Encounters with and for circular economy initiatives
Location Bowland North Seminar Room 2
Date and Start Time 27 Jul, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Helena Valve (Finnish Environment Institute) email
  • Maria Akerman (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland) email

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Chair David Lazarevic (Finnish Enviornment Institute)

Short abstract

Circular economy is envisaged as an alternative to the 'take-make-dispose' economic model. This panel invites STS-informed analyses throwing light on the realism of, and realities evolving along, circular economy initiatives. It welcomes papers focusing e.g. on practices of resource-making.

Long abstract

The transition to a circular economy is envisaged as a shift from the current 'take-make-dispose' economic model to one that decouples welfare generation from the use of natural resources and negative environmental impacts. In the EU, the concept is high on the policy agenda. The rationale is to support the saving of scarce resources, enhance material efficiency and boost the utilization of surplus and waste materials.

The attempts to reordering call for STS-informed analyses that can provide accounts of the realism of, and realities evolving along, circular economy initiatives. The changes deemed relevant may relate to the organization of production and service provision, every-day practices of living and consumption; and the establishment of new modes of resource-making.

Although the circular economy is promoted through apolitical win-win narratives, no consensus can be expected to exist about the desired means and trajectories of change. Even when the transformations are advocated as radical and systemic, the simultaneous attempt is to keep some relations unchanged. Furthermore, the resistances and overflows of both human and non-human origin will ensure that circularity cannot be achieved once and for all. This raises questions about the terms and limits in which circular economy solutions appear, and can become, feasible. So what, in the end, should change and for whom?

This panel welcomes contributions, for example, on

- circular or sharing economy experiments;

- circular economy governance and the role of governmental technologies;

- management of and care for waste and surplus materials;

- policies and practices of resource-making.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Circularity by the numbers. Enacting and imagining the circular economy through indicators.

Authors: Thomas Völker (Joint Research Centre of the European Commission) email
Zora Kovacic (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) email
Roger Strand (Universitetet i Bergen) email
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Short abstract

Since 2014 there is a policy push towards a so-called Circular Economy in the EU. This presentation will look at recent efforts at the European Commission to establish indicators and a monitoring framework for the Circular Economy as a site where imaginaries of circularity are currently stabilized.

Long abstract

In recent years EU policy-making displays a growing interest in the concept of the Circular Economy, which promotes a particular future in which linear 'make-use-dispose' cultures are replaced by more circular models. In doing so visions of a Circular Economy weave together ideas about waste management, recycling, reuse and resource efficiency with visions of sharing economies, maintenance and repair cultures as well as discussions about product quality and longevity in multiple and fascinating ways. While this concept grew out of waste management, current ambitions clearly go beyond that and draw on a variety of culturally situated meanings.

In 2017 the European Commission published a roadmap for a monitoring framework for the circular economy, followed-up by a related EC communication in January 2018. In this talk we analyze this monitoring framework and the concomitant indicator development at the European Commission as a site of enacting and assembling collective imaginations of circularity, drawing on STS perspectives on enactment and quantification (Law, 2004; Porter, 1995) as well as sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff & Kim, 2009, 2015). Conceptualizing the institutions involved in developing these indicators as 'centres of calculation' (Asdal, 2008; Latour, 1987) we ask which circularities are enacted as governance objects and how this relates to a broader imaginary of circularity that has been assembled over recent years.

The contribution presents results from the H2020-funded project 'Moving towards adaptive governance in complexity', which aims at exploring the quantitative assumptions embedded within narratives on the water-energy-food nexus.

Understanding the sustainable innovation journey of the Dutch Energy & Resource Factory

Author: Kasper Ampe (Ghent University) email
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Short abstract

The Dutch Energy & Resource factory aims to enable a transition towards resource recovery and the circular economy in the wastewater system. However, technological, social and political factors intertwine in such a shift, this case study aims to understand how this innovation journey is given shape.

Long abstract

The wastewater system is an essential part of society and over the last few years an evolution is noticeable towards resource recovery from wastewater, usually framed as part of a broader transition towards a circular economy. From the literature on socio-technical transitions we know that such an evolution develops through an interplay of technological and societal factors. This paper presents a case of how such dynamics intertwine in the Dutch wastewater sector, where the first steps towards a circular economy are being undertaken.

