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Navigating Zero Waste and Circular Economy: Embracing Transdisciplinarity

Each year on March 30th is Zero Waste Day, also known as International Day of Zero Waste. This day is designated by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness about the importance of reducing waste, promoting sustainable consumption and production practices, and encouraging initiatives that aim to minimize waste generation and maximize resource efficiency. 

On Zero Waste Day, people from various sectors, including governments, businesses, organizations, and civil society are invited to engage in activities that highlight the significance of waste reduction, recycling, composting, and other sustainable waste management practices. The day serves as a platform to showcase innovative solutions, share best practices, and inspire collective action towards achieving a zero-waste future. 

To mark the day, Future Earth’s Systems for Sustainable Consumption and Production (SSCP) Knowledge Action Network (KAN) and the KAN’s Circular Economy Working Group (CEWG) held a webinar.

The panelists on “Circularity and Zero Waste: Transdisciplinary Perspectives,” included Dr. Isa Elegbede who specializes in ocean and coastal resources sustainability and is a Professor of Fisheries at Lagos State University, KC Morris Life Cycle Engineering Group Leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and Dr. Michael Timko, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The webinar aimed to present and identify opportunities for transdisciplinary work to achieve goals of both circularity and zero waste. A core aspect of the discussion was co-creation and collaboration across sectors and disciplines. Co-creation of knowledge is what Future Earth is about. As seen in Figure 1, from the article by Mauser et al., 2013, who espoused the charter for Future Earth to include transdisciplinarity and knowledge co-creation in 2013. It was meant to include a broad variety of stakeholders working with academia to co-design, co-produce, and disseminate sustainable and global change research.

Figure 1: Framework for Transdisciplinary Co-Creation of Knowledge (Source: Mauser et al., 2013).

Even with our different perspectives, we arrived at a number of common conclusions related to effectively managing a zero-waste environment in the circular economy and with circularity.  Common points and themes included aspects of collaboration and stakeholder engagement, addressing conflicting priorities, leveraging standards and technology, adopting a holistic approach to sustainability, and focusing on user-centric design and innovation in circularity and zero waste initiatives. These are only some of the issues touched upon, and many more exist.  Let us consider three elements each introduced by a panelist, but set the stages for longer-term and broader discussion. 

The first is about collaboration and stakeholder engagement, the second about leveraging standards and technology, and the third that encapsulates these aspects and additional dimensions is about a holistic and systemic perspective.

Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement

Circular economy and zero waste initiatives require collaboration and engagement with multiple stakeholders, including academics, industry partners, policymakers, and the community. Co-creation and transdisciplinary approaches are essential for developing sustainable solutions and driving action towards sustainability goals.  

A critical aspect discussed concerned communication barriers in collaboration between academics, industry, tech startups, and traditional manufacturing companies for developing new products using recycled materials. Communication barriers can arise from the specialized language of various disciplines and a lack of standards.  

Isa Elegbede introduced an interesting insight about stereotypes and expectations that need to be put aside. Some stereotypes include having a certain perspective about various stakeholders, that scientists should act a certain way and come in with their biases, while industry only cares about costs, and consumers are only driven by consumption. These issues also relate to priorities, but not necessarily priorities associated with the stereotype, but actual priorities which tend to shift, even amongst the same set of stakeholders.

One such example is clearly delineated in a report on strengthening the circular economy by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that characterizes how a stakeholder mapping can help reduce a static stereotypical perspective of stakeholders.  In the UNDP report they introduce the concept by AtKisson (1999) on the idea of the Amoeba as a system of social change (see figure 2).  They break down stereotypes to show that even amongst stakeholders, such as government or industry, that various levels of innovators and laggards exist.

Figure 2. Graphic of the Social Change Amoeba and different types of actors within a stakeholder group (Source: AtKisson, 1999).

Leveraging Standards and Technology

Given panelist KC Morris’ expertise in standards, an important topic that arose is how to utilize standards and technology.

One example of an emergent information technology driven by standards related to circularity and zero waste management concerns is the digital product passports (DPP). The concept is being driven by the European Union as a mandate for doing trade within the EU with the requirement rolling out for different sectors in a phased approach starting with EV and other battery types in 2027. The concept relies on the digitization of product life cycle information and standards and technology for implementation. Together with a growing need for digital systems along with the EU mandate that is likely to evolve globally. DPP is a tool for collecting and sharing product data throughout its lifecycle and can be used to provide information on a product’s environmental and recyclability attributes.

