The Key Elements of the Circular Economy Framework

February 5, 2021

The circular economy is coming. Governments across the world, from the EU [1], to China, Japan [2] and Latin America [3] are adopting circular strategies as part of their environmental action plans. The list of pioneering businesses adopting the circular economy as a means to reduce linear risks, generate new revenues, and reduce costs continues to grow.[4][5][6] However, despite—or rather because of—circular innovations happening at every scale around the world, more specific definitions and categorisations of what does or does not belong under the umbrella term ‘circular economy’ remain ambiguous. 

The principles of a circular economy concern designing out waste, regenerating ecosystems and keeping items in use. Decoupling the economy from material flows—improving the rate of resource productivity faster than the economic growth rate—is also a consistent guide [8][9]. By evolving with the growing number of applications of circular economy principles, and consolidating these strategies across thematic areas, Circle Economy’s Key Elements Framework (KE) renders the elements of the circular economy salient and serves as a basis to derive contextual strategies and interventions. The Framework consists of:

  • Core Elements: Activities directly handling product or material flows; and uniquely,
  • Enabling Elements: those that remove obstacles for core actors.

Key elements


The Key Elements framework is a conceptual framework of eight elements of circularity that can be applied at different intervention levels (for example, national, regional, sector, business, product, process, or material) towards a circular economy. 

The KE framework consists of three core elements and five enabling elements. Core elements deal with physical flows directly, whilst enabling elements deal with creating the conditions or removing barriers, for a circular transition. 

Core elements

The core elements align with other common frameworks related to the circular economy and, specifically, the handling of physical flows. Represented below are the core elements as corresponding to Bocken’s Flows [10]—widely applied to various systems, the 10R framework, the 5R Framework (a simplified 10R) most commonly applied to supply chains and manufacturing, and the Ellen Macarthur Foundations’s principles of the circular economy [11][12][13].

Core elements

Enabling elements

The KE are thus unique because they include enabling elements. Despite the increased interest in, and efforts towards, executing core elements of the circular economy, there are persistent obstacles to their implementation. Some of the main obstacles to achieving the transition are that dominant economic incentives largely rely on traditional, linear ways of creating value. A lack of systems that keep track of cycled resources; recover resources from existing products, and a general lack of awareness and knowledge about the circular economy all hinder the transition.

Enabling elements can accelerate uptake of circularity by removing some of these obstacles. These are represented in the following table.


The KE Framework is suitable for a wide audience who require a comprehensive framework that is easy to remember and communicate to different audiences. It is fitting for speakers, policymakers, and journalists to guide conversations, as well as for educators to design workshops, exercises and learning resources for circularity. It can also be used by strategists, analysts and researchers who are looking to perform novel research about circularity in a given context. In this case, such a comprehensive framework helps to structure research and catalogue information.


Frameworks based on the circular economy can make the concept more accessible, easier to compare to other systems and, in this way, encourage its application across contexts. 

The KE framework can be used at a high level, but can also be applied at different levels to design strategies or structure research. The KE framework has been a prominent framework across a variety of Circle Economy’s projects in the past few years. 

Go to to access all of the frameworks listed in the diagram.

The list below demonstrates the vast variety of its applications, both in terms of scale and intervention level.

Regional application

  1. Developing circular strategies that can be applied globally, such as in the Global Circularity Gap Reports;
  2. Developing circular strategies at the country level, such as in the National Circularity Gap Reports;
  3. Developing circular strategies for cities in the City Scan Process;

Businesses application strategy

  1. To structure and develop KPIs such as in the Rockwool Business Scan
  2. To educate and inspire businesses such as in this Miro Brainstorming Tool;
  3. As a framework underpinning the Circular Design Workshops for cohorts of businesses

Research application 

  1. Classifying sectors to circularity for use in modelling such as in the Circularity Gap Reports;
  2. Aggregating different types of circular jobs in the Circular Jobs Monitor; 

Digital application

  1. The basis of aggregating an organisation’s or a community of organisations’ opportunities for circularity such as  in the Circle Assessment Tool or the Circle Fashion Tool which is specific to Textiles organisations;
  2. Classifying companies and case studies in the Knowledge Hub, an online repository of over 3000 case studies.


Initially, the KE was created by mapping the various terms and definitions used by over 20 organisations—NGOs, government agencies, academia, consultancies, and more—working on elements of the topic. After interpreting and grouping these various terms, seven key elements emerged that defined the majority of terms linked to the circular economy. 

Since then, the KE has been continuously researched in line with the ever-growing literature on defining circularity and its enabling conditions. A recent literature review of circular economy strategies in play today uncovered the gap of strategies related to knowledge. This literature review houses a detailed description of each element and will be released in the coming weeks and can be found in a summarised form in our upcoming updated Knowledge Hub. With its addition, our seven key elements will become the eight key elements. 

The ongoing practical work of our organisation also complements the development process of the KE Framework. This ranges from developing circular strategies, delivering training and workshops, and designing and developing methodologies and digital products across more than 125 nations, cities and business around the world with over 3000 stakeholders. [14]


The KE Framework is robust in its structure of core and enabling elements and has proven its success across a variety of contexts. We have developed, or are currently developing, related strategy frameworks for nations, cities and products. However, these need to be continuously reviewed with stakeholders and updated accordingly. Related strategy frameworks for other territorial units—such as regions, businesses, sector analysis, materials—should also be researched and created. 

The core elements are consistent across intervention levels, although the strategies differ according to the context. Enabling elements differ according to the context and scale of application of circularity and may not need to be applied in every context. These applications need to be researched continuously in line with the evolution and maturity of circular economies.

Elements, or applied strategy frameworks, need to be linked to appropriate success monitoring frameworks. This will allow us to track the successful implementation of circular strategies in different contexts. They need to also be linked to appropriate impact frameworks, first qualitatively (conceptually) and then enhanced through linking of quantitative indicators per scale. Coupled with the above success metrics for circular strategy implementation, this will allow us to track the impact of elements across different scales over time.
















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