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The hierarchy of resource use for a sustainable circular economy

Heidi Rapp Nilsen (Department of Social Science, NORCE Norwegian Research Centre AS, Bergen, Norway)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 14 January 2020

Issue publication date: 14 January 2020




The original principles of the hierarchy of resource use seem to have been forgotten. The purpose of this paper is to address the necessity of these principles in order for a circular economy (CE) to be sustainable.


This is a general review paper explaining today’s shortcomings in a CE and in the waste hierarchy. Its theoretical contribution is illustrated using the example of marine plastic waste in the Arctic, as well as the EU’s action plan for a CE: “Closing the loop”.


There is a need to reduce raw materials into the economy directly and not only as a potential result of recycling. This is supported theoretically and by illustrating that the EU’s action plan is closing the loop primarily from the output side.

Research limitations/implications

The theoretical possibility of complete recycling rests on a premise that is now at odds with a sustainable development.

Social implications

The power of existing raw material production cycles must be challenged to allow reduction to be a real option. If not, a CE may exacerbate a moral trade-off by the current generation reducing the safe operating space of future living beings.


The theoretical possibility of recycling everything, also known as the technology-optimist view, has played the role of a safety net for humanity. As we are now exceeding planetary boundaries for a safe and just space for humanity, this theoretical safety net is no longer valid. Instead, we must reinforce the basic principles of the hierarchy of resource use.



This paper is financed by The Norwegian Research Council Norway’s research programme POLARPROG, Project No. 257584 “MARine Plastic Pollution in the Arctic: origin, status, costs and incentives for Prevention” (MARP). The author of this paper is indebted to all colleagues who have been contributing to MARP (2016–2019), for fruitful discussions and inputs especially in relation to the waste workshop at Svalbard in 2016.


Nilsen, H.R. (2020), "The hierarchy of resource use for a sustainable circular economy", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 27-40.



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