Transitioning towards circular systems: property rights in waste

Katrien Steenmans (Coventry University, Coventry, UK)
Rosalind Malcolm (School of Law, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK)

Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law

ISSN: 2514-9407

Publication date: 31 August 2020



The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact that property rights can have on the implementation of circular waste economies, in which waste is reused, recycled or recovered, within the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive.


A theoretical lens is applied to the legal definition as well as production and treatment cycle of waste to understand the property rights that can exist in waste.


This paper argues that even though different property rights regimes can apply to waste during its creation, disposal and recovery, the waste management regulatory and legal system is currently predominantly set up to support waste within classic forms of private property ownership. This tends towards commodification and linear systems, which are at odds with an approach that treats waste as a primary wanted resource rather than an unwanted by-product. It is recommended that adopting state or communal property approaches instead could affect systemic transformative change by facilitating the reconceptualisation of waste as a resource for everyone to use.

Research limitations/implications

The property rights issues are only one dimension of a bigger puzzle. The roles of social conceptualisation, norms, regulations and policies in pursuing circular strategies are only touched upon, but not fully explored in this paper. These provide other avenues that can be underpinned by certain property regimes to transition to circular economies.


The literature focused on property rights in waste has been very limited to date. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this paper is the first to consider this question in detail from a legal perspective.



Steenmans, K. and Malcolm, R. (2020), "Transitioning towards circular systems: property rights in waste", Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 219-234.

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