According to Korhonen, Nuur, Feldmann & Birkie (2018), definitions that focus on system change often emphasize three elements, which are further explained below:
Some researchers argue that social inclusiveness is also a necessary part of the circular economy (Korhonen, Honkasalo and Seppälä, 2018).
In a circular economy, material cycles are closed following the example of an ecosystem. There is no such thing as waste, because every residual stream can be used to make a new product. Toxic substances are eliminated and residual flows are separated into a biological and a technical cycle. Producers take back their products after use and repair them for a new useful life (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a). In this system, it is therefore not only important that materials are recycled properly, but also that products, components and raw materials remain of high quality in these cycles (Korhonen, Nuur, Feldmann & Birkie, 2018).
Just like raw materials and products, energy also lasts as long as possible in a circular economy. The circular economic system is fed by renewable energy sources. Because it is not possible to recycle energy, there is no mention of energy cycles or energy cycles, but of ‘cascade type energy flows’ (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a). An example of this is the co-production of heat and power.
The circular economy does not only require closed material cycles and renewable energy, but also systems thinking. Every actor in the economy (company, person, organism) is connected to other actors. Together, this forms a network in which the actions of one player influence other players. To take this into account, the short and long term consequences must be taken into account in choices, as well as the impact of the entire value chain (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a).