Rethinking circular economy in the time of Covid-19

At Sparknews, we believe that they can also be great opportunities to adapt and rethink our relations with the world. As a team who wants to ignite new narratives that can accelerate the ecological and social transition, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what will be the shape of the global collective story emerging from the current worldwide sanitary emergency. In this week #SparkMinute, let’s focus on circular economy with local examples, of businesses rethinking their models, and of articles and opinions that can nourish our imagination.

What if our mistake was wanting disposable masks?

The health crisis has brought the return of the disposable. A glut of discarded single-use masks is now washing up on shorelines and littering the seabed. Fines for littering, as well as the existing recycling systems for this type of sanitary waste, seem to be fragile ramparts in the face of the billions of personal protective equipment ordered by almost all countries. We are inheriting political choices, including the single-use disposable system in hospitals. When historians Bruno Strasser and Thomas Schlich investigated the onset of disposable surgical masks in the 1960s, they discover that the abandonment of reusable covers was mostly due to an aggressive advertising campaign in medical and nursing journals. These disposable masks, which have an expiration date, are intrinsically linked to an economic model based on permanent stock renewal.

Masks are not the only waste issue born from this health crisis. Plastic cutlery, which was to be permanently banned from French school canteens as of January 1, 2020, has found its way back to school. Recycling — which has been in sort of a crash in the United States — is now getting even worse. Workers in the informal sector – specifically waste pickers – are particularly vulnerable to this crisis. Companies are increasingly returning to producing virgin, or new, plastic – adding to the unsustainable levels of plastic production and mismanaged waste we were already seeing before the pandemic. At the European level, the European Plastic Converters (EUPC), the federation of plastic companies in Europe, sent a letter to the European Commission at the beginning of April. Their objective: to obtain the postponement of the ban on certain single-use plastics (including straws, Q-Tips, and swabs) for 2021.

However, our passion for disposables was here long before the virus: between 1950 and 2015, we generated 8.3 billion tons of plastic materials. Of this gigantic quantity, 6.3 billion tons became waste by 2017, of which only 9% was recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills or nature. The past few months, which have seen recycling plants idle and some cities going as far as to suspend selective sorting, are symptoms of a congested linear extract-produce-consume-dispose economy. This throw away system is just the tip of the iceberg: our whole societal model finds its roots on unbridled overconsumption, from the planned obsolescence of our telephones to food waste.

Another model is possible: a circular economy, which proposes not to “turn our waste into resources” but rather to “not turn our resources into waste” in the words of Flore Berlingen, Director of Zero Waste France. World Bank executives stated in May that the circular economy can support the COVID-19 response and build resilience. Some structures which refuse to create disposable products have raised to the challenge during the crisis. The French company Cyclofix volunteered to repair the bikes of medical staff in Paris and the inner suburbs. iNex Circular, an online platform dedicated to the circular economy between companies, used its technology to detect the raw materials needed for hand sanitizer to make them available to producers who were out of stock. Researchers at the Australian Queensland Technological University have developed a model of a nanocellulose mask, made from plant waste such as sugar cane residue. While the end of lockdown may invite us to return to the linear model that we have become so accustomed to, would it not rather be an opportunity to question our needs and rethink the objects in our daily lives to choose more sustainable alternatives such as this marketplace to buy and sell unused fabrics for your next wardrobe addition, or transporting temperature-sensitive goods in insulated packaging made from sheep waste wool?

A bar of Clean the World’s recycled soap. The charitable organization distributes its soap to scores of countries across the globe Clean the World

When organizations go the extra mile

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to rage, handwashing is still an indispensable gesture. Hong Kong-based NGO Soap Cycling has beencollecting leftover soap from hotels in the city and processing it to distribute to the homeless and people in low-income communities in Asia. In the United States, the charity Clean the World delivered 3 million bars of soap recycled from used soap donated by hotels. Read more in the South China Morning Post and the Los Angeles Times.

The race to find a sustainable alternative to surgical face masks is still on. According to The Engineer, researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada are developing a fully compostable and biodegradable medical-grade face mask out of one of the country’s most plentiful raw materials: wood. ShoeX has launched its new product line of face masks, made from Vietnamese coffee beans, that is reusable, biodegradable and antibacterial. Learn more on Sprudge.

