Coupling Circularity and Sustainability: what lies ahead?

This article explores the intersection of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and circularity, highlighting the importance of minimizing environmental burdens and maximizing resource efficiency. It assesses existing circularity assessment frameworks, methodologies, and initiatives to identify progress and gaps in integrating circularity into LCA, with a focus on advancements within the BIORADAR project.

An illustration of a light bulb merged with a green world map, representing the circular economy concept with recycling, reuse, and sustainability icons

The goal of LCA is to quantify the environmental burdens associated with a product or process and identify opportunities for improvement to minimize these impacts [1]. LCA plays a crucial role in advancing sustainability by providing a systematic and rigorous approach to assessing environmental impacts, promoting resource efficiency and conservation, supporting sustainable decision-making, fostering life cycle thinking, and driving continuous improvement and innovation towards a more sustainable future.

At the same time, circularity has emerged as a central concept in the transition towards sustainability discourse, emphasizing the importance of minimizing waste and maximizing resource efficiency throughout the entire product life cycle. This approach stands in contrast to the traditional linear economy, where products are made, used, and disposed of. Instead, circularity aims to close the loop by promoting strategies such as reuse, remanufacturing, recycling, and waste-to-resource conversion.  While there is a growing interest in measuring and promoting product circularity, there isn't yet a universally accepted method or consensus on how to measure it [2]. Several frameworks and approaches have been proposed, each with its strengths and limitations.

Through examining the current landscape of circularity assessment frameworks, methodologies, and initiatives, this article aims to shed light on the progress made and the remaining gaps in integrating circularity into LCA and the progress made within BIORADAR project.

Understanding Circularity

The concept of the circular economy (CE) encompasses three key principles. Firstly, it involves preserving and improving natural resources by managing finite stocks and ensuring a balance in the flow of renewable resources. Secondly, it aims to maximize the efficient use of resources by continually circulating products, components, and materials at their highest possible level of usefulness, both technically and biologically. Lastly, it involves enhancing the efficiency of the system by identifying and eliminating negative externalities right from the start [3].

Transitioning from a linear to a circular model is critical for sustainable development as it shifts the focus from the traditional 'take-make-dispose' approach to one that emphasizes resource efficiency and waste minimization. This model not only helps reduce the environmental impact associated with raw material extraction and waste generation but also promotes innovation in product design and service delivery that prioritizes sustainability. Thus, embracing circularity is essential for achieving ecological balance and ensuring the long-term health and viability of our planet.

The Role of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA helps to quantify the environmental pressures related to products or processes, including their carbon footprint, energy use, water consumption, and polluting emissions. The comprehensive nature of LCA makes it an invaluable tool in identifying and quantifying the environmental impacts of products and processes over their entire lifecycle. This level of analysis is crucial for organizations aiming to reduce their environmental footprint, comply with regulations, or simply improve their market competitiveness through better environmental performance. The data generated by LCAs can also inform strategic decisions, such as choosing materials with a lower environmental impact, improving production processes, or redesigning products for increased efficiency and reduced waste.

While LCA is extensively utilized to evaluate the environmental credentials of products or processes, traditional LCA methodologies often fall short when it comes to capturing the dynamics of circularity. Circularity seeks to design out waste, keep materials in use, and regenerate natural systems, aspects that are not inherently quantified in a standard LCA. LCA also struggles with adequately assessing the benefits of product longevity and maintenance, which are central to circular approaches. Thus, there is a growing recognition of the need to integrate CE principles into LCA practices. This integration involves expanding LCA frameworks to include additional indicators relevant to circularity, such as reuse, refurbishment, and recycling potential. Therefore, enhancing LCA to better reflect circular economy principles is essential for more accurate and meaningful environmental assessments that align with the goals of sustainability and resource efficiency. 

What has been done?

In recent years, significant progress has been made in integrating circularity into LCA frameworks. Here are some key developments:

Methodological Advancements: Researchers and practitioners have developed new methodologies and expanded existing ones to incorporate circularity into LCA frameworks. These methodologies often focus on assessing factors such as material efficiency, resource conservation, waste management, and end-of-life options. As an example, a relevant development has been the circular footprint formula (CFF), touted by the European Commission (EC). Through this approach, the EC aims to account for the waste flows produced during the manufacturing, distribution, use and end-of-life stage by applying this formula, including also all recycled or recyclable materials entering or leaving the system. Through the application of the CFF, the overall number of emissions and resources that belong to the system’s inventory is obtained; namely recycling, disposal, and energy recovery processes [4].

