How to monitor environmental pressures of a circular economy: An assessment of indicators

Hanna Helander*, Anna Petit-Boix, Sina Leipold, Stefan Bringezu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding how a circular economy (CE) can reduce environmental pressures from economic activities is crucial for policy and practice. Science provides a range of indicators to monitor and assess CE activities. However, common CE activities, such as recycling and eco-design, are contested in terms of their contribution to environmental sustainability. This article assesses whether and to what extent current approaches to assess CE activities sufficiently capture environmental pressures to monitor progress toward environmental sustainability. Based on a material flow perspective, we show that most indicators do not capture environmental pressures related to the CE activities they address. Many focus on a single CE activity or process, which does not necessarily contribute to increased environmental sustainability overall. Based on these results, we suggest complementing CE management indicators with indicators capturing basic environmental pressures related to the respective CE activity. Given the conceptual linkage between CE activities, resource extraction, and waste flows, we suggest that a resource-based footprint approach accounting for major environmental inputs and outputs is necessary—while not sufficient—to assess the environmental sustainability of CE activities. As footprint approaches can be used across scales, they could aid the challenging process of developing indicators for monitoring progress toward an environmentally sustainable CE at the European, national, and company levels.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1278-1291
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Industrial Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019


  • environmental pressure
  • footprints
  • industrial ecology
  • review
  • socioeconomic metabolism
  • sustainable resource use


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