Circular economy running in circles?: A discourse analysis of shifts in ideas of circularity in Swedish environmental policy

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Nils Johansson

Circular economy has in recent years been promoted as a promising alternative to unsustainable production systems. By comparing two different concepts of circularity, circular economy and eco-cycle, which had political momentum in Sweden during the 2010s and the 1990s respectively, the paper shows how issues of responsibility, politics, limits, space and sustainability, and even the shape of the circle itself have changed over the turn of the millennium. Based on a discourse analysis of two policy reports on the concepts, a strong and a weak interpretation of circularity are identified. A weak circularity, represented in circular economy, is presumably without limits. Secondary resources shall only complement the growing extraction of primary resources, while the responsibility for circularity is handed over from the state to individuals and entrepreneurs. A weak circularity excludes social responsibility and tends to reinforce unequal power relations. With a strong conceptualization of circularity, on the other hand, the producers and the state are responsible for creating a closed, material loop limited in size and space, based on the principle of fair distribution of resources. Drawing on the findings, alternative directions of circulation are called for, which are more globally oriented and socially inclusive.

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