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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Sustainability implications of the Circular Economy: Opportunities for South Africa

The traditional linear take-make-waste model of economic development has resulted in catastrophic levels of resource extraction leading to the degradation of ecosystems, exacerbation of climate change and high levels of pollution. The term ‘Circular Economy (CE)’ has been included in four South African government department strategies, regulations and policies exposing the idea to growing interpretation in South Africa’s sustainable development discourse. Considering the limitations and challenges of CE identified in the literature and the research that suggest contextual analysis of CE activities is crucial, this study aims to fill this gap. This research aims to understand the potential implications of CE for the sustainability and sustainable development challenges faced by South Africa and what is required to overcome and not exacerbate these challenges. The methodology combines a critical literature review with systems thinking and semi-structured interviews. The systems thinking approach uses a causal loop diagram to identify reinforcing and balancing loops which highlighted potential issues for sustainability including lock-in to industrial processes, induced demand for less sustainable products due to high price points or inappropriate quality (downcycling), increased energy and raw material demands and a decrease in opportunities for informal waste economy and extractive industry workers. The semi-structured interviews gain insight into the level of consideration of sustainability and sustainable development by key stakeholders and use expert knowledge to reveal barriers, opportunities, requirements and risks for the transition to CE in South Africa. The comparison of the result of the methods employed reveal that breaking down of government silos and collaboration across all stakeholder groups is required for a successful transition. Additionally, education at all levels of society plays an important role and is directly linked to the finding that a deeper understanding of the challenges associated with CE is needed. If these are in place, the development of a unifying definition of CE for South Africa can be developed that assists in overcoming the sustainability and sustainable development challenges of South Africa and minimises sustainability trade-offs. Importantly, employment opportunities need to be increased with appropriate skills development in the transition to a CE in South Africa. The comparison of the results is presented in a Theory of Change Framework as means to operationalise the findings in a way applicable to multiple stakeholder groups.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.