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19th European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production – Circular Europe for Sustainability: Design, Production and Consumption

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Circling Sustainability and Responsibility: Exploring Synergies between the Circular Economy, Synthetic Biology and Responsible Innovation

The Circular Economy is an emerging concept that is proving increasingly popular amongst policymakers, industry and business globally. The Circular Economy incorporates sustainability goals based on the promotion of continuous circulating and recovering of resources, rather than a linear economy focussed on making, using and disposing. Achieving a complex cyclical system of integrated strategies which support the reuse of all aspects of manufacturing and production, is a challenging prospect. Additionally, the core benefits of these systems cannot simply be assumed, and further considerations are required in order to comprehend to what extent the Circular Economy can offer a novel route to address current environmental, social and economic challenges. A key case that is often highlighted by proponents of the Circular Economy, is the potential for industrial waste to become a sustainable and renewable resource, reflected in recent UK policy such as the “sustainable circular biotechnology” strategy. In particular, synthetic biology has been forecast by policy makers to revolutionise the national bioeconomy, with feedstocks from waste gases playing a key role in these expected environmental and economic benefits. The promotion of synthetic biology as a vehicle towards a more sustainable future by UK and EU policy makers, has also been closely tied to the science governance framework, Responsible Innovation. These framings of the Circular Economy, a sustainable bioeconomy and Responsible Innovation share similar elements – especially the idea of circulating resources and responsibility – and appear to position synthetic biology, in particular, as a form of what has been described by some analysts as ‘sustainability-orientated innovation’. However, some researchers have highlighted the lack of agreement over definitions and applications of the Circular Economy, and the challenges, as well as opportunities that are associated with mobilising this concept. This project uses documentary analysis and a forum of experts drawn from academia, industry and policy-makers, in order to present key findings about the emerging discourses of sustainability in the context of synthetic biology, as they relate to the concepts of the Circular Economy and Responsible Innovation. A key question that is considered is where responsibility for developing the goals of the Circular Economy will be placed, and to what extent industry will be adequately motivated and resourced in order to manage potential cost ramifications for its embedding. Approaches which are top-down (responsibility of policymakers to develop frameworks for recycling) and bottom-up (through customer demand and grass-roots organisation) must be considered, both in how they will come to be and interact together. There is also a midpoint centred around industry responsibility and how suppliers of resources could have ownership of the resource (and therefore the waste) throughout the supply chain. Using the case study of synthetic biology and industrial waste, this research aims to contribute to a broader understanding about the linkages between the Circular Economy, a sustainable bioeconomy and Responsible Innovation, and what implications this could have at both UK, European and international policy levels.

Carmen McLeod
University of Nottingham
United Kingdom

Sarah Hartley
University of Exeter
United Kingdom

Penelope Polson
University of Manchester
United Kingdom


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