Is Circular Economy The Same As Sustainability?

Defined by experts as “a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emissions, and energy leakage are minimised by closing and narrowing material and energy loops” – a circular economy seeks to lower the overall level of waste while recycling resources where possible. For many, this might seem like a novel concept. Only coming into mainstream attention with the advent of the new decade, the idea of a circular economy has firmly taken root in disciplines such as politics and science. For example, it was only in 2021 that ASEAN adopted such theories by implementing their Framework for Circular Economy for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the 20th AEC Council Meeting held on 18 October. Contingent on five major strategic priorities, the Framework above gears toward exploring new opportunities and collaborations while scaling up the region’s transition to a low-carbon economy. 

This ideological shift comes at a much needed time, with the current state of our ecosystem driven by short-term consumption and ultimately leading to unsustainable consequences for Earth. The importance of the circular economy and its accompanying waste reduction promises to take a different direction, pushing against the tide of consumerism-based resource use.

The Misconceptions Between Sustainability And Circular Economy

Sustainability and the ideas of a circular economy might confound many. The two appear interchangeable, almost serving as synonyms. While sustainability seeks to benefit the environment, economy, and society via shared responsibilities, a circular economy is a specific approach designed by humans and grounded in the technosphere. The latter emphasises government, companies, and their relative operations and processes.

A clear demonstration of this difference can be seen in the following example – a push towards sustainability might involve using bio-plastics or bio-fuel in the manufacturing product life cycle to be green and eco-friendly. However, a truly circular economy will assess the amount of resources that go into producing such materials and determine if it is beneficial to do so. The concept of sustainability versus actually making a sustainable product and ensuring it is produced through sustainable means separates the two concepts.

For instance, the Net-Works initiative in the Philippines was launched by flooring company, Interface. The company buys discarded nylon fishing nets from the local communities and recycles them into new carpet tiles. This initiative prevented unwanted nets from being thrown into the sea and killing marine life. Furthermore, it also lessens the use of virgin materials while providing communities with a role to play in the circular economy.

The Relationship Between Circular Economy And Sustainability

Both concepts are not identical, but they share many relationships. Circularity, when appropriately applied, contributes to a more sustainable world. Both stand in a long tradition of similar visions, models, and theories. They only differ in processes.

Closer to home, both concepts are applicable in the ASEAN context. Natural resources such as water, fuel, timber, and precious metals benefit from a circular economy. By reducing congestion, eliminating waste, and bringing down costs, this higher economic productivity and growth open up doors for cities to thrive. New business opportunities also bring skills development and job creation.

Extending this even further, processes that have to do with human capital also benefit from bottom-up and top-down assessments through the circular economy. By streamlining and removing inefficient components in major processes, ASEAN countries benefit from the Framework mentioned above to achieve resource efficiency. With a renewed focus on key circular economy tenets such as life extension and waste prevention, closely supervised execution of the circular economy will generally translate into economic growth and the set-up of valuable infrastructural foundations.


Establishing and furthering the goal of a circular economy begins with examining processes, from big to small. Major companies must carefully assess the cost-to-benefit ratio of every single cog in the metaphorical machine. In day-to-day lives, individuals should also reflect on the activities they partake in and the overall investment it requires versus the economic payout.