An international team of the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF has developed the first study to evaluate the circularity of food distribution systems in Spain. Its results have been published in the prestigious scientific journal Heliyon.

The linear economy follows the take-make-waste model, based on the presumption that resource availability and ecosystem regeneration are unlimited, neglecting the existence of planetary boundaries as a limiting factor.

Although some studies argue that the economy is transitioning from linear to circular, evidence shows that our economy has always been a mixture of both. The inclination of the economy towards circular or linear models is influenced by factors such as profitability, business opportunities, and limitations such as time, skills, labor, or resources.

Faced with the challenges of linear economies and the continued growth of the population, transitioning to circularity is a key step towards sustainable development. Although there is a common understanding of what the circular economy (EC) entails, there is no unified and universal definition. Of all definitions, the most used one is provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) (EMF, 2013). EMF summarizes its definition in the three principles of the EC: to eliminate waste and pollution, regenerate nature, and circulate products and materials. Although the circular economy is present at all levels and has been theorized extensively, quantitative examples in microeconomics are scarce.

After researching the topic with a specific case, an international team from the UNESCO Chair on Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF, composed of Ilija Sazdovski, Dr. Laura Batlle-Bayer, Dr. Sahar Azarkamand, Dr. Alba Bala, and Dr. Pere Fullana-i-Palmer, supported by Dr. Maria Margallo and Dr. Ruben Aldaco from the University of Cantabria, has published the results of a study evaluating the circularity of two systems for the distribution of fresh products in Spain in a scientific article (Sazdovski, et al., 2024) in the prestigious journal Heliyon (article). This study evaluates two alternative systems: a) Reusable transport packaging (ERTs) and b) Single-use cardboard boxes. This is an extraordinarily important service, with a turnover in Spain of over €29.750 trillion annually (hispack, 2022) and with great potential for environmental improvement.

In this study, a Material Flow Analysis (MFA) was conducted in the production and usage phases of both systems, and two circularity indicators were applied: the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) and the Product Circularity Indicator (PCI). While most previous studies on single-use packaging use these indicators at the product level, this new study is based on a complete life cycle of the supply system. The Material Circularity Index (MCI) is considered the most promising material circularity metric (Linder et al., 2017). The MCI applied to packaging has been primarily used to evaluate the benefits of recycling strategies, with very little coverage of other strategies such as reuse. The MCI has some limitations, such as not considering the preservation of the quality of recycled materials. To address these limitations, Bracquené et al. (2020) proposed changes to the MCI and developed a new indicator, the so-called Product Circularity Indicator (PCI).

As seen in Figure 1, both indicators reveal that reusable transport packaging (ERTs) is more circular than cardboard boxes. This difference in circularity assessments is greater when using the PCI because this indicator: a) encompasses more life cycle stages; b) considers the efficiency of more stages than the MCI, and c) calculates unrecoverable waste more exhaustively. However, there are still difficulties in finding data for the individual calculation of these additional life cycle stages of the supply chain system. The practical implementation of the indicators shows that, in an evaluation of the circularity of the system, when segregated and detailed data from all life cycle stages of the system are not available or of lower quality, the MCI is easier to use (Sazdovski, et al., 2024).

Figure 1: Comparison of the circularity of Reusable Transport Packaging (RPCs) and carboard boxes.


Bracquené, E., Dewulf, W., Duflou, J.R., 2020. Measuring the performance of more circular complex product supply chains. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 154, 104608.

EMF, E.M.F., 2013. Towards the Circular Economy. Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition. MacArthur-Foundation-Towards-the-Circular-Economy-vol.1.pdf

Linder, M., Sarasini, S., van Loon, P., 2017. A Metric for Quantifying Product-Level Circularity. J.Ind. Ecol. 21, 545–558.

Hispack, 2024, La industria del packaging,

Linder, M., Sarasini, S., van Loon, P., 2017. A Metric for Quantifying Product-Level Circularity. J.Ind. Ecol. 21, 545–558.

Sazdovski, Ilija, Batlle-Bayer, Laura, Bala, Alba, Margallo, María, Azarkamand, Sahar, Aldaco, Rubén and Fullana-i-Palmer, Pere, 2024. Circularity Entanglement: Selecting Appropriate Circularity Indicator, Study of Secondary Packaging for Fresh Food Distribution in Spain. Heliyon, volumen y páginas. Disponible en SSRN: or