Circular Economy

How a circular economy could aid the COVID-19 recovery

Circular economy sustainability recycling COVID-19 financial recovery.

Eliminating waste by making the economy 'circular'. Image: REUTERS/Heo Ran

Victoria Masterson
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  • 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.

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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.


What is a circular economy?

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?

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