This panel addresses calls to make material flows more circular and edifying through a critical analysis of the rise of the notion of 'circular economy'. We seek to better understand what counts as circular, who is allowed to trade on the margins, and how tidy theory is translated into practice.
Aspiring to make the prodigious waste of the world safe, productive, and edifying, calls to transform linear models of material decay into circular ones of rejuvenation and profit have become increasingly common of late. 'Closed loops' are invoked as a means to reduce the pollutant externalities of industry and consumption in order to make economic development more 'sustainable' and pure. This approach is manifest in, among others, the concept of 'circular economy', promoted by governments, environmental NGOs and international organisations, with deeply cultural modalities of implementation. The idea that benefits can come from moving objects or materials in virtuous cycles instead of disposing of them is nothing new. Human history abounds with examples of practices that transform discards or byproducts into useful inputs. But the current emphasis on formal, mechanized circularity as an environmental good is a suggestive hallmark of the present era. This panel addresses circularity from a robust critical perspective. Among other questions, we ask: What types of material flows do policymakers, NGOs, and specialists recognize or ignore? Who defines what counts as circular? Which social and economic entities are invited to participate in transitions from the linear to the circular, or excluded from it? Who is allowed to salvage and scavenge on the margins? How is tidy, sanitized theory translated into practice? We welcome empirically grounded papers that question the promotion of circularity in all things material, including through such concepts as the circular economy, 'industrial symbiosis/ecology', 'zero emissions', 'cradle to cradle', and 'product service systems'.