems for  people and planet.

The IMF goes on to explain that most externalities are ‘technical externalities’ – where the price of the product doesn’t take the externalities into account. An example is GHG emissions: where companies and individuals are creating emissions, but society and nature is suffering the consequences. Those consequences for society might be financial, say in lost crops on a farm due to drought, or higher insurance costs because of wildfire risks. The consequences could also affect health – such as heat-stress or difficulty in sleeping, or for animals, loss of habitat leading to decline of the species and even extinction.

From the IMF guide: What Are Externalities? Finance & Development, December 2010, Vol. 47, No. 4, Back to Basics, IMF [accessed 15 Apr 2021]

‘Feedstock’ is anything used to make a new product.  This includes raw materials and components, and can be from virgin sources or recycled

The design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances

Industrial ecology uses nature as a lens to understand how industrial systems (eg a factory, a regional or global economy) interact with each other and the biosphere. It aims to mimic natural systems to conserve and reuse resources and inspire sustainable design.

Physical exchange of excess or unwanted resources, including materials, energy, and water, between separate organizations. Waste from one party becomes a useful feedstock for the other. 

Enabling more users to access products/resources, so we get more from less, ie improve resource utilisation and reduce idle time, eg through sharing, renting, pay-per-use, reuse and subscriptions.  This is the 2nd circular strategy.

System common to industrialised countries, with resources flowing through: take materials, make a product, use it, dispose of it. 

Reduce material, energy, water and any other resources used, at a system level.  This is circular strategy #4, which underpins the other three strategies.

Used product or materials are reused by a company other than the original producer – whether for us in the same product or process, or for a different product or process.

“an integrated product and service offering that delivers value in use”

The 3rd circular strategy from the book: we need to ‘close the loop’, by recovering products, components and materials and regenerating new resources to use in the next batch of products.

A hierarchy of basic circular economy approaches (aka the 5 R’s) in priority order.  There are quite a few variations on these!

Efficiency gains from new technologies are offset by behavioural or other systemic responses. Eg: cheaper energy enables people to buy more energy-consuming products; ride-hailing services made public transport less attractive, increasing car miles in many US cities.

Use the product and materials for a longer period of time (eg design for durability and repair) thus getting more life from the materials and reducing consumption. This is circular strategy #1 (of 4) from the book

“An interconnected set of elements that is coherently  organized in way that achieves something.”* eg a company, factory, government, sports team, living systems etc. *Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems, 2008

Materials extracted from the earth’s crust eg metals, minerals, fossil fuels, or man-made, eg polymers, alloys and other man-made materials

Transforming unwanted products or materials into alternative products or materials, which have improved functionality, quality or performance compared to the original

The full range of activities undertaken to bring a product or service from its conception to its end use and beyond.