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Governance of Materials and Circular Economy


Admission requirements

Students of the MSc Governance of Sustainability


The extraction of raw materials from natural resources is one of the most impactful anthropogenic activities. It not only causes damage to ecosystems and human health; it is also linked to water and energy use. A transition to a more Circular Economy (CE) may help solve this issue. In a circular economy the need for virgin materials is dramatically reduced by introducing known concepts like re-use and recycling as well as new concepts like the service-economy and closed-loop business models. In this course we will analyse the basic concepts of a Circular Economy and the role of public institutions and policy in the transition towards it.

The course addresses questions such as “What are key material flows within the metabolism of society?” “What are the main sources of raw materials?” “What is the difference between re-use, recycling and urban mining?” “What are the key characteristics of closed-loop business models and the service economy?” “What are the main (governance) challenges of implementing a circular economy?” “How do societal needs, market dynamics and public policymaking interact in the circular economy domain?” “How can we design policies that can be effective?” “What role does evidence play in policy making?”

The Policy Cycle is used in this course as a framework for analysing the realization of the CE. We first get acquainted with the concepts of government, governance, public policy, which are necessary to understand policy making processes. We explore who is acting in the public domain, including both state and non-state actors. By discussing various models of agenda setting, we move from policy problem definition to complicated theories which unite the concepts of actors, ideas and institutions, and explain why some problems get the attention in the policy making machine while others remain untouched. We will also learn how country variations in political regimes and the quality of government, are related to various environmental outcomes and the use of resources. We will unpack how different countries view and design CE policies. In this comparison, we focus on the institutional structure as well as the regulatory context and pre-existing policies that could support or delay CE implementation.

Learning goals

After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • Understand the principal aspects of a CE

  • Understand the concepts of reduce, re-use, recycling, the service economy and closed loop business models

  • Have an overview of technical and socio-economic implementation challenges of a transition to a CE

  • Be able to explain the socio-economic drivers for this transition (e.g. policy goals and measures, scarcity, security of supply, certification, etc.)

  • Have the scientific understanding of the metabolism of society

  • Have a scientific understanding of the policy cycle model and how it can be used to analyse the policy processes

  • Have a key understanding of the Policy Cycle related to the CE in different governance systems

Teaching methods / mode of instruction

The course will be taught using a combination of lectures, working groups and an integrated group assignment.

The lectures will address topics such as resource use, recycling and urban mining, and the governance and policy making processes. It introduces tools for the analysis of materials flows within society such as material flows accounting and especially input-output analysis. We will discuss the possible impacts the transition to a circular economy will have on materials flows and extraction of raw materials and the governance role in designing policies that can benefit CE. We also analyse the limitations of the CE, e.g. is recycling a good idea if it requires a significant amount of energy?

The working groups are used to work on individual exercises. Exercises include analysing case studies, reflecting upon these case studies, comparing and contrasting different regions. Using (online) analytical tools are also part of the individual exercises. In addition, students engage in a role play based on assigned roles that are relevant to the implementation of a CE. Attending the working groups is mandatory.

Parallel to the lectures and working groups throughout the course, students will work in small groups in a transdisciplinary setting on specific topics linked to governance of the circular economy. Real-life challenges will allow students to integrate the acquired knowledge and understanding from lectures and working groups.

Type of assessments

The grading consists of a written exam, and the integrated group assignment in the form of technical reporting, discussion and policy document.

Course materials / reading list

See Brightspace.