Panel 17 | Discourse analysis of and for the circular economy

CADAAD2022 | 06-08/07/2022 | Bergamo, Italy

90 | Machteld Simoens

Circular Economy Transition Pathways for the German Packaging Sector

Achieving a transition to a circular economy is high on the agenda in the German packaging sector. Consequently, a large variety of different packaging types aim to provide a more sustainable and circular alternative to single-use plastic packaging. Nevertheless, this abundance of alternatives makes it difficult for producers and consumers to make the “right” choice for sustainability and both politics as well as industry face ambiguous and contradicting inputs on the “right” way forward. This situation reinforces the linear packaging system and forms a large challenge for a transition towards a sustainable circular economy.

By analyzing and clustering the various alternatives that are being developed and discussed, this study provides a comprehensive overview of the alternative approaches to single-use plastic packaging available. Additionally, we take a discursive perspective and look into the circular economy transition narratives that underlie these alternatives. In our analysis, we specifically focus on to what extend the narratives draw on the material, institutional and behavioral status quo and proposed changes in the packaging sector. With this perspective, we aim to enhance our empirical understanding of the dialectic relationship between discourses and other socio-technical system elements and to strengthen the added value of a discursive perspective on socio-technical transitions.

Based on these insights, the study explores the role of these transition narratives for potential socio-technical pathways of transition. More specifically, we group the various transition narratives and their perspectives on a circular economy into potential pathways for the German packaging sector and discuss their tensions, overlaps and shortcomings concerning a transition to a sustainable circular economy. With this, we aim to inform discussions and decision-making processes on the abundance of alternatives to single-use plastic packaging and outline potential pathways for the German packaging sector to make the transition towards a circular economy, their advantages as well as their drawbacks.

110 | Nur Gizem Yalcin, Erik Paredis, & Melanie Jaeger-Erben

Contested visions of the circular plastics transitions in Europe

Although being an increasingly contested concept, circular economy (CE) gained its place in policy, business and academia as a collection of different ideas, visions and strategies that presents an alternative to the linear, extractive and wasteful economies. CE has shaped within a nexus thinking in the EU, where a win-win logic of economic and environmental aspects has framed challenges as opportunities and waste as resources (Kovacic et al., 2020). The focus on opportunities for synergy silenced the problem of trade-offs and gained wider support (Kovacic et al., 2020). Although proponents of the CE argue that this way of thinking led to a more effective approach, critics problematise the reductionist approach that results in techno-managerialism.

As CE is being more often been celebrated than critically interrogated, the vagueness and ambiguity open up space for simplistic ideas and practices. This uncontroversy promotes a depoliticised CE where circularity overlooks or even dilute the present socio-ecological crisis (Friant et al., 2020). However, socio-political dynamics make a substantial difference for which circular economy and society become possible (Jaeger-Erben et al., 2021). The challenge of circularity as well as the complexity and uncertainty that comes along with that opens up room for diverging perspectives. In the case of circular plastics, the cross-boundary nature of negative impacts and interdependencies along the value chain bring contested views of actors to the table, who actively try to influence the process of change. The power of including and/or excluding certain ideas into political agendas will have major impacts on a circular plastics economy policy and will determine its impact for the coming decades. Diverse interpretations or discourses will give directionality to the future transition pathways.

This paper explores how different actors interpret the transitions to the circular plastics economy in Europe. We apply discourse analysis to generate insights on how arguments are framed, how problems and solutions are defined, which strategies are developed, and which future pathways have presented (Hajer, 2006). Based on media analysis, document reviews and semi-structured interviews, we present different perspectives and meanings attached to the circular plastics economy. Our findings shed light on the underlying socio-political dynamics of these transitions. We expect to contribute to opening up the political debate around plastics and to create a more reflexive approach to the commonalities and divergences of the visions of circular transitions.


Friant, M., Vermeulen, W. J., & Salomone, R. (2020). A typology of circular economy discourses: Navigating the diverse visions of a contested paradigm. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 161, 104917.

Hajer, M. (2006). Doing Discourse Analysis: Coalitions, Practises, Meaning. In M. Van den Brink & T. Metze (Eds.), Discourse Theory and Method in the Social Sciences (pp. 65–76). Netherlands Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research.

Hobson, K., & Lynch, N. (2016). Diversifying and de-growing the circular economy: Radical social transformation in a resource-scarce world. Futures, 82, 15-25.

Jaeger-Erben M., Jensen, C., Hofmann, F., Zwiers, J (2021). (2021). There is no sustainable circular economy without a circular society. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 168, S. 105476.

Kovacic, Strand and Volker (2020). The Circular Economy in Europe: Critical Perspectives on Policies and Imaginaries. Routledge Explorations in Sustainability and Governance.

116 | Matthias Mutani, Kasper Ampe, & Kris Bachus

The future of circular work in Flanders: contradicting discourses on labour in transitions

Among practitioners and academics, the circular economy and its influence on the labour market have received growing attention over the last decade. The circular economy proposes to close material and energy loops as an alternative to the take-make-dispose system of the linear economy by adopting distinct transition pathways or circular strategies, such as reduce, repair, and recycle. These circular strategies are typically ranked in a waste hierarchy, reflecting their contribution to the circular economy. The strategies ranked highest in the hierarchy are generally considered more sustainable. For example, reducing the amount of goods produced and repairing products is considered more sustainable than recycling products and materials. Nonetheless, scholars indicate that recycling strategies are becoming dominant because they are closely intertwined with win-win narratives of sustained economic growth and technological innovation, reminiscent of ecological modernist ideas (Bauwens et al., 2020; Ghisellini et al., 2016).

Regarding labour market dynamics in Flanders' prominent policy shift to a circular economy, we observe diverging interpretations of work in the circular economy. For instance, social economy actors advocate a locally embedded transition focused on repair and reuse activities, while recyclers argue for an expansion of recycling by linking waste streams and a broader market uptake of secondary materials. Yet others, notably government agencies and policymakers, advocate a transition driven by innovative design and new business models. When considered together, these diverse perspectives illustrate that the transition and the circular economy are perceived in different ways by different actors, all proposing different issue agendas, circular strategies, investments, education policies and potential solutions.

In this paper, we therefore ask what are the different discourses on labour in a transition to a circular economy and how to understand these discourses? A discourse is understood as a ‘specific ensemble of ideas, concepts and categorizations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities’ (Hajer, 1995, p. 44). Through interviews with different stakeholders and labour market actors in Flanders and document analysis, we identify three discourses.To do this, we focus on what is said (i.e. storylines), the influence of what is being said (i.e. structuration and institutionalisation), and which actor (re)produces what is being said (i.e. coalition).

This paper shows that labour in a transition to a circular economy is interpreted differently by various labour market actors, indicating that they shape different transition pathways to a circular economy. On the one hand, the paper thus finds that different political choices, investments, priorities, agendas and narratives for the circular economy transition are being shaped, and that the actors involved face complex processes on the ground, multiple trade-offs and conflicts. On the other hand, it helps to understand these discourses against the backdrop of circular strategies and pathways. Specifically, the literature on green and circular jobs generally finds that relatively small changes in worker skills are needed in transitions, calling for a ‘topping-up’ of skills or ‘upskilling’ workers in declining industries. However, this paper shows that specific discourses and the related coalitions shape incremental pathways of change (i.e. low-ranked strategies) and that recycling will not require radical shifts in the skills of workers and the related policies and systems, whereas other strategies in a green transition may require new, marginalized or lost skills and fundamental changes in policies, power and systems.

178 | Kasper Ampe & Kris Bachus

Narratives of repair: electronic consumer devices in the circular economy

As a result of the current environmental crisis, sustainability is high on the political agenda in the European Union and Flanders (Belgium). Amongst many others, they are developing ambitious circular economy policies and initiatives. Yet much remains to be done in terms of achieving long-term sustainability objectives (UN Environment, 2019), the circular economy is still in its infancy (EEA, 2019) and its ‘inner circles’ (e.g. rethink, repair, refurbish and remanufacture) are underdeveloped.

To explain the slow uptake of repair as a circular strategy, the literature focusses on so-called barriers; user perspectives, public acceptance and awareness; and broader conditions such as infrastructure and legislation. However, these three strands of literature do not take into account that accelerating the uptake of repair and enabling its transformative potential requires new ways of interpretation, in which problems and solutions are redefined.

