• A circular economy could help the world recover financially from COVID-19, researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick say.
  • It could also help nations achieve their net-zero carbon emissions aims.

COVID-19 has further exposed the failures of a linear “take-make-waste” use of the world’s resources, and highlighted the need for a more circular “reduce-redesign-reuse” approach, according to a new study.

A group of researchers led by the UK’s University of Warwick concluded that a circular economy could help the world recover from the pandemic, while also helping nations reach net-zero carbon emissions goals.

All industries can and should adopt a circular economy, says Dr Taofeeq Ibn-Mohammed, assistant professor in the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), with strategies adapted to each sector.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

More resource-efficient construction

In construction, for example, retrofitting, refurbishing or repairing existing buildings leads to lower emission facilities, is less resource-intensive and more cost-effective than demolition and new construction.

Digital infrastructure technologies such as thermographic and infrared surveys, 3D laser scanning and digital twinning – creating virtual models of processes, products or services – “will play a crucial role in ensuring the low carbon and energy-efficient future of the built environment,” the authors say.

Less wasteful food sector

Circular economy strategies could help create a more sustainable and secure food sector.

These include ‘regenerative agriculture’ approaches such as using food waste to replenish nutrients in the soil. Anaerobic digestion can be used to create biogas from organic nutrients. Urban agriculture – cultivating crops and animals for food in and around cities – is another circular opportunity.

The authors cite the increased popularity of local farms as a direct consequence of COVID-19, suggesting that “people could experience the power of local food cycles and avoid perceived contamination risks in supermarkets”.

Digital supply chains

Companies can boost their resilience against future pandemics like COVID-19 by using disruptive digital technologies or smart manufacturing tools.

Big data analytics, for example, can help companies streamline their supplier selection processes. Cloud-computing is currently being used to facilitate and manage supplier relationships. And logistics and shipping processes can be “greatly enhanced” through automation and the internet of things – the world of connected devices.

The Warwick team urges 'circular thinking' that targets the general well-being of the populace instead of a “focus on boosting the competitiveness, profitability or growth of businesses and national economies”.

Circular economy sustainability resilient environment plastic packaging
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently set out 10 circular investment opportunities across five key sectors.
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

10 circular investment opportunities

The World Economic Forum is a supporter of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to accelerate the world’s transition to a circular economy. The foundation recently set out 10 circular investment opportunities across five key sectors: the built environment, fashion, plastic packaging, food and mobility.

“In an unprecedented response to the COVID-19 crisis, trillions in economic stimulus have been made available around the world,” the foundation says, pointing out that this moment in time is a rare opportunity to build a resilient and low-carbon recovery. “The circular economy, as an instrument to decouple economic growth from resource use and environmental impact, opens up the way for a resilient recovery.”

Circular nations

The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Scotland, Denmark and Finland are among the nations pushing forward circular economy agendas.

For example, the Netherlands has a government-wide programme to achieve a circular Dutch economy by 2050.

Denmark is investing €16 million ($19 million) across 15 initiatives as part of a national circular economy strategy.

Scotland also has a circular economy strategy and already employs more than 200,000 people – 8.1% of jobs – in circular economy-related roles.

Pace of change

More than 40 countries, companies and international organizations work together to accelerate the transition to a circular economy as members of the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE).

Launched in 2017 by the World Economic Forum, the PACE community consists of 80 public, private, international and civil society executive leaders and more than 200 members championing 18 projects across the globe.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Scale360° Playbook Journey
Image: Scale360° Playbook

Its unique hub-based approach - launched this September - is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

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3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

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