In particular, the paper focuses on what is currently one of the most important projects in this evolution, the Energy & Resource Factory (ERF). The water authorities have set up the ERF with the slogan "from a technology push towards a market pull" (EFGF, 2017, p. 13). According to the initiative, markets should be created, legislation should be changed and the current largescale and centralised system should be optimised.

However, studies on the circular economy suggest that this transition is problematic (Hobson & Lynch, 2016; Lazarevic & Valve, 2017). The literature on sustainable innovation journeys helps to understand the factors that influence the choices, growth and direction of the ERF and how such a journey is shaped. Actors, interactions and practices influence contexts and vice versa and, in particular, over time ideas stabilise and institutionalise within the context which then guides further choices and selections (Geels, Hekkert, & Jacobsson, 2008; Rip, 2012). To understand this journey we employ qualitative research methods such as documents analysis and interviews.

Modular smartphones. Assessing a recent hype

Author: Stefan Laser (University of Kassel) email
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Short abstract

This paper critically engages with a recent design concept that wants to tackle the issue of electronic waste: a modular smartphone that may be easily repaired and recycled. Based on ethnographic data an attempt to develop such a phone is assessed, which helps reflect on learning capacities.

Long abstract

Electronic waste is a key part of today's global economy: it is the material flip side of the seemingly immaterial IT industries (Gabrys 2011). It keeps getting more serious every year; the pile of dirty waste is growing. In 2018, 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be discarded worldwide (Baldé et al. 2015: 20). This is why many actors want to embrace circular economy approaches to tackle the issue. In my paper I discuss one example and my ethnographic experiences with it. In 2013, the concept of a modular smartphone 'went viral'; a YouTube clip pitched the idea of a phone with interchangeable blocks ('Phonebloks'), which was considered a valuable idea because it rethought how electronic devices are to be designed so that they may be easily repaired and recycled. In the following years, Google attempted to build such a modular smartphone ('Project Ara') - it seemed to become the next big thing.

Roughly four years later, however, Google's project has failed, and the idea appears to be almost forgotten. In my paper I discuss the history of this modular smartphone to shine light on the diversions the project went through. I introduce my netnographic data (Hine 2015; Marres 2017) with the help of economic sociology to describe how a market was build (Çalışkan/Callon 2010) and passions were mobilized (Latour/Lépinay 2010; Tarde 1903). I will especially focus on the problem that it seems as if almost nobody has learned something from the failure of this particular modular project.

Re-ordering material flows for renewable energy production or manure management: the emergence of biogas production in Finland

Authors: David Lazarevic (Finnish Environment Institute) email
Helena Valve (Finnish Environment Institute) email
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Short abstract

This paper investigates the emergence of the biogas niche in Finland. It adopts a strategic niche management perspective, specifically focusing on the re-order material flows in niche development.

Long abstract

In a number of European countries, biogas production systems have been established to re-order material flows; to transform waste and surplus streams (e.g. biowaste, sludge, manure, forestry biomass) into renewable fuels (for energy production and vehicle transportation) and as a fertilizer in agricultural production. Within the field of sustainability transitions, strategic niche management has been adopted as an approach to investigate the emergence and evolution of biogas in counties, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and India. Many of these studies conform to a common narrative in their analysis of the emergence of the biogas niche; biogas plants as a technology in the transition toward renewable energy systems and as a response to the need for climate change mitigation. However, such historical case studies have been criticized due to their reliance on secondary data sources and a lack of critical attention to 'accepted' accounts of historical significant events in the development of socio-technical niches.

The emergence of the biogas niche in Finland has been slower compared to counties such as the Netherlands and Sweden. Hence, this case provides us with the opportunity to explore the emergence of the Finnish biogas niche in the making. Using document analysis and semi-structured interviews, we investigate the emerging Finnish biogas niche, paying specific attention to the material re-orderings coevolving with biogas production. By placing manure at the centre of our analysis, we argue that biogas production can fit into multiple narratives; as opposed to being located within the sole narrative of renewable energy production.

