Look before you leap: A Systems Assessment Tool to Identify and Plan Sustainable Interventions

By: Dr Eleni Iacovidou, Division of Environmental Sciences, College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Brunel University London, Kingston Ln, Uxbridge, London UB8 3PH, UK, eleni.iacovidou@brunel.ac.uk
For Citation: SITE4Society Brief No.22-2021
Related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and National Programmes: #SDG12 (Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production); #SDG11 (Sustainable Cities)
Country Focus: Global
SITE Focus: Science, Environment, Governance
Sub-disciplines of science/social science/humanities: Resource Recovery; Waste Management; Environmental Management; Environmental governance; Sustainable Development; Systems thinking approach
Based on: Iacovidou, E., Hahladakis, J.N. & Purnell, P. A systems thinking approach to understanding the challenges of achieving the circular economy. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-11725-9

Context of problem: Transitioning to Circular Economy is one of the core policy missions of Europe (EC, 2018). A circular economy model refers to a system that has the ability to restore, retain and redistribute materials, components and products (MCPs henceforth) for as long as possible, eventually decoupling economic growth from the consumption of natural resources. Efficient management of natural resources and waste is a necessary condition to reach circular economy. Natural resources here refer to materials extracted from nature (metal ores, clay, timber, water, etc.) either for the production of new MCPs, or for direct consumption (water, food items).  The efficiency of a system can be captured in terms of the preservation of natural resources and resources recovered from waste. The latter refers to processes wherein waste generated at all stages of the production and consumption value chains, in the form of natural resources or man-made MCPs, are recovered and maintained in the system, displacing the need of natural resources.

The notion of circular economy can be further extended to sustainable circularity – by which I mean an integration of all three pillars of sustainability: preservation of natural resources, economic value creation and social inclusion and empowerment of all people, underpinned with a good understanding of political and institutional aspects. Clearly transitions to sustainable circularity not only require financial investments, but as they require time for positive outcomes to be produced, they also require cooperation and coordination from many types of stakeholders (Ramani, 2021).

Suppose a policy maker is assigned the task of initiating a programme to trigger transition towards sustainable circularity. This could be with respect to a project/programme/industry/sector at the local, regional, or national levels. Then, how can she conduct a baseline assessment of the current state of capabilities of the region concerned vis-à-vis transitioning to sustainable circularity? At present, there is a lack of decision-making tools that map the different dimensions of sustainability and circularity of the system concerned. In response, the present brief presents a new tool – called CVORR, which stands for Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery, which is a whole systems-based assessment tool (Iacovidou et al., 2017).

Main objective of CVORR: To answer two questions with respect to a set of MCPs/services in a region/organisation:

  • What is the present state of circularity and sustainability?
  • What are the drivers of the above present state?


CVORR aims to help by identifying where, and how, inefficiencies occur, where barriers exist and what changes ought to be implemented to transition to a sustainable circularity state – with respect to a set of MCPs and services, over the entire value chain from production to consumption (use stage) and end of life management, abbreviated as P-C-M. It serves to highlight the ‘symptoms’ of environmental management problems and give insight into the potential ‘causes’ (of the symptoms) and ‘remedies’. It involves two main components: (i) the “Five levels of information”; and (ii) mass and monetary flow analyses (Iacovidou et al. 2020). Both are applied in an iterative fashion that is casually informed by selected stakeholders involved in a clearly defined system, and which represent all parts of the system (P-C-M), in order to arrive at a baseline representation of the drivers and barriers. These are then represented by metrics that help us to measure and assess multi-dimensional (environmental, economic, social and technical) value. CVORR was developed through a critical review of the literature on existing assessment tools.

Fig. 1 The resource recovery system with its internal sub-systems, as situated within the external sub-systems that form the whole system of systems

The “Five Levels of Information” framework, includes the following (these are indicative, and not an exhaustive list, as information may vary depending on the specificities of the resource recovery system assessed. Yet, the following are a fair description of what could be included under each level of information):

Table 1. The “Five Levels of Information” framework

Fig. 2 The “Five Levels of Information” framework; a key component of the CVORR systems-based assessment tool


Illustrative example of the use of the ‘five levels of information’ framework–plastic packaging

Problem: Plastic packaging waste recycling in England is around 14% of the total plastic packaging placed on the market (this figure includes domestic reprocessing and exports for recycling) (Defra, 2020). This hampers the government’s ambition to improve resource efficiency and circularity. Therefore, there is a need for government to take further action to increase plastic packaging waste recycling rates. However, to achieve this policy-makers need to gain a better understanding of the drivers of the problem and to trigger transition towards sustainable circularity.

 Identification of drivers:  The following table outlines some of the main results obtained from the application of the CVORR framework.

  Table 2. Application of the CVORR framework.

Insight for policy-makers and managers: According to the above the three main drivers of the problem are: (i) littering, fly-tipping, and misreporting of inputs and outputs in treatment facilities by multiple stakeholders; (ii) sub-optimal compliance with producer responsibility by firms; and (iii) inadequate framing and implementation of policy. The analysis showed that there is a persistent technological lock-in in the waste management sector in England that prevents circularity in the plastic packaging waste system, which remains alarmingly well below 10% of the plastic packaging placed on the market. That, and the exporting of large amounts of plastic packaging waste under the disguise of ‘export for recycling’, emphasise that circularity requires a paradigm shift. The analysis gave tangible evidence of the perverse consequences that exist at many levels across the plastic packaging system, as for example with the private sector capturing monetary value within the plastic packaging waste system at the expense of local authorities, which result in unsustainable waste management and corruption. This evidence is now used to support the development and implementation of new regulatory instruments and help the UK government reform its policies, such as the producer responsibility and introduce new tax-based instruments to support its targets to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging (with the introduction of bans), make all plastic packaging re‑usable, recyclable or compostable, and ensure that 70% of the plastic packaging placed on the market will be recycled or composted by 2025.


Fig. 3 Example of drivers of low plastic packaging waste recycling rate in England using the “five levels of information” framework

Concluding remarks
The use of a systems assessment tool is a prerequisite to enabling sustainability transitions in resource recovery systems and building the capabilities required to identify and understand persistent linear trends. This may require the investment of time but the results will enable the development of sustainable transitions within resource recovery systems, and generation of multiple benefits for the society.



EC 2018. “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, Brussels, European Commission. Available: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM%3A2018%3A28%3AFIN [Accessed 30 April 2021].

Ramani, S. V. (2021) How should policymakers tackle ‘wicked’ problems? From designing solutions to building legitimacy, UNU-MERIT Policy Brief.

DEFRA (2020). “Multidimensional Value Metrics for Assessing England’s Plastic Packaging System and Monitoring Associated Targets – EV030”. Available at: http://sciencesearch.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&Completed=0&ProjectID=20471

Iacovidou, E., Millward-Hopkins, J., Busch, J., Purnell, P., Velis, C. A., Hahladakis, J. N., Zwirner, O. & Brown, A. (2017). “A pathway to circular economy: Developing a conceptual framework for complex value assessment of resources recovered from waste”. Journal of Cleaner Production, 168, 1279-1288.