COVID-19 induced travel restrictions are not enough to mitigate crises like climate change. Could a circular economy be the answer?

Research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred Yamoah and colleagues points to a new way to rebuild the global economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image of a reuse logo

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, resulting in a massive health crisis and huge economic loss.

While the impact on life as we know it has been unthinkable, a side effect of the way of life forced upon us by the pandemic is an unprecedented reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, which are projected to decline by 8%. If achieved, this will be the most substantial reduction ever recorded, six times larger than the milestone reached during the 2009 financial crisis.

However, these changes should not be misconstrued as a climate triumph. They are not due to the right decisions from governments, but to a temporary status of lockdown that will not linger on forever; economies will need to rebuild, so we can expect a surge in emissions in the future. Indeed, the relatively modest reduction in emissions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that zero-emissions cannot be attained based on reduced travel alone; structural changes in the economy will be needed to meet this target.

The case for a circular economy

Before coronavirus prompted this dramatic shift in our way of life, it seemed that the world had been waking up to the need for change to protect our environment. The linear model of our industrial economy – taking resources, making products from them and disposing of the product at the end of its life – jeopardizes the limits of our planet’s resource supply. Girling (2011) found that around 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing become waste before the final product leaves the production plant, while 80% of products manufactured are disposed of within the first six months of their life. Similarly, Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata (2012) reported that around 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste is generated by cities across the globe, which may grow to 2.2. billion tonnes by 2025.

Against this backdrop, the search for an industrial economic model that satisfies the multiple roles of decoupling economic growth from resource consumption, waste management and wealth creation, has heightened interests in concepts about circular economy.

What is circular economy?

Circular economy emphasises environmentally conscious manufacturing and product recovery, the avoidance of unintended ecological degradation and a shift in focus to a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycle for products.

In our current situation, there has never been a better time to consider how the principles of circular economy could be translated into reality when the global economy begins to recover. Strategies to combat climate change could include:

  • material recirculation (more high-value recycling, less primary material production)
  • product material efficiency (improved production process, reuse of components and designing products with fewer materials)
  • circular business models (higher utilisation and longer lifetime of products through design for durability and disassembly, utilisation of long-lasting materials, improved maintenance and remanufacturing).

Building back better

A circular economy could also act as a vehicle for crafting more resilient economies. The pandemic has forced a rethink of the way our global economy operates, revealing the inability of the dominant economic model to respond to unplanned shocks and crises. The lockdown and border restrictions have reduced employment and heightened the risk of food insecurity for millions.

To prevent a repeat of the events of 2020, it is necessary to devise long-term risk-mitigation and sustainable fiscal thinking, moving away from the current focus on profits and disproportionate economic growth. Circular economy concerns optimised cycles: products are designed for longevity and optimised for a cycle of reuse that renders them easier to handle and transform. Future innovations under this model would focus on the general well-being of the populace, alongside boosting the market and competitiveness.

This economic model would also support the achievement of social inclusion objectives, for example by redistributing surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain to the local community.

The benefits of a circular economy are therefore obvious in that it strives for three wins in terms of social, environmental and economic impact. The pandemic has instigated a focus on the importance of local manufacturing for a resilient economy; fostered behavioural change in consumers; triggered the need for diversification and circularity of supply chains and evinced the power of public policy for tackling urgent socio-economic crises.

Governments are recognising the need for national-level circular economy policies in many aspects, such as:

  • reducing over-reliance on other manufacturing countries for essential goods
  • intensive research into bio-based materials for the development of biodegradable products
  • legal frameworks for local, regional and national authorities to promote green logistics and waste management regulations which incentivise local production and manufacturing
  • development of compact smart cities for effective mobility.

Post COVID-19 investments needed to accelerate towards more resilient, low carbon and circular economies should be integrated into the stimulus packages for economic recovery being promised by governments, since the shortcomings in the dominant linear economic model are now recognised and the gaps to be closed are known. The question is no longer should we build back better, but how.

This blog was adapted from T. Ibn-Mohammed, K.B. Mustapha, J. Godsell, Z. Adamu, K.A. Babatunde, D.D. Akintade, A. Acquaye, H. Fujii, M.M. Ndiaye, F.A. Yamoah, S.C.L. Koh, ‘A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies’ in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 164. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105169

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Ethical consumerism in the time of COVID-19 

Has climate change fallen off the public agenda due to the coronavirus pandemic? According to Birkbeck’s Dr Pamela Yeow, it’s more relevant than ever. She explains her latest remote research project exploring ethical consumerism.

Paper coffee cups

Amidst the current coronavirus pandemic that’s engulfing our global consciousness, one may wonder if research to do with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) is a tad too irrelevant and insignificant.

After all, coffee chains, which had previously encouraged customers to bring in reusable mugs (and in return benefit from a discount), no longer allow such practices to help tackle the spread of the global virus.

However, it has been shown that during this pandemic, issues surrounding climate change and sustainability have continued to be raised. Global records have demonstrated that carbon emissions have reduced as a result of lockdowns worldwide and many reports suggest an increase in birdsong, brighter and clearer skies, cleaner air and less pollution.

So it is clear that research to do with sustainable consumption should be as relevant as ever  and it would be interesting to see, in a live experiment (given that we are living through it as we write), how consumers behave and react to embedding sustainable consumption patterns.

Just before the lockdown in the UK, my colleagues and I were awarded an Eastern Arc grant to run a pilot workshop on understanding sustainable ethical consumerism from the householder’s perspective. In particular, we were keen to address the UNSDG 12.5 which states “By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.” 

Previous research that we had conducted concluded that “both individuals and institutions play a significant interaction role in encouraging a sustained behavioural change towards ethical consumerism”. We suggest that embedding behaviour is a gradual process. one with a series of stages and factors that can impede the transformation of attitudes into behaviour.  

This time round, building on that understanding of processes and journeys, we were interested to understand  the householder’s journey toward ethical consumerism and whether there would be any clarity in how they might embed and substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. 

The UNSDG website states that The current crisis is an opportunity for a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet...COVID-19 can be a catalyst for social change. We must build back better and transition our production and consumption patterns towards more sustainable practices.”

Our research project aims to consider how we might begin to embed these practices by understanding where householders are nowAs researchers, we too have had to adapt due to COVID-19: instead of hosting a workshop to answer our questions, we’re asking participants to keep a photo journal of single use plastics in the home to better understand how these items are entering the household and to promote awareness among users of their consumption habits.

This project is still in the early stages, but one thing is clear: more needs to be done to promote sustainability rather than less. We need to continue to understand behaviours and attitudes toward sustainable consumerism so that we can build a better, more sustainable economy and society for us and the future generations.

Dr Pamela Yeow is a Reader in Management at Birkbeck and Course Leader of the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA.

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