This paper therefore asks how actors interpret repair and then explores how we can understand these interpretations from a sustainability transitions perspective? To answer these questions, the repair of electronic consumer devices in Flanders is selected as a case study. The paper uses an interpretive research methodology (Yanow, 2006), discourse analysis (Hajer, 1995) and qualitative research methods (sixteen in-depth interviews, participant observation and document analysis). By doing so, it distinguishes four discourses, including their main proponents, that struggle over defining repair, namely ‘empowering consumers, citizens and independent companies to repair electronics’, ‘repair and recycling on an equal footing’, ‘repair as a market opportunity’ and ‘the social objectives of repair over economic efficiency’.

The paper then not only identifies the commonalities between the four discourses, which are small steps toward a circular repair economy that may be used by policymakers, but also the fundamental differences in terms of political choices about the pathways of change (Geels & Schot, 2007) and labour market challenges (Noon & Blyton, 2002). Concerning transition pathways, the paper finds that is likely that two discourses, advocated by established actors such as manufacturers, retailers and recyclers, are becoming most successful in defining repair and in shaping a pathway of incremental change. The same actors are also proposing specific, narrow labour market measures, mainly assigning roles to public actors who are expected to close the so-called skills gap and to workers in the form of upskilling. Hence, by using discourse analysis, the paper adds a new understanding to the circular economy literature on the slow development of transformative repair.

Given the Government of Flanders’ circular economy ambitions and the current environmental pressures, the identified pathways of incremental change and narrow labour market measures may not lead to transformative repair. For policymakers and practitioners in Flanders, the paper therefore proposes an approach that considers policymaking in complex and multi-actor settings to open up discussions between the four discourses.


EEA. (2019). Paving the way for a circular economy insights on status and potentials. Copenhagen: European Environment Agency.

Geels, F., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36, 399–417.

Hajer, M. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernization and the policy process. NY: Oxford University Press.

Noon, M., & Blyton, P. (2002). The realities of work. NY: Palgrave.

UN Environment. (2019). Global environment outlook—GEO 6: Healthy planet, healthy people.

Yanow, D. (2006). Thinking interpretively: Philosophical presuppositions and the human sciences. In D. Yanow & P. Schwartz-Shea (Eds.), Interpretation and method (pp. 5–26). NY: M.E. Sharpe.

205 | Martin Calisto Friant, Martin Calisto Friant, Walter J.V. Vermeulen, & Roberta Salomone

Decolonizing the imaginary of the Circular Economy

The Circular Economy (CE) concept has recently become a popular discourse both in the public and private sectors. The proponents of this idea are espousing many social, economic, and environmental benefits from the application of CE practices. Given current socioecological challenges to overcome resource scarcity, climate change, and biodiversity loss, all while reducing global poverty and inequality, the CE could indeed provide key solutions and opportunities for a transition to a sustainable, fair, and resilient future.

However, the CE faces many limitations to deliver on those expectations. Indeed, the CE is very much a contested discourse with many actors proposing different visions of a circular future based on their particular socio-economic interests. Moreover, the economic, social, political and environmental implications of different circular discourses and policies remain poorly researched and understood.

This research seeks to address this research gap by answering the following question: what are the main societal discourses on the CE at the international, national and local level and what are their sustainability implications? To answer this question, this research uses a mixed-method approach including critical literature review, content analysis, text-mining, and Q-method survey. Its case studies include European Union CE policies, Dutch CE policies for plastics and tyres as well as the CE action plans of 4 European cities (Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Porto and Amsterdam).

Results demonstrate the existence of a plurality of circularity discourses through history, which can be divided into 4 broad discourse types based on their approach to eco-economic decoupling and social justice. The presentation will critically discuss the key differences between these 4 circular discourses as well as their significance for the construction of a sustainable, inclusive, and democratic circular economy and society. Finally, various recommendations to improve circularity policies at all levels will be presented. Our research concludes that although the CE discursive landscape is quite diverse, public policies focus on technocentric solutions which don’t address the social and political implications of a circular future. More pluralism and inclusiveness is thus needed in the debate surrounding circularity and in the design and implementation of circular policies.