Initial Publication Date: September 29, 2022

Student Guides


Download the student guide as a PDF:

The U.S. is a consumption‐based society whose economic health is dependent on spending and consumption of goods, or products, and services. The impact of our consumption, though, is felt globally. This is most obvious when considered from the perspective of the lifecycle of a product, from extraction of the raw resources required for it, to its production and distribution, and, finally, its consumption and disposal. The natural resources mined in one or more countries are refined in another country and assembled in yet another country, for purchase in the U.S. At the end of its life, the product is disposed of here or abroad. The consequences of each step are both positive (e.g., personal, local, or national wealth) and negative (e.g., habitat destruction, environmental pollution, or human health).

Economists discuss the lifecycle of a product as either of two end‐member types, the traditional linear economy or a circular economy. The linear economy is described above in the step‐by‐step process flow, from raw resource to consumer waste, also referred to as a 'take‐make‐dispose' economy. In the circular economy, the focus is on eliminating waste disposal by

  1. reducing consumption and thereby the raw resources used in production;
  2. reusing products or their components in next generation products; and
  3. recycling waste to recover raw resources.

Consumption is essential to our economy, but our consumption and ultimately disposal of our consumed products, from food to clothing to electronics, is not sustainable. How will we provide for the consumptive needs of a growing global population if we continue to rely on raw resources that are non‐renewable or we indiscriminately use or overuse renewable resources?

Responsible Consumption and Production is one of the17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (opens in a new tab), the interrelated goals that help international policymakers identify targets and actions for ending poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet. Sustaining resources and improving quality of life for more people on our planet requires planning that crisscrosses issues, time, and space. It's not difficult to imagine how responsible consumption and production (Goal #12) is directly related to many of the other goals. Water pollution and habitat destruction associated with extraction of raw resources can impact human health and well‐being, as well as life on land and in water. Outsourcing or offshoring production of goods may lead to inequities and injustices in the work force. Fossil fuels used in production or transportation, to bring products to consumers, effects climate. Disposal of consumed products potentially degrades life on land and in water. The complex web of impacts at every stage of the lifecycle of a product is what makes a problem wicked. Many of the impacts are externalities or external costs of production, not recovered in the cost of the product and borne by the consumer but rather by society and the environment. The shift from a linear economy to a circular economy reduces these costs.

Kirchherr et al (2017) analyzed 117 definitions of a circular economy, accounting for perspectives at different parts of the product lifecycle but also some of the complexities suggested above. From their analysis, they described a circular economy as

an economic system that is based on business models which replace the 'end‐of‐life' concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes, thus operating at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco‐industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, which implies creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations. (Kirchherr et al. 2017, pp. 224–225).

Creating a circular economy is a wicked problem, that is, a complex societal challenge that is impossible to fully solve. Making a circular economy sustainable and making certain it works well for everyone is even more wicked. In this exercise, you will explore the way complex problems like a circular economy intertwine natural systems with human activities that provide for our physical health and economic well‐being.

By the end of the exercise, you will be able to:

  1. Identify ways in which currently linear aspects of our economic system shape your own behaviors and norms;
  2. Explain a sustainable "circular economy" from systems perspective;
  3. Identify how human and natural systems may affect each other in a circular economy; and
  4. Evaluate the implications on the environment and on social, health, and economic equity of a linear and a circular economy.

To illustrate the "wicked" nature of a circular economy, we are going to focus initially on one part of the product lifecycle, waste. Simply put, we can consider waste in any quantity, particularly waste that is landfilled, as prima facie evidence of a linear economy (Figure 1). A circular economy would require that landfilled waste be significantly reduced if not entirely eliminated. But the truly wicked nature of the problem is not restricted to the individual waste or even to other steps within a Products lifecycle. As Kirchherr et al (2017) definition of circular economy illustrates, the implications of transitioning to a circular economy differs with the scale of consideration, if the ultimate objective is sustainable development. To begin your study:

  1. Watch this video to distinguish between a linear and circular economy (opens in a new tab) as it relates to plastic;
  2. Explore this website to learn how Netherlands is shifting to a circular economy (opens in a new tab); and
  3. Reflect on this essay on the environmental impact of fashion (opens in a new tab) and this essay on personal responsibility (opens in a new tab) for a sustainable future.

Part 1: Waste and the Linear Economy


Prior to class, you will conduct a personal waste audit. A personal waste audit answers the question: How much waste do I produce at home and on the go? Tracking the types and amount of waste you produce over a period of time—in your case a day—will quickly make you aware of what you are throwing out and where it is going. Over an entire 24‐hour period, complete the chart on the next page. After completing the audit, answer the reflection questions before the next class.