The DPP concept will support the circular and zero waste Information and data, and to be shared across stakeholders, include instructions on how to install, use, and repair products to help extend product useful life and durability, delaying the generation of waste. It will also provide disposal instructions including disassembly and recycling directions and options at the end of life, and reduce remanufacturing uncertainties by providing comprehensive information on product use life for cores or other elements on origin, ownership, and usage. The standards which will make this vision a reality are work in progress and are rapidly gaining momentum.

A Holistic and Systemic Approach

Our panelists were each motivated by a holistic and systemic approach to addressing circularity and zero waste concerns. For example, even large-scale problems—as evidenced by chemical engineer Timko—can be shown on a progression of scale. 

For example, evolving technologies convert combinations of different wastes into valuable products (valorization) including fuel at various scales. At the most fundamental scale interactions between different chemicals to produce interesting products and examining the stability of catalysts at a molecular level could be starting points. But this work spans from molecular-level analysis to larger-scale problems (see Figure 3), demonstrating a multi-scale approach in research is needed.

The systemic and holistic perspective is critical for understanding the dangers of creating technologies in isolation from real-world needs. It also underscores the importance of user-centric design and innovation in sustainable development efforts—a critical co-creation requirement.

Figure 3: A Holistic and Scale Level look at Zero Waste and Circularity (Source: Timko, 2024).

But holistic and scalable issues arise in every situation discussed whether about global south and emerging economy technology transfer, to standards development, to basic science solutions to global challenges.

A series of challenges and barriers needed to be overcome and include (in no particular order):

Conflicting Priorities: There are conflicting priorities around issues such as cost-effectiveness, environmental impact, and achieving desired goals. Balancing these priorities can be challenging and may hinder progress. We mentioned the varying priorities of governments seeking to support the public good, industries seeking to fill valuable needs (for profit), and academics seeking to understand the world. There are also interests related to the interests of individual actors versus institutional actors, participants who are internal versus external (to the decision), short-term versus long-term time frames, and local versus global-based solutions.  This is where effective collaboration, communication, and holistic thinking can help address these conflicting priorities—and supporting processes for integrating insights, tools to help guide decisions, and evaluations to show potential outcomes such as foresight and scenario planning (to name some solutions) can be useful.

Communication Barriers: Communication barriers between academia, industry, technology startups, and traditional manufacturing companies can impede collaboration and the development of new products using recycled materials or zero-waste systems. Misunderstandings about technical aspects and differing perspectives may pose challenges in working together effectively. To address these concerns, we return to getting multiple stakeholder involvement in standards. Standards begin with agreed upon terminology. One such avenue is through the ASTM International committee on sustainability (E60) which is carefully developing circular economy standards—and is requesting the involvement of broader sets of stakeholders. 

Technology Transfer: Ensuring effective technology transfer between nations from less economically developed regions in the Global South to the Global North and vice versa can be a barrier. Overcoming technological, financial, and infrastructural challenges to implement circularity and zero waste practices and advancements in these regions requires strategic and holistic planning and support. Relatedly low and middle-income countries may have different perspectives and priorities compared to industrialized nations. Understanding and reconciling these differences to foster collaboration and implement sustainable solutions is challenging. The need for global innovation systems and requirements on differentiated North-South cooperation for innovation is a major need with this special report by the United Nations for sustainability transitions providing insights to potential challenges and overcoming them It is also a focus topic for negotiation on an emerging UN treaty to end plastic pollution, and a subject of negotiation in the development of new ISO standards on Circular Economy.

Resource Constraints: Limited resources, both in terms of funding and technological capabilities, can hinder the adoption of circular and zero-waste practices. Addressing resource constraints and promoting access to technology and knowledge transfer are essential for overcoming these barriers. Funding for example has extended from public sourcing and funding to private investment—broadly and more specifically to organizations.  See the following special issue on investment opportunities for sustainable and circular economy practices.  Investments need to be made by nations and this investment varies broadly and inequitably.  Circular economy is also recognized as critical to securing supply chains as resources become stressed.  It is a topic of study under OECD and  WRI


If the webinar was held with different panelists from other fields, we would have come out with both similar and different approaches and perspectives for circularity and zero-waste. It is for this reason that discourse and dialogue should involve as many actors and communities as possible. Our goal was to share the experiences of our panelists and expand our own perspectives as well as those who participated—realizing it is based on our experiences and biases. 

We look forward to future such webinars offered by Future Earth.


AtKisson, A. (1999) Believing Cassandra, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT.