2023 Summer/Winter School – Law and the Circular Economy Transition: With and Without Justice

Date and Time: THURSDAY 14 SEPTEMBER 2023, 12.15-1.45pm CEST



This proposed panel focuses on one concept that is increasingly recognised as able to address concurrent crises of unsustainable resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste disposal: circular economy. A circular economy aims to move away from the dominant linear take-make-dispose economic model of resource use towards one where waste prevention is prioritised. In a circular economy, responsible production promotes closing the waste loop across material lifecycles through reuse, recycling, and other recovery for the purpose of sustainable development. It is the anticipated economic and environmental benefits from transitioning to a circular economy that is stimulating widespread adoption of enabling laws and policies globally. Yet to date the social dimensions – and in particular justice aspects – are side-lined. By not placing social and justice aspects at the centre of a circular economy transition, it will replicate, and potentially exacerbate, existing injustices in the linear economy.

This panel will:

  1. Explore the concept, objectives, and limitations of the circular economy, as well as set out how these align with objectives within the wider agenda on legal transformation in an ecological crisis such as net zero and sustainable development.
  2. Provide examples of legal and policy interventions, which can manage the unsustainable amounts of waste generated ‘upstream’ (extraction, processing), ‘mid-stream’ (product design, materials), and ‘downstream’ (repair, refurbishment, recycling). These will be drawn from existing international and national laws across the Global South and Global North, as well as innovative measures proposed within the panel’s own research and other circular economy scholarship.
  3. Explore how various (in)justice dimensions are, and can be, embedded in circular economy related laws within the construction, plastics and land use sectors. Particular focus will be on the distributive (allocation of material goods, rights, and duties), recognition (recognition of different values, contexts, and cultures), and procedural (transparency and inclusion of stakeholders) justice issues.


Dr Feja Lesniewska, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Transitions and Environmental Law, University of Surrey, UK

Prof Rosalind Malcolm, Professor of Law, Director of Environmental Regulatory Research Group, University of Surrey, UK

Dr Katrien Steenmans, Postdoctoral Researcher on the Circular Supply Chains – identifying and allocating legal risks (CirCus) project, University of Copenhagen, Denmark


Ellen MacArthur Foundation, ‘Circular economy introduction’ (2023) https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview?gad=1&gclid=CjwKCAjw_uGmBhBREiwAeOfsd1D4ChjvVR3zhp1WmjDioILnaLF_dbvAuevyBnqlWMla_KGvUWhffxoCEQYQAvD_BwE

European Parliament, ‘Circular economy: definition, importance and benefits’ (2023) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/circular-economy-definition-importance-and-benefits?&at_campaign=20234-Economy&at_medium=Google_Ads&at_platform=Search&at_creation=RSA&at_goal=TR_G&at_audience=circular%20economy&at_topic=Circular_Economy&at_location=DK&gclid=CjwKCAjw_uGmBhBREiwAeOfsdxSjJD5idftEtqNeEn0llp33a0_rtzSds8lg1FlrOx6fveHslRBnYRoCibIQAvD_BwE

Geissdoerfer, Martin, Paulo Savaget, Nancy MP Bocken and Erik Jan Hultink, ‘The circular economy – a new sustainability paradig?’ (2017) 143 Journal of Cleaner Production 757. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048

Lesniewska, Feja and Katrien Steenmans, Circular economy and the law: bringing justice into the frame (Routledge 2023). https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429355141

Schroeder, Patrick and Jack Barrie, ‘Is going circular just? Environmental justice and just transition–key elements for an inclusive circular economy’ (2022) 24 Field Actions Science Reports20. https://journals.openedition.org/factsreports/6864 

Stahel, Walter, ‘The circular economy’ (2016) 531 Nature435. https://doi.org/10.1038/531435a

Steenmans, Katrien and Feja Lesniewska, ‘Limitations of the circular economy concept in law and policy’ (2023) 4 Frontiers in Sustainability. https://doi.org/10.3389/frsus.2023.1154059