Personal Waste Audit

Almost everything we do creates waste. This is true of many products that we buy, from their packaging at the time of purchase to their disposal at the end of their useful life. In the U.S., we dispose nearly 5 lbs. (2.24 kg) of solid waste per person each day, more than half of it ending up in landfills (Kaza et al, 2018). Our solid waste stream consists of discarded food and food scraps, paper and cardboard, glass, plastic, metal, clothing, and fabric, leather, rubber, and wood among other things. A discarded electronic device might contain a number of these, including a variety of metals, some of which are relatively rare, glass, plastic, and paper or cardboard.

In this exercise, you will examine your solid waste over a 24‐hr period by conducting a waste audit. Keep track of your waste in the nine different categories below. Count the number of items in each category relative to how it was disposed of—landfilled, recycled, or composted. If it is composed of more than one category, include it only in the category that dominates the item.

Record/tally the number of items in each category. If you included "other" items, describe them. Download the personal waste audit table (Comma Separated Values 245bytes Sep16 22).

Reflection Assignment

Prior to class, add your data to the spreadsheet provided by your instructor. If your instructor has provided a class spreadsheet, include your information there, also. Reflect on your results by responding to the questions below. Bring your responses to class.

  1. Based on the number of items, what category of waste dominates your waste stream? Were the majority of items in this category landfilled, recycled, or composted?
  2. What percentage of items were landfilled? Were these items restricted to one or two or more categories of waste? Summarize your data.
  3. For items that were landfilled, could they have been recycled? Or composted? Describe.
  4. Based on the results of your audit, describe one change you are willing to make to reduce your waste in general or the waste you landfill?

Part 2: Mapping the Lifecycle of a Product

Making a Process Map of Products' "Life"

As individuals, we may vary in how much waste we produce and how we dispose of it, but it should be apparent that none of us produce zero waste.

A process map is a visual representation that illustrates the key phases in the lifecycle of a product. We will explore the lifecycle of a specific product through the key phases which include:

  1. Extraction ‐ collecting, extracting, and processing of raw materials for the production of goods
  2. Production ‐ creating goods from raw materials for sale
  3. Retail ‐ selling goods for consumption
  4. Consumption ‐ purchasing and use of goods
  5. Disposal ‐ throwing away or getting rid of used goods
    • Landfill/garbage
    • Reuse/recycle

The boxes represent the different phases in the lifecycle of a product, and the arrows between each box represent the transportation to the next phase.

Process Map Pre-work (outside of class)

Working in your assigned group, conduct research on your assigned phase of the lifecycle. Include any activities, processes, resources used or impacted, or policies related to the phase. Below are some questions to help guide your data collection:

  1. What are the processes used in this phase of the lifecycle? Be sure to include notes around technologies used and timing of processes.
  2. What resources (e.g., natural, human, physical) are used and how are they used?
  3. What is the human element? That is, how are humans involved in the activities and how they impacted (positively or negatively)?
  4. What is the impact on the natural environment (e.g., water, land/soil, energy, climate)?
  5. What policies (local, state, federal, global) inform the processes and resources utilized in this phase?
  6. How do the materials/outcomes from your phase move to the next phase in the lifecycle? What are the impacts of this?

Using both written and visual representations, create a poster to display your findings about this phase of the process. This poster will be used in class during the gallery tour.

Part 3: Gallery Tour

Gallery Tour (in class)

Student groups will be assigned a starting station, one of the phases of the process map, for the gallery tour. You will address the first question for the assigned phase by posting comments relative to this phase, then after the time allotted by your instructor, view comments posted at other phases as you tour around the process map. Stop at the phase just prior to the one you just commented on, and post comments associated with the second question. Repeat your tour to view other comments and continue to comment on the third question.

  1. What are the social, health, environmental, and economic impacts of this phase?
  2. How could the elements of the phase be changed to make it more circular and less resource intensive?
  3. What policies would facilitate change in the phase or elements of the phase to make it more circular or less resource intensive?

Final Analysis & Reflection (outside of class)

Reflecting on the process mapping research and using your notes from the gallery tour and discussion, answer the following questions.

  1. Considering a systems perspective, what is a circular economy? Is it sustainable?
  2. How do human and natural systems interact in a circular economy?
  3. Compare and contrast the implications on the environment and on social, health, and economic equity of a linear and a circular economy.

Download the reflection table (Comma Separated Values 89bytes Sep15 22).