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Every aspect of modern life is being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and progress towards a circular economy is no exception. It is yet to be seen whether the pandemic and its response will stall or advance the evolution towards a zero-waste, circular economy that is powered by renewable energy. Progress has been in-motion on transitioning to this regenerative economy that works towards economic, societal and environmental well-being simultaneously—but this momentum has been stifled by the inertia of a status quo, take-make-waste economy. Might the shocks of the current global pandemic and economic slowdown to the socio-economic system present a tipping point and acceleration towards a circular economy?
The circular economy is about finding new, less resource intensive ways to go about daily life. COVID constraints have accelerated many substitutions at a rate unimaginable a few short months ago.
Digitalization is well-established as a key technology enabler for the circular economy. COVID has accelerated the substitution of e-commerce for brick and mortar shopping, a transition already well underway. But it has also catapulted the digitalization of many unexpected practices: online schooling, remote working, telemedicine, and remote court hearings to name a few. These shifts have not come without downsides: profound impacts to family well-being, human community and local economies; barriers to participation for rural and disadvantaged households; and reinforcement of the dominance of Big Tech conglomerates. Yet they show that less resource intensive practices are possible, and that more moderate models could be designed, taking human and community needs into greater account.
The past months have illustrated to many people and organizations how much of our travel is not essential. While physical, in-person gatherings are sometimes needed, we can see now that remote work and virtual meetings can replace a considerable amount of our commuting and business travel.
Indeed, changes to mobility, and urban form, may be one of the COVID era’s biggest legacies. Already cities are having to rethink mobility, creating more space for cyclists and pedestrians as ridership on public transit is constrained. These redesigned city plans also help to ward off the congestion that would arise from a wide-spread shift to single-vehicle commuting. Revolutionary changes to urban life are moving from concept to reality, as cities like Amsterdam make bold shifts to more circular economies as part of their post-COVID recovery efforts.
The circular economy is also about doing more with less. Hard times ahead lie in store for many individuals, families and communities. Less disposable income and tighter budgets may mean that thriftiness and smarter consumption may come to the fore in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. Mending, sharing, swapping, maintenance and general thriftiness have been increasing in popularity, and the difficult economic times expected for the coming years give us all the more reason to consume products in a way that is more thoughtful and less wasteful. Products should be made to last longer, with an extended service life. Repair will help to keep products in use for much longer, and the critical right-to-repair movement will hopefully take hold here in Canada in the way that it has in places like Europe.
The surge in plastics use in the medical and retail response to COVID-19, accompanied by delays to planned bans on single-use plastics, has presented a setback to one of the higher profile circular economy efforts. It has stalled the widescale, enthusiastic actions to move to as little waste as possible and keep resources in use for as long as possible. Even before the current crisis the use of plastics was already a highly wasteful, linear, take-make-waste model that was harmful to the environment and missed economic opportunities as value was literally thrown away. Plunging oil prices have also sharpened the cost advantage of virgin plastics over recycled materials. The current spike in plastics use spotlights the need to shift to a circular plastics economy, in which plastics are reused or effectively recycled, with associated decreases in emissions and energy used.
Other potential setbacks of COVID-19 are on the sharing economy, whether it be renting a drill from a tool library, sharing a hot desk in a co-working space, or membership in a car sharing co-op. The communal use of resources, which has exploded in past years, faces new sanitation challenges. Likewise, the strong uptick in people using reusable shopping bags at the grocery store and reusable mugs at the local café has been temporarily stalled, with businesses restricting the use of reusable materials. With both the sharing economy and the use of reusable items, time will tell how individual people respond. What this means is that policies need to ensure that society and business as a whole move to a circular economy that is both safe and sustainable. Tom Szaky, the CEO of Loop, recently articulated it in an interview, saying, “(T)he fundamental difference here is not that single use or disposable is inherently safe, or that reuse is inherently unsafe: It's how you deploy those systems”.
These potential setbacks to circular plastics, the sharing economy and reusables reiterate the need for a model which is circular. The current landscape should be taken as motivation to mitigate setbacks to the fullest extent possible, and to keep up momentum towards a circular economy. We should strengthen our resolve as we collectively rebuild the post-COVID economy.
This is a dynamic moment. Everything is changing with rapid-fire speed, and people and institutions are being forced to question their priorities and how they want to move into the future. Similar to when there is a disturbance in a forest, amidst the disarray there is space for new life. After the COVID-19 pandemic, this new life could and should include bold new policies, less waste, stronger supply chains, more resilient economies, more just social safety nets, and the prioritization of a more stable climate. The future we are building needs to be marked by resilience and renewal as key principles of circularity. Policy makers are searching for the right solutions to take us forward into such a future, like those laid out in the promising vision of a circular economy.
Read more in our series about the Circular Economy in a post-Covid World. You may also be interested in our blog Resilience and Renewal: Principles of Circularity for Post-Covid Recovery.