Manure and material politics of resource-making: the case study of Biovakka biogas company

Authors: Maria Akerman (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland) email
Niko Humalisto (Finnish Evangelical Lutheral Mission) email
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Short abstract

The paper investigates material politics of nutrient recycling: how different material orderings enhance or limit resource-making. It is based on a study of a struggle of farmers to turn a regional surplus of manure into a resource in production of recycled fertilisers and biogas.

Long abstract

As part of its circular economy policy, Finland has launched a programme to turn the country into a model country in terms of nutrient recycling. One specific goal in this programme is to enhance processing of manure into transportable fertilisers. However, despite the numerous policy efforts and R&D projects targeting nutrient recycling, the results have been modest. Often manure seems to qualify as a problematic surplus material rather than a resource To understand the reasons for the modest success, this paper investigates a struggle of a pioneering group of farmers in their attempts to turn a regional surplus of manure into a resource in combined production of recycled fertilisers and biogas. The analysis focuses on how social categorisations and manure itself participate in requalification of matter. The aim is to shed light on the material politics of nutrient recycling: how do different material orderings either enhance or limit resource-making — and how and in which arenas could these orderings be questioned.

Inclusive biobased innovation for sustainability: a case study in Jamaica

Authors: Zoe Robaey (Delft University of Technology) email
Lotte Asveld (Delft University of Technology) email
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Short abstract

The bioeconomy promises a vision of a sustainable society based on principles of the circular economy. A blind spot in many biobased value chains are the place and practices of biomass producers, i.e. farmers. We combine STS, RRI, and VSD approaches to suggest an inclusive model for resource-making.

Long abstract

The bioeconomy promises a vision of a sustainable society based on complex technologies and biomass. A blind spot in many biobased value chains are the place and practices of biomass producers, i.e. farmers. We combine science and technology studies (STS), responsible research and innovation (RRI), and values sensitive design (VSD) approaches to suggest an inclusive model for resource-making.

Present business models for biorefineries and production of chemicals and biofuels depend on low feedstock costs and reliable supply. At the same time, sustainable biomass production needs changes in agricultural practices that add value for biomass producers. Reconciling these targets requires alignment and inclusion of actors. Such alignment is guided by explication of values on equity, sustainability, and trust.

This leads to the question: how can biobased value chains be designed to secure sustainable supply of bioresources, improve agricultural management and align farmers' values, interests, knowledge and concerns with the socio-economic and technical requirements of other partners in the chain?

To answer this question, our project compares four case studies in the US, Brazil, South Africa and Jamaica. In these case-studies we map various relevant actors and their particular interests, perspectives and practices through interviews and field observation to identify structural and local specific challenges.

In this presentation we will discuss the Jamaica case. Based on this case we will explicate a model for the improved inclusion of farmers in commercial biobased value chains.

Treating waste for a circular economy? Limits of techno-market fixes

Author: Les Levidow (Open University) email
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Short abstract

Since a decade ago the UK has promoted novel technologies to bring waste up the hierarchy, potentially towards a circular economy. Yet techno-market fixes have complemented the dominant energy system, while marginalising the circular potential.

Long abstract

For the past decade the European Union has promoted the ‘waste hierarchy’ and more recently a circular economy. Incorporating the EU policy framework, the UK has promoted ways to treat waste as a resource for reuse through techno-market-fixes; financial instruments have been meant to incentivise private-sector investment in new treatment technologies to convert waste for more beneficial uses, bring it up the hierarchy and localise its management. This waste-management strategy extended the New Labour government’s broader policy framework of ecological modernisation (EM), aiming to create new markets for low-carbon renewable energy.