Development of Circularity Indicators: Several organizations and research groups have developed circular economy indicators to assess the circularity of products and processes within LCA frameworks. These indicators help quantify circularity-related factors and provide valuable insights for decision-making. The most widely known is the Material Circularity Indicator, developed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation. It aims to account for the use of recycled, recovered or reused materials, as well as the waste management practices applied at the end of life (recycling, recovery, reuse, refurbishing, etc.). Ultimately, it leads to an index ranging from 0 to 1, where 0 reflects a fully linear system, and 1 being the archetype of circularity (no virgin materials are employed, and no waste is generated) [5]. This indicator can be calculated alongside the LCA, and harnessing its inventory data, but is not yet well included under its scope. Circularity indicators so far constitute metrics that can complement LCA results and be shown next to them.

Integration of Circular Design Principles: Circular design principles, such as designing for disassembly, recyclability, and material reusability, have been integrated into LCA frameworks to evaluate the environmental performance of products from a circularity perspective. This allows stakeholders to identify opportunities for improving circularity during the design phase.

Case Studies and Applications: Numerous case studies and applications have demonstrated the practical implementation of circularity within LCA frameworks across various industries and sectors. These case studies provide real-world examples of how circularity can be integrated into LCA to drive sustainable innovation and decision-making.

Challenges and Future Directions

Contrary to what is commonly believed, circularity and sustainability are not necessarily synonyms. For example, by performing the LCA of a business-as-usual product and one designed for circularity, which includes the extension of its useful lifetime either by refurbishing or repairing, one feasible result would be that the circular one has a greater impact. How would it be possible? Well, if the product’s use is energy intensive (for instance, an electronic device, or a textile material that requires frequent washings), the impact savings obtained by the extension of the product’s lifetime could be outweighed by the increased energy consumption and its associated impacts. This example sheds light on the rebound effect problem, and the need to reduce consumption levels overall.

One possible approach to better capture these phenomena could be to find a way to distribute the impacts among the different lives of the products. Therefore, the first life could be directly compared to the linear equivalent product, but then, the successive lives may have smaller impacts than producing brand-new products each time. In other words, for multi-life products, the circularity advantages would only be captured by LCA when dividing them into the different cycles of the circular product and comparing each one of them to the linear equivalent.

Another challenge in integrating circularity into LCA is the availability and quality of data, especially for non-linear processes such as recycling and reuse. Future efforts may focus on improving data collection methods, establishing standardized datasets, and enhancing data transparency and accessibility. In this sense, standardization plays a pivotal role in integrating circularity into LCA frameworks. Standardization helps ensure consistency, comparability, and reliability of LCA results, which is essential for making informed decisions and driving sustainability improvements.

What is BIORADAR doing?

BIORADAR is working to produce a measurement framework (Bio-based Transition Indicators, BTI) coupling Sustainability Life Cycle Assessment (i.e., environment, economic and social impacts) and Circularity of bio-based materials. Although not directly merging circularity into LCA, the development is shedding light on the multiple common points and the feedback loops that exist between these two fields. In terms of targeted results, BIORADAR strives to build a graphic visualization of LCSA+Circularity results, enabling practitioners and decision-makers to better understand the performance of key materials within each field.


  1. ISO 14040:2006 - Environmental management -- Life cycle assessment -- Principles and framework.
  2. Rigamonti L., & Mancini E. 2021. Life cycle assessment and circularity indicators. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment: 26:1937–1942.
  3. de Oliveira, C.T. & Andrade Oliveira, G.G. What Circular economy indicators really measure? An overview of circular economy principles and sustainable development goals. Resources, Conservation and Recycling: 190: 106850
  4. EU4Environment. (2023). The Circular Footprint Formula as a means to encourage recycling. EU4Environment. Retrieved on May 8th 2024 from:View url
  5. Ellen McArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Material Circularity Indicator. Ellen McArthur Foundation. Retrieved on May 8th, 2024 from: View url

Hasler Iglesias (CETENMA), Maria Camara (KNEIA)