Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU

Nicky Gregson*, Mike Crang, Sara Fuller, Helen Holmes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

408 Citations (Scopus)


The concept of the circular economy has gained increasing prominence in academic, practitioner and policy circles and is linked to greening economies and sustainable development. However, the idea is more often celebrated than critically interrogated. Analysis shows the concept circulates as an idea and ideal, exemplified by industrial symbiosis and extended product life. Yet, its actual enactment is limited and fragile. Instead, circular economies are achieved mostly through global recycling networks which are the primary means by which wastes are recovered as resources. European policies eschew these circuits. Resource recovery through global recycling networks is regarded as a dirty and illegal trade. In its place, EU circular economies attempt to transform wastes into resources within the boundaries of the EU. Through an analysis of two case studies of resource recovery in the United Kingdom, we highlight the challenges that confront making circular economies within the EU, showing that these are borne of a conjuncture of politically created markets, material properties and morally defined materials circuits. We show resource recovery in the EU to be framed by moral economies, driven by discourses of ecological modernization, environmental justice and resource (in)security, the last of which connects to China's resource-intensive development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)218-243
Number of pages26
JournalEconomy and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2015


  • anaerobic digestion
  • circular economies
  • recycling
  • resource recovery
  • waste


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