Topic 4 From eco-efficiency to eco-effectiveness

The perspective on sustainability is different in a circular economy than in a linear economy.

When working on sustainability within a linear economy, the focus is on eco-efficiency, which means we try to minimise the ecological impact to get the same output.

This will extend the period in which the system becomes overloaded (Di Maio, Rem, Baldï, and Polder, 2017).

Within a circular economy, sustainability is sought in increasing the eco-effectiveness of the system.

This means that not only the ecological impact is minimized, but that the ecological, economic and social impact is even positive (Kjaer, Pigosso et al., 2019).

When we focus on eco-effectivity to create a positive impact, we strengthen the ecological, economical and societal systems by using them.

We can illustrate the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectivity with an example about the production of beef. Raising cows for beef results in emissions of methane gas, a strong greenhouse gas. In a linear economy, the production of beef is made more sustainable by changing the way cows are fed, so that they emit less methane gas for the same amount of meat. This makes production more eco-efficient.

In a circular economy, production is made more sustainable by not making beef from cows, but for example by creating a meat substitute. For the beef substitute, plants are then grown that contribute to biodiversity, employment and landscape management. In this way, the ecological, economic and social impact of the same production of ‘beef’ is increased.

In order to achieve eco-effectiveness, residual flows must be reused for a function that is the same (functional recycling) or even higher (upcycling) than the original function of the material. As a result, the value is fully retained or even increased.

For example: we grind concrete into granules that are used to produce the same or a stronger wall.

This is different in a linear economy. An eco-efficient system typically works on downcycling: a (part of a) product is reused for a low-grade application that reduces the value of the material and makes it difficult to reuse the material flow again (Bocken, Bakker & De Pauw, 2015; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2014).

For example: concrete residues are processed in asphalt in the road surface. This asphalt is lower in value and it is harder to process it and/or use it again.

Step planTake-make-disposeReduce-reuse-recycle
System boundariesShort term, from purchase to salesLong term, multiple life cycles
ReuseDowncycling,Upcycling, cascading and high grade recycling.
Business modelFocuses on productsFocuses on services