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The environmental impact of circular products: what do we really know?
The circular economy is billed as a solution to increase economic growth while reducing the environmental impact. It is argued that retaining the value of product components and materials by fostering the “inner loops” such as reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing, increases the resource efficiency. However, environmental assessments in the literature on so-called circular products show mixed results. These results can be partly explained by assumptions and differences in methodological choices when conducting an LCA on circular products and partly by certain product characteristics. This paper presents the results of a systematic literature review and mapping of previous environmental assessments on circular products. The studies are categorized on product type studied, noted product design strategies and business models for circular economy, and system boundaries. The review highlights a lack of studies that assess circular products within circular business models. While studies assess the benefits of reuse as compared to producing a new product, they almost exclusively assess standard linear products that are offered as part of traditional (not circular) business models. In addition, many assessments fail to sufficiently consider the effects of future increases in the share of renewable energy and the effect on results and implied hotspots. One can thus question how well the available environmental assessments represent actual circular products/offerings and the environmental performance gains they could provide. The paper proposes a framework for further research towards the environmental impact of circular products, highlighting factors that will have influence the environmental impact of circular products and other aspects that should be incorporated in the environmental assessments.