Consequent tensions can be seen by linking critical perspectives on EM with socio-technical imaginaries for two technologies, Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and Mechanical & Biological Treatment (MBT). Both had support from environmental NGOs; according to Zero Waste Europe, for example, MBT plants ‘can play a role in transitional strategies to reduce residual waste without having to depend on more expensive undesirable options such as incineration’. The UK government promoted both technologies for localising and converting waste for reuse. Yet such efforts have encountered difficulties in producing commercially viable outputs, e.g. compost improving soil, digestate replacing chemical fertiliser and ‘dirty’ plastics replacing virgin plastics. Moreover, subsidies have incentivised technological designs to produce energy (electricity or gas) for centralised grid systems, thus complementing the dominant socio-technical model of the energy system, dependent on longer-distance waste flows. Technological designs have been scaled towards ‘global goods’, distant from the feedstock source. Environmental NGOs have criticised the outcomes as contradicting the waste hierarchy and circular economy.

Introducing 'care' into circular economies: implications on pro-posal, use and dis-posal

Author: Tridibesh Dey (University of Exeter) email
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Short abstract

This paper addresses forms of 'care' that respect particularities of co-elaborated molecules. Caring opens up alternative ways of re-use and association with the 'disposable' and seeks to 'potentialize' molecular bonds rather than destroy them.

Long abstract

The proposed paper is a speculative account of the care-ful re-scription of a circular economy. We proceed through a re-examination of PET molecules and the complex assemblages these molecules co-produce and co-animate. A care-ful study of 'informed materials' (Barry 2005) reveal 'neglected' works of maintenance within atomic and molecular configurations, ones that inspire and hold engineered assemblages together. These assemblages may incorporate stable elementary tendencies from deep-time anteriority such as inter-atomic and inter-molecular affinities of particular kinds, behaviour of particular entities across temperature-pressure ranges and so on. These essentially sustain characterization, prediction and modelling within the 'operational realism' Barry describes. Care-ing as recognising and acting respectfully with such entities not only unravels petrochemical production as an optimised art of the possible and the technologically-affordable – as built around stable configurations from the past, it may also inspire more meaningful forms of re-use and re/up/down-cycling. In particular, I draw on field-notes from a 3-year long ethnographic study in India where I traced 'surprising' re-attachments and mundane innovations with PET plastic as forms of social and environmental care-ing across domains as diverse as parliaments, sewage canals, lakes, roads, classrooms, people's homes, windows and toilets. Frugal innovation as local circulation can be understood as sporadic socio-economic and ecological eddies that run in parallel to governed circulations such as industrial recycling. By excavating these 'hidden labours', from molecular affinities to unrecognised grassroot innovation, we analyse versions of care-ing in which subjects-to-be are 'potentialized' – from PET-bottle-rafts to volume-enhancer for smart-phone speakers, the list goes on.

Digital platforms in the sharing economy: from matchmaking to boundary making

Authors: Roser Pujadas (London School of Economics and Political Science) email
Daniel Curto-Millet email
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Short abstract

The digital platforms of the sharing economy participate in the reconfiguration of economic relations, and organising in complex ways. We explore the (in)visibilities and ontological politics involved in the reconfiguration of roles, and the distribution of responsibilities, in the case of Uber.

Long abstract

The sharing economy is perceived as a source of empowerment for individuals who can easily participate in direct economic exchanges with each other (Botsman and Rogers 2011), or less optimistically as an expression of economic neoliberalism (Srnicek 2016) or "Reaganism by other means" (Scholz 2016). It is commonly defined as a move towards access rather than ownership (Rifkin 2001) in which digital platforms function as "matchmakers" (Evans and Schmalensee 2016) of offer and demand. Digital platforms are therefore seen as supporting new organisational forms that are reconfiguring economic relations.

While digital platforms tend to be unproblematically presented as the technological infrastructure of the sharing economy, we argue that defining and constituting the boundaries of infrastructures is political and performative, that is, it is implicated in ontological politics, with consequences in the distribution of responsibilities and wealth (Latour, 2003; Mol, 2013; Woolgar & Lezaun, 2013).

Drawing on an empirical case study of Uber, including an analysis of court cases, we examine how the (in)visibility of infrastructure is mobilized (Larkin 2013). We argue that the representation of Uber as a "digital platform", as "just the technological infrastructure" mediating car drivers and clients, is a political act that attempts to redefine social responsibilities, while black boxing important dimensions of the algorithmic infrastructure which remain invisible. It also produces agential cuts that hide the additional layers of infrastructure that sustain Uber, and its business model.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.