Bicycle mechanics and repair workshops are recording a rise in demand for services during the coronavirus outbreak Photograph Pakula Piotr Alamy

Local initiatives against global disorder

For the world’s 2 billion informal workers, COVID-19 is a dual health and economic crisis. During this pandemic, waste recyclers, street vendors and food servers, construction workers, transport workers, and domestic workers are particularly at risk of infection. WIEGO has compiled a list of fundraising campaigns, led by membership-based organizations of informal workers and their allies in South Africa, Thailand, Central Asia, India, Brazil, Jamaica, Peru, the United States, and France.

The bicycle industry in the United Kingdom has seen a surge in business since the beginning of lockdown, particularly for bicycle menders, as people get old bikes out of their sheds in a bid to avoid public transport. According to The Guardian, several bike shops near hospitals have been servicing NHS workers’ bikes for free, or at a discount, including Brompton Bicycle, that has lent 200 bicycles to St Bartholomew’s Hospital staff in central London for a month.

During lockdown, community repair groups and networks have adapted by offering online repair sessions. Repair Café Paris invited the local community to sign up to online workshops for help with repairs. Other groups around the world run similar events, including Reading Repair Café (UK), Repair Café Aschaffenburg (DE), Repair Café North Carolina (USA), Repair Café Steenokkerzeel (BE), Marlow Repair Café (UK). Explore how different groups and networks continuing their work online on The Restart Project blog and discover the Canadian repair scene in this CBC article.

Want to learn more about the transition from a linear to a circular economy? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has freely available learning offeringsMOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) — on the topic from universities like Delft University of Technology, Leiden University, McMaster University, Exeter University and Bradford University. The From Linear to Circular programme is, for example, an exclusive 8-week global learning experience for young professionals and postgraduate students. You can also read Sparknews’ white paper on the circular economy.

Waste Picker near Jawhar Flickr Marcos Bradley

Let’s imagine the future

As of today, Slovenia is the only European country with a zero-waste capital, Ljubljana. The city has managed to expand its separate collection of organic waste and to reduce the amount of waste sent for disposal by 59%, while maintaining waste management costs among the lowest in Europe. In this interview for the Zero Waste Cities blog, Katja Sres, from Ekologi Brez Meja (Ecologists Without Borders), presents the conditions and context which has led to Slovenia’s success, the main challenges it is still facing, and the future of the zero waste movement in Slovenia. Read the interview here.

In this post on the OECD Forum blog, Oriana Romano, Head of Unit of Water Governance and Circular Economy at the OECD, explores why cities should embrace the circular economy to shape our post-COVID-19 future. Although the circular economy is not the panacea for overcoming COVID-19, it can help address unsustainable trends and find adequate solutions. Oriana explains the steps through which COVID-19 can accelerate the transition towards a circular economy in cities: (1) take action before another crisis hits, (2) turn the crisis into opportunity, and (3) embrace the new normalRead more.

Even fakes become originals when you repair them. Making repairs is good for the imagination. To fix is to discover. These are some of the ideas covered in the Repair Manifesto, a declaration of intentions by the collective Platform 21 downloaded over one million times. This design platform in Amsterdam aims to positively influence the relationship between the user and the product. With its Repair Manifesto, it provides eleven steps on how to stop recycling and start repairing. Read it here.

What would a sustainable circular economy look like? In this article for The Conversation, Anne Velenturf, Research Impact Fellow in Circular Economy, and Phil Purnell, Professor of Materials and Structures, both from the University of Leeds, present the results of their research programme on the implementation of a circular economy in the UK. They found that three broad types of economic models exist for implementing a circular economy in the UK: (1) closing loops with energy from waste, (2) a circular economy based on recycling, and (3) a sustainable circular economy. Only such a circular economy could potentially regenerate the environment. Read the article here.

At Sparknews, are convinced that the coronavirus global outbreak will lead us to draw valuable lessons about our globalized economic system. Whether on matters like education, solidarity, biodiversity or our way of work, it will be up to us to return to the status quo once the health crisis is over, or to reshape everything. Discover our #SparkMinute on educationenergyworkour dietbiodiversitydemocracybioregionalismgender, and solidarity.


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