Understanding the social legitimisation of the Circular Economy for the water sector

Understanding the social legitimisation of the Circular Economy for the water sector

18th October 2020 newsletter 0
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The recognition that resource depletion challenges society has led many countries to find innovative solutions. The Circular Economy (CE) offers a valuable answer to global economic, environmental and social issues. This concept challenges the classic “take-make-waste” system with a regenerative and restorative lens1. In order to tackle the CE challenges in the water sector, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme funded the NextGen project. This project aims at boosting sustainability and driving new market dynamics across ten case studies and beyond.

The CE applied to the water cycle is often limited to water recycling. However, it is increasingly recognised that wastewater is a resource – as opposed to a waste – and can be a valuable asset for energy and materials recovery  (e.g., phosphorus for fertilisers). Circular solutions are technically reliable; however, social responses are still seen as a significant barrier to the uptake of such solutions. The understanding of social responses is essential to ensure long-term support and increase the prevalence of such necessary yet underused solutions.

The “acceptance” concept is often used to look at social responses and refers to the public passively acquiescing to the information specialists provide2. This marketing-based approach aims to convince the public to accept a given solution. Yet, it does not integrate the full view of what is happening when one considers a circular solution.
Why would people choose a circular system that sprays on farmlands what was in their toilets a few weeks ago? Why would people choose a circular approach to a more traditional – linear – one? One part of the answer stands in people’s perceptions of which system is more legitimate. In this context, legitimacy is the perception that a circular solution is appropriate or desirable within norms and values that prevail in a given community3.

Legitimacy differs from the acceptance, as it looks at the end users’ personal evaluations (i.e., what do they get from the circular solution?), the cultural order of a given community (i.e., is it necessary?), the moral rules (i.e., is it good or bad?) and the regulative arrangement (i.e., are there any regulative challenges around the circular solution?). The legitimacy perspective offers a wider range of actions such as sharing power with end users through decision-making2,4. In this case, the ultimate goal of legitimacy processes is the widespread trust in circular solutions2. Water, energy and materials derived from wastewater would become “normalised”, equal to conventional sources of water, energy and materials5.

It has been clear that water reuse solutions can go through the process of legitimisation or delegitimisation. The case of Toowoomba (Australia) is a practical example of delegitimisation where public opposition defeated a water reuse solution. However, we lack skills and methods to identify and observe the legitimacy phenomena, as it appears in contemporary cases of utilities trialling water reuse, energy and materials recovery solutions.

Our research aims to understand how people perceive legitimacy towards the CE in the water sector and develops a comprehensive method to identify such perceptions. We used two NextGen case studies to underpin the research. The Swedish case tests a water reuse solution to feed farmers, citizens and local businesses of the Storsudret area (Gotland). The Dutch case trials water reuse and materials recovery solutions to upgrade the treatment of brewery’s wastewater. We interviewed a wide range of actors related to each case, such as, farmers, technology providers, regulators, operators, local businesses’ owners, journalists, public representatives and researchers. We will shortly survey the general public to identify legitimacy perceptions.

Early findings suggest that the meaning of legitimacy towards the CE in the water sector is complex and dynamic 1. It can include judgments that a given solution contributes to societal welfare, is managed appropriately, is safe to use for a given community and is led by trustworthy representatives. Another dimension can cover perceptions that a circular solution is understandable to a wide range of actors, is as necessary as other well-established circular solutions (e.g., domestic waste recycling), is connected to end users’ daily lives and makes users feel comfortable using water, energy and materials derived from wastewater. Further, legitimacy might refer to the perceptions that a circular system brings benefits to its end users and is aligned with a given community’s values. Finally, legitimacy might also derive its meaning in terms of congruence with laws and regulations3,6.

While we do not have the answers yet, we hope to learn how circular solutions become legitimate beyond acceptance and how the legitimacy approach can support the adoption of circular solutions in the water sector. We hope to inform public outreach and engagement practices by providing recommendations on what aspects of legitimacy can be targeted to spread a normalised view towards circular systems.

Looking forward, we will apply the legitimacy concept to additional case studies as part of the ULTIMATE project (funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme). The ULTIMATE project aims to bring economic value and support sustainability while valuing resources in the water sector and will apply Water Smart Industrial Symbiosis to nine case studies.


Further information

NextGen project: https://nextgenwater.eu/
ULTIMATE project: https://ultimatewater.eu/



Marine Poncet
PhD Researcher at Cranfield Water Science Institute, UK
E: Marine.r.poncet@cranfield.ac.uk


1. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) The circular economy in detail. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/the-circular-economy-in-detail
2. Harris-Lovett, S., Binz, C., Sedlak, D., Kiparsky, M. and Truffer, B. (2015) ‘Beyond User Acceptance: A Legitimacy Framework for Potable Water Reuse in California’, Environmental Science and Technology, 49(13), pp. 7552–7561. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b00504.
3. Suchman, M. C. (1995) ‘Managing Legitimacy : Strategic and Insitutional Approaches’, Academy of Management Review, 20(3), pp. 571–610. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
4. Binz, C., Harris-Lovett, S., Kiparsky, M., Sedlak, D. L. and Truffer, B. (2016) ‘The thorny road to technology legitimation – Institutional work for potable water reuse in California’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Elsevier Inc., 103, pp. 249–263. doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2015.10.005.
5. Smith, H. M., Brouwer, S., Jeffrey, P. and Frijns, J. (2018) ‘Public responses to water reuse – Understanding the evidence’, Journal of Environmental Management. Elsevier Ltd, 207, pp. 43–50. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2017.11.021
6. Scott, R. W. (1995) Institutions and Organizations. SAGE.

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