A systems approach to environmental, social and economic sustainability in circular economies

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The compatibility and consistency between environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainable development is an ongoing debate in the sustainability literature. In recent years, circular economy (CE) has emerged as a new paradigm that promises to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and achieve a triple-win for people, planet, and profit bottom lines of sustainable development. While CE aims to recirculate finite resources and design out waste from the economic system, this study adopts a systems approach to explore if and how these principles can lead to a triple-win for CEs.

Focusing on the case of food waste in urban CEs, the study develops a detailed system dynamics model of environmental, social, and economic impacts of food waste throughout the supply chain. Guided by an extensive literature review and participatory methods, the simulation model with more than 600 variables enables to exploring the dynamic impacts of different food waste management options and policies on food, energy, water, and climate nexus (i.e., environmental impacts), food insecurity rate (i.e., social impact), and costs and benefits for each agri-food sector and the whole economy (i.e., economic impacts).

The modelling results show that a triple sustainability win in urban CEs can only be achieved by reducing food waste in consumer sectors and redistributing the food surplus in supply sectors. Other popular food waste management options in CEs, including animal feed, anaerobic digestion (AD) and composting have substantially lower economic and environmental returns with unlikely any tangible social impact. Given the triple-win potential of food waste prevention, further research needs to investigate the systemic challenges of adopting a prevention-oriented food waste policy in urban CEs.

The findings of this research which are published in leading journals in the field made valuable contributions to the body of knowledge by providing a robust conceptual framework for systemic analysis of CE (Parsa et al., 2021), an optimised food waste hierarchy framework for urban CEs (Parsa et al., 2023), and a triple bottom line framework to illustrate the impacts of different food waste management options on the people, planet, and profit (Parsa et al., 2024). The evidence-based recommendations of the study as well as the user-friendly interface of the model have also provided a useful source for urban policy makers to design more sustainable CE policies.
Date of AwardApr 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorMarco Van De Wiel (Supervisor) & Ulrich Schmutz (Supervisor)

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