The Hierarchy of Resource Use in a Sustainable Circular Economy

13 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2017 Last revised: 14 Jun 2017

See all articles by Heidi Rapp Nilsen

Heidi Rapp Nilsen

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Date Written: June 6, 2017


We are on an unsustainable path of consumption and production, including resources turned into waste in a high pace. As one answer to this challenge the European Commission has launched the concept of circular economy as described in “Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the Circular Economy”. EU member states are following up this action plan with national strategies, as Norway do too - also through its EEA agreement.

However, circular economy is not an unambiguous concept. This paper will discuss the significance of the hierarchy of resource use in a circular economy. The hierarchy, also known as the waste hierarchy, recommends the following order in treatment of resources in the economy: 1) Reduce the use of raw materials, 2) Reuse, 3) Recycle materials, 4) Incinerate with heat recovery, 5) Landfill. EU introduced the waste hierarchy concept already in 1975 and it was further strengthened in 2010 as the European Waste Framework Directive came into force with aim of turning EU member states into “recycling societies”.

On top of the hierarchy, reducing the use of raw materials is the most effective environmental approach of solving a waste problem. However, this necessitates a reduction in extraction and consumption of materials, challenging existing patterns of production and consumption. There is a huge difference to the third level of the hierarchy, recycling into new products, which generate transportation and manufacturing and hence creation of new jobs and possibly a boost for GDPs.

The paper discuss the ontological and methodological premises of the hierarchy of resource use. By and large, closing the loop of a linear economy can and should be done by focusing on both input of raw materials into the economy, and the output – or waste – from the economy. The tendency is to focus only on the output side, thereby creating additional problems with regard to the use of raw materials, as resource depletion.

Suggested Citation

Nilsen, Heidi Rapp, The Hierarchy of Resource Use in a Sustainable Circular Economy (June 6, 2017). University of Oslo Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2017-22, Available at SSRN: or

Heidi Rapp Nilsen (Contact Author)

Norwegian University of Science and Technology ( email )

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics