Circular Blue Economy: Current Practices and Future Plans

From Waste to Wealth: The Circular Blue Economy

By Ana Yong

See Also: A Sustainable Blue Economy: Circularity and Ocean Resources


As the global population continues to grow and consume more resources, waste management has become an increasingly urgent concern. In particular, our oceans and waterways have become polluted with waste material such as plastics, chemicals and discarded fishing gear. This waste not only harms marine life but also has a detrimental impact on our economy and society as a whole. In response to this issue, the concept of the circular blue economy has emerged as a solution to transform waste into wealth while promoting sustainability in the maritime sector.

An article called “Blue Economy: oceans as the next great economic frontier” published by the United Nations, Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (14 March 2022) declared that 40% of the global population live near the coastline, more than 3 billion people make use of the oceans and seas for a living and 80% of international commerce is accomplished using the seas.

Circular Blue Economy: Golden earth floating on the ocean at dusk
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How Countries Implement the Circular Blue Economy

African Union (AU)

An article by The World Bank called “Blue Economy for Resilient Africa Program (BE4RAP)” (15 November 2022) stated that the blue economy in the African continent produces almost USD 300 billion while generating 49 million jobs.

Pioneered by The World Bank, BE4RAP is a collaboration between the World Bank and coastal nations in the African continent to grow their blue economies into resilient and circular industries. To get an Operational Brief of BE4RAP, click here.

Note: The AU is “ a continental body consisting of the 55 member states that make up the countries of the African Continent. It was officially launched in 2002 as a successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, 1963-1999)”.

European Union (EU)

The European Commission announced that “under a sustainable blue economy, maritime and coastal activities reconcile economic development, improved livelihoods and social inclusion with fighting the climate crisis, protecting biodiversity and ecosystems, using resources responsibly and achieving the zero-pollution ambition”.

To help member countries, the European Green Deal was created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, direct blue economies to be more circular and develop offshore renewal energy, amongst other targets.

The European Green Deal was set up to enable Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, reduce carbon discharges by at least 55% by 2030 and ensure that 3 billion additional trees are planted in the European Union by 2030. To find out more about how this scheme is implemented, click here.

Below is a list of the benefits that the European Green Deal would bring to member states:

benefits of a green deal
Source: European Commission

Note: The European Commission “is the EU’s politically independent executive arm. It is alone responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation, and it implements the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU”.


The most populous Muslim-majority country announced that it plans to safeguard 10% of its seas by 2030 and 30% by 2045. In addition, Indonesia’s marine protected area coverage will be tripled to 975,000 square kilometers. The conversion to a circular blue economy is spearheaded by the Indonesia Sustainable Oceans Program (ISOP) which consists of an assortment of interconnected projects financed by the World Bank. To know more about these projects, click here.

An article called “Four strategies for a blue economy in Indonesia: Reflections from the Oceans for Prosperity report” (25 March 2021) published on the World Bank Blogs website highlighted 4 strategies to promote a circular blue economy:

a. Improved management of marine and coastal assets (fisheries, mangroves, reefs)

As Indonesia is second only to China as the world’s largest fishing nation, it has created a fishery supervision area system to allow for decision making related to fisheries harvest levels. Together with functional marine spatial plans to categorize parts of the oceans fit for economic interests and sites which should stay protected, zoning of appropriate areas can be implemented.

b. Mobilize incentives and investments

Monetary support is needed for “improvements in basic services and infrastructure, for solid waste collection, water and sewerage services” which may complement the Extended Producer Regulation that puts a legal obligation on producers to safely dispose of packaging and products that cannot be composted or are hard to decompose.

c. Better systems for data collection and monitoring

The use of e-documenting and recording mechanisms for ecosystem monitoring can enhance ecotourism by reducing environmental impacts through the implementation of timely mitigation measures. Technology can also be used to provide detailed species-specific stock and harvest information.

d. Build back “bluer” from the COVID-19 pandemic

These activities refer to “opportunities to align short-term economic COVID-19 recovery efforts with the long-term needs of oceans sectors”. In addition, commercial revival packages could be implemented to encourage job creation while enhancing maritime resilience. To find out more, click here to view a short 1.5-minute video.

United States of America

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce referred to the ‘New Blue Economy’ to mean the extension of the ‘traditional’ blue economy to include technology, sustainability and logistics. It was also announced that additional terminals and piers would be constructed as the expected demand in maritime commerce would triple by 2030.

With the launch of the NOAA Blue Economy Strategic Plan 2021-2025, the strategy goals include enhancing and promoting maritime transport, expanding tourism in America’s oceans, coasts and great lakes, and building resilience in coastal areas and communities, amongst other approaches.

Examples of Technological Advances used in a Circular Blue Economy

Recirculating Aquaculture System

As maritime resources are limited, it makes sense to implement circularity so that blue reserves are utilized at their maximum. For example, the use of ‘Closed-loop Aquaculture’ or ‘Recirculating Aquaculture System’ (RAS), which is a sustainable technique to redistribute and rejuvenate water within fish farms is an effective circular system.

This mechanism reduces the need for huge volumes of freshwater and decreases fish discharge by converting waste matter into nutrients to grow plants in hydroponic structures. For a pdf writeup on RAS, click here.

You may also refer to the infographic by NC State University on RAS.

flow of water: closed system
Source: NC State University

Biosynthetic Fibers

An article by Innovation Toronto called “Could biosynthetic fibers solve our unseen plastic pollution?” (undated) indicated that biosynthetic fibers which are recyclable and biodegradable could be used to replace synthetic polyester fibers in textiles. In addition, such fibers may be blended with natural fibers (wool, cotton, silk and linen) to attain the sturdiness of synthetic fibers while permitting the blends to be reprocessed.

Biosynthetic fibers are derived from organic resources like plants. These plants (aka first-generation crops) go through a chemical treatment to be broken down into polymers which are later spun and woven into cloth.

Biosynthetic fabric is earth-friendly compared to synthetic fabrics like polyester or spandex since these are made from fossil fuels.

Squidtex, produced by Tandem Repeat, is “mechanically robust, biodegradable, breathable and self-healing”. Squidtex fibers are derived from squid ring teeth protein. Damaged fibers will reattach with water and a little pressure while being completely biodegradable. Tandem Repeat not only won the Microfiber Innovation Challenge but also raised $3 million in funding to further their research and development.

woman in jacket
Source: Squidtex

WindFloat Atlantic Project

This is the world’s first semi-submersible floating wind farm which can secure itself to the seabed at depths greater than 40 meters and is capable of surviving 17-meter waves and winds exceeding 60 knots.

It became fully functional in July 2020 and had produced 180 Gigawatts by the end of 2022 (meeting intended target). Advanced technology has allowed the wind farm to be positioned in deep waters (previously unattainable) to harness the exceedingly strong winds offshore. The site is situated 20 kilometers offshore from the coastline of Viana do Castelo, with waters reaching a depth of 100 meters.

wind turbine on ocean
The WindFloat Atlantic Project.
Photo: EDP

Aquatraz Salmon Cage

The Aquatraz Salmon Cage is an escape-proof and lice-free cage that is used in fish farms for rearing salmon in seawaters. It has a water current generator that ensures fresh seawater is constantly circulated within the cage, thereby safeguarding salmon health.

The cage is 18 meters deep with a circumference of 160 meters. It also encompasses a lice skirt made of steel. The whole cage can be lifted out of the water allowing for easy cleaning and speedy harvest of salmon.

Note: Salmon farms experience lice outbreaks which renders their fish contaminated and unsellable. Hence, the lice skirt is used in keeping lice out of salmon cages.

structure over water by a dock
The Aquatraz Salmon Cage.
Source: Photo credit: Torolf Storsul, Midt-Norsk Havbruk

Farming Insects for Fish Feed using Waste Food

Currently, fish feed is made from fishery bycatch which can adversely affect other marine animals that feed on them. In the long run, the practice would deplete certain marine ecosystems and oceanic species including “ dolphins, sea turtles, protected fish, and whales” which were caught incidentally.

Note: Bycatch “is fish or other marine species caught unintentionally while trying to catch another type of fish. In some cases, bycatch cannot be avoided, and unwanted fish end up in the fishing net”.

Using technology to convert food waste into fish food is one way of preventing the extinction of such marine species. An article by the World Economic Forum entitled “‘Water-forecasting’ and fish farms fed on waste: how innovation is driving the blue economy“ (1 June 2020) announced that insect protein manufactured by nextProtein by farming insects requires less space. In comparison, an area of 100 m2 yields as much protein as 100 hectares (ha) of soy field (100 ha = 1,000,000 m2).

The diagram shows how insect protein is made.

fly larvae are raised and harvested from otherwise inconsumable food, and then processed into valuable components of animal feed
Source: nextProtein


As this article cannot address all the issues and challenges related to the circular blue economy, a short FAQ section is attached to provide a summary of the framework.

1. What role can circular blue economy practices play in addressing social and equity issues such as job creation, fair labor practices and inclusivity within the maritime sector?

a. Job Creation and Economic Opportunities

Transitioning to a circular blue economy can stimulate the creation of new job opportunities. Circular practices such as recycling, repair and remanufacturing require skilled labor, thereby generating employment in areas such as waste management, resource recovery and sustainable manufacturing. Additionally, the development of innovative circular business models and technologies can create entrepreneurial opportunities and promote economic growth within coastal communities.

b. Fair Labor Practices

Circular blue economy practices emphasize sustainability and ethical considerations which include promoting fair labor practices throughout the value chain. By prioritizing worker safety, fair wages and social welfare, circular initiatives can contribute to improved working conditions and the well-being of individuals employed in the maritime sector. Engaging with labor unions and industry associations can help establish guidelines and standards that ensure workers’ rights are respected and protected.

c. Inclusivity and Community Engagement

Circular blue economy practices can foster inclusivity by engaging local communities. Initiatives such as community-based recycling programs, cooperative ventures and sustainable tourism can involve and empower local residents, creating a sense of ownership and shared benefits. Involving indigenous and traditional communities in decision-making processes related to resource management can help preserve cultural heritage and ensure equitable access to resources and opportunities.

d. Skill Development and Training

The transition to a circular blue economy requires a skilled workforce. Providing training and skill development programs tailored to circular practices can empower individuals to participate in and benefit from the changing job market. Collaborations between educational institutions, industry associations and local communities can facilitate the development of relevant training programs and apprenticeships which ensures a constant flow of skilled workers.

e. Social Innovation and Community Resilience

Circular blue economy practices encourage innovation and the development of sustainable solutions. This can lead to the creation of social enterprises and cooperative models that address local challenges like plastic pollution, coastal erosion and declining fish stocks. These initiatives can enhance community resilience, improve livelihoods and foster social cohesion.

f. Access to Sustainable Resources and Services

Circular practices can contribute to resource conservation to ensure the availability of sustainable resources for local communities. For example, promoting sustainable fishing practices such as responsible aquaculture or community-managed fisheries will provide long-term availability of fish stocks and support the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen. Circular approaches also encourage the development of renewable energy sources, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and promoting energy access in coastal areas.

2. Are there any potential risks or trade-offs associated with the circular blue economy and how can these be mitigated to ensure sustainable outcomes?

a. Substitution of One Environmental Issue with Another

Shifting towards circular practices may involve the use of alternative materials or processes that could have unintended environmental impacts. For example, replacing single-use plastics with biodegradable alternatives may lead to increased demand for land-intensive crops. To mitigate this, one should adopt a holistic and life-cycle approach to consider the full environmental impact of materials and processes when implementing new methodologies.

b. Technological and Infrastructural Barriers

Implementing circular practices may require new technologies, infrastructure and investments. Lack of access to appropriate technologies or inadequate infrastructure can hinder progress. Collaboration between governments, industries and research institutions can help develop and disseminate affordable and scalable technologies while financial incentives can support the necessary infrastructure upgrades.

c. Disruption to Existing Industries and Supply Chains

Transitioning to a circular blue economy can disrupt traditional linear business models and supply chains. Industries heavily reliant on the extraction and linear use of resources may face challenges in adapting to circular practices. To mitigate these risks, it is essential to engage stakeholders early on, provide support for innovation and capacity building and facilitate the transition through policy incentives and market signals.

d. Socioeconomic Considerations

The circular blue economy should ensure that social equity and inclusivity are promoted. There is a risk that marginalized communities may face barriers in accessing opportunities within the circular economy which would lead to further inequalities. Effort should be made to involve diverse stakeholders in decision-making processes, address potential social impacts and promote inclusive business models that benefit local communities.

e. Consumer Behavior and Demand

Shifting consumer behavior and preferences towards circular products and services can be a challenge. Raising awareness, educating consumers and promoting the value of circular products and their positive environmental impact can help drive demand. Additionally, policy measures such as extended producer responsibility and product labeling can incentivize businesses to adopt circular practices and provide consumers with transparent information.

f. Scalability and Systemic Change

Implementing circular practices at source requires systemic change across multiple sectors and stakeholders. It may involve coordination, cooperation and collaboration among various actors which can be complex. Governments can play a crucial role in setting ambitious targets, developing supportive policies and fostering multi-stakeholder partnerships to facilitate the transition and overcome inherent barriers.

3. How can circular blue economy initiatives contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular, those related to the ocean, responsible consumption and production and climate action?

a. SDG 14: Life Below Water

Circular blue economy practices can help achieve SDG 14 by promoting sustainable marine resource management and reducing marine pollution. Initiatives such as waste prevention, recycling and the proper disposal of marine debris contribute to cleaner and healthier oceans. By minimizing waste and adopting sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices, circular approaches support the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources.

b. SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Circular blue economy practices align with SDG 12 by promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns. By emphasizing resource efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, circular initiatives minimize the environmental impact of production processes. They encourage the use of renewable materials, product design for durability and recyclability and the adoption of circular business models such as sharing and leasing, extending the lifespan of products and promoting the reuse and recycling of materials.

c. SDG 13: Climate Action

Circular blue economy practices contribute to SDG 13 by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting climate resilience. By minimizing resource extraction, energy consumption and waste generation, circular initiatives help mitigate the carbon footprint of industries. Recycling and reusing materials reduce the need for energy-intensive production processes while sustainable waste management practices such as composting can reduce methane emissions. Circular approaches also foster the development of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient technologies.

4. How can individuals contribute to the circular blue economy in their everyday lives?

a. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Practise responsible waste management by reducing the generation of waste, reusing items whenever possible and recycling materials such as plastics, paper, glass and metals. Sort and separate recyclables correctly to ensure they are properly processed.

b. Choose Sustainable Products

Make informed purchasing decisions by opting for products that are designed for durability, repairability and recyclability. Look for eco-friendly labels, certifications, and products made from recycled materials. Support brands that prioritize sustainability and circular practices.

c. Minimize Single-Use Items

Minimize the use of single-use items like plastic bags, bottles and utensils. Instead, opt for reusable alternatives such as cloth bags, stainless steel water bottles and bamboo or metal utensils. Bring your own reusable coffee cup and food containers to reduce packaging waste.

d. Repair and Refurbish

Instead of discarding broken items, consider repairing them. Support local repair shops or learn basic repair skills to extend the lifespan of products. Refurbish or upcycle items to give them a new purpose and prevent them from ending up in landfills.

e. Embrace Sharing and Collaborative Consumption

Participate in sharing and collaborative platforms that allow you to borrow or rent items you use infrequently such as pre-loved branded bags or books. You can also buy garments at Thrift stores to prevent old clothes from being thrown away. This reduces the demand for new products and promotes resource efficiency.

f. Practice Responsible Seafood Consumption

Choose sustainably sourced seafood by referring to seafood guides or certifications that ensure fishing or aquaculture practices align with sustainability standards. Avoid purchasing endangered or illegally harvested species.

g. Save Energy and Water

Conserve energy by using energy-efficient appliances, turning off lights and electronics when not in use and optimizing heating and cooling systems. Reduce water consumption by fixing leaks, taking shorter showers and using water-saving devices.

h. Support Circular Initiatives and Organizations

Engage with local initiatives and organizations that promote the circular blue economy. Participate in beach cleanups, volunteer for coastal restoration projects or support circular economy-focused NGOs and campaigns.

i. Advocate for Change

Raise awareness about the circular blue economy and its benefits among family, friends and neighbors. Encourage others to adopt circular practices, support sustainable businesses and engage in dialogue with policymakers for the promotion of circular policies and regulations.

5. What role does innovation play in driving the transition towards a circular blue economy?

a. Designing Circular Products and Systems

Innovation in product design and engineering is essential for creating products and systems that are inherently circular. This involves developing products with longer lifespans, modular components and materials that can be easily disassembled, repaired or recycled. Innovative design thinking can optimize resource efficiency, minimize waste and enable closed-loop processes.

b. Developing Sustainable Technologies and Processes

Innovations in technology can drive the development of sustainable solutions within the blue economy. This includes the advancement of recycling technologies, waste management systems and renewable energy sources. Technologies like 3D printing, biodegradable materials and smart sensors enable efficient resource utilization and waste reduction.

c. Enabling Resource and Data Management

Innovative tools and technologies can facilitate the tracking, monitoring and management of resources within the blue economy. This includes the use of digital platforms, data analytics and blockchain technology to enable traceability and transparency in material flows, supply chains and waste management. These innovations improve resource efficiency, reduce waste and facilitate informed decision-making.

d. Fostering Collaboration and Partnerships

Innovation thrives in collaborative environments. By fostering partnerships among industry, academia, research institutions and government agencies, innovative ideas can be shared and interdisciplinary approaches can be developed. Collaborative innovation efforts accelerate the adoption of circular practices and promote the scaling up of sustainable solutions.

e. Encouraging Policy and Regulatory Innovation

Innovation is not limited to technological advancements; it also extends to policy and regulatory frameworks. Governments and policymakers play a vital role in fostering a supportive environment for circular blue economy initiatives through innovative policies, incentives and regulations. This includes giving subsidies to sustainability-friendly businesses and supporting research and development.

Future of the Circular Blue Economy

The future of the circular blue economy holds significant promise for sustainable development and the responsible use of marine resources. Here are some key aspects that may shape its future:

a. Increased Adoption and Scaling

The circular blue economy is likely to witness increased adoption and scaling of circular practices across various sectors within the blue economy including fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, offshore energy and tourism. More businesses, governments and organizations are recognizing the environmental and economic benefits of circularity and are likely to integrate circular principles into their strategies and operations.

b. Technological Advancements

Advances in technology will play a crucial role in driving the circular blue economy. Innovations in materials science, recycling technologies, waste management systems and digital solutions will enable more efficient resource utilization, waste reduction and improved circular supply chains. Technological breakthroughs may further enhance resource recovery, waste valorization and closed-loop processes.

c. Collaboration and Partnerships

Collaboration among different stakeholders will be essential for the success of the circular blue economy. Governments, industries, academia, research institutions, NGOs and the general public need to work together to foster knowledge sharing, innovation and the implementation of circular initiatives. Collaborative efforts can drive policy changes, support research and development and create a conducive environment for circular practices.

Last Word

While the exact trajectory of the circular blue economy is challenging to predict, it is evident that the need for sustainable resource management, waste reduction and environmental protection will continue to drive its growth. The circular blue economy offers a pathway to transform our relationship with the ocean and coastal areas while ensuring the long-term health and resilience of marine ecosystems.