The concept of Circular Economy (CE) is relatively new, being in 1990 the first time it was defined and described as such by Pearce and Turner (1990). However, the concept remained dormant for about 20 years (Elkins, 2019). It was not until the creation of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (FEM) in 2010 and its publication “Towards the Circular Economy” in 2013, in which the business and economic benefits of circular business models, that the concept had the greatest impact.

Since then, definitions of CE have increased. Kirchherr et al. (2017) found 95 different definitions of CE; 83 of which were published after 2012. While the CE concept encompasses different R strategies, such as Reduction, Reuse or Recycling among others (see previous news), not all definitions include them all. For example, Kirchherr et al. found that only 54% of definitions consider Reduction, 74% Reuse and 79% Recycling. This diversity in definitions creates a challenge when evaluating circularity, since different concepts entail different evaluation methodologies and, ultimately, different interpretations.

To assess circularity, indicators are the main tool. They quantify the contribution, for example, of products or services to the CE, evaluate the progress of circular strategies, establish new objectives, support decision-making, as well as communicate and report. Since the first publication of a CE-specific indicator in 2010 (Li et al. 2010), a great diversity of indicators have emerged. Saidani et al. (2019) evaluated 55 CE indicators, published from 2010 to 2017, and classified them based on then circularity characteristics. Of these ten, the three most important to highlight are:

  • the scope of the indicators, that is, if they are applied at the level of products or companies (micro level), or at higher levels such as industrial parks (meso level) or to cities, regions or countries (macro level);
  • the type of loops they consider; in particular, if they consider maintain, reuse/ remanufacture and/or recycling;
  • how they evaluate circular performance; distinguishing between indicators that assess the inherent circularity of resources and those that assess the consequences of circularity, that is, its environmental and / or economic impacts.

Based on this classification, the authors created an easy-to-use Excel tool, with which the user, after selecting different options within each category, obtains a list of recommended indicators. In the case of ARECO, we have evaluated the result of this tool; taking into account that we are interested in a micro-level indicator (since we are focusing on the circularity of Reusable Plastic Crates, RPC) that evaluates the inherent circularity (since the environmental impact was previously evaluated) and that considers reuse as a loop key, or all loops. Of the 20 micro indicators, the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) was the recommended one.

The MCI is an indicator that was developed in 2015 by FEM and Granta Design, in a two-year LIFE + project. It evaluates the level of linearity and restoration that the manufacture and use of a product has, as well as its time of use and utility with respect to an average product in the current market. The basis of the MCI are the CE definition of FEM and the two cycles that the FEM considers circular models to have (see Illustration 1): biological cycles, in which non-toxic materials are restored to the biosphere; and technical cycles, in which products, components and materials are recovered in the market with the highest possible quality and for the longest possible time.

Within the framework of the ARECO Postdoctoral Fellowship, we are working on adapting the MCI to assess the circularity of reusable plastic crates, incorporating the benefits associated with reuse. The results of the study, expected to be released by the end of next September, are intended to provide results and methodological novelties that can also be applied to other reusable products.


[1] “A circular economy is a global economic model that decouples economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources. It is restorative by design, and aims to keep products, components and materials at their maximum utility and value, at all times.”