Why an Inclusive Circular Economy is Needed to Prepare for Future Global Crises

The risks associated with existing production and consumption systems have been harshly exposed amid the current global health crisis but an inclusive circular economy could ensure both short-term and long-term resilience for future challenges, writes Patrick Schröder.

Expert comment Published 15 April 2020 Updated 25 August 2021 3 minute READ
Lima city employees picking up garbage during lockdown measures in Peru amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Getty Images.

Lima city employees picking up garbage during lockdown measures in Peru amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Getty Images.

The world is currently witnessing how vulnerable existing production and consumption systems are, with the current global health crisis harshly exposing the magnitude of the risks associated with the global economy in its current form, grounded, as it is, in a linear system that uses a ‘take–make–throw away’ approach.

These ‘linear risks’ associated with the existing global supply chain system are extremely high for national economies overly dependent on natural resource extraction and exports of commodities like minerals and metals. Equally vulnerable are countries with large manufacturing sectors of ready-made garments and non-repairable consumer goods for western markets. Furthermore, workers and communities working in these sectors are vulnerable to these changes as a result of disruptive technologies and reduced demand.

In a recently published Chatham House research paper, ‘Promoting a Just Transition to an Inclusive Circular Economy’, we highlight why a circular economy approach presents the world with a solution to old and new global risks – from marine plastic pollution to climate change and resource scarcity.

So far, action to transition to a circular economy has been slow compared to the current crisis which has mobilized rapid global action. For proponents of transitioning to a circular economy, this requires taking the long view. The pandemic has shown us that global emergencies can fast-forward processes that otherwise might take years, even decades, to play out or reverse achievements which have taken years to accomplish.

In this vein, there are three striking points of convergence between the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to transition to an inclusive circular economy.

Firstly, the current crisis is a stark reminder that the circular economy is not only necessary to ensure long-term resource security but also short-term supplies of important materials. In many cities across the US, the UK and Europe, councils have suspended recycling to focus on essential waste collection services. The UK Recycling Association, for example, has warned about carboard shortages due to disrupted recycling operations with possible shortages for food and medicine packaging on the horizon.

Similarly, in China, most recycling sites were shut during the country’s lockdown presenting implications for global recycling markets with additional concerns that there will be a fibre shortage across Europe and possibly around the world.

Furthermore, worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns are resulting in a resurgence in the use of single-use packaging creating a new wave of plastic waste especially from food deliveries – already seen in China – with illegal waste fly-tipping dramatically increasing in the UK since the lockdown.

In this vein, concerns over the current global health crisis is reversing previous positive trends where many cities had established recycling schemes and companies and consumers had switched to reusable alternatives.

Secondly, the need to improve the working conditions of the people working in the informal circular economy, such as waste pickers and recyclers, is imperative. Many waste materials and recyclables that are being handled and collected may be contaminated as a result of being mixed with medical waste.

Now, more than ever, key workers in waste management, collection and recycling require personal protective equipment and social protection to ensure their safety as well as the continuation of essential waste collection so as not to increase the potential for new risks associated with additional infectious diseases.

In India, almost 450 million workers including construction workers, street vendors and landless agricultural labourers, work in the informal sector. In the current climate, the poorest who are unable to work pose a great risk to the Indian economy which could find itself having to shut down.

Moreover, many informal workers live in make-shift settlements areas such as Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi in Mumbai, where health authorities are now facing serious challenges to contain the spread of the disease. Lack of access to handwashing and sanitation facilities, however, further increase these risks but circular, decentralized solutions could make important contributions to sustainable sanitation, health and improved community resilience.

Thirdly, it is anticipated that in the long term several global supply chains will be radically changed as a result of transformed demand patterns and the increase in circular practices such as urban mining for the recovery and recycling of metals or the reuse and recycling of textile fibres and localized additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing).

Many of these supply chains and trade flows have now been already severely disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the global garment industry has been particularly hard-hit due to the closure of outlets amid falling demand for apparel.

It is important to note, workers at the bottom of these garment supply chains are among the most vulnerable and most affected by the crisis as global fashion brands, for example, have been cancelling orders – in the order of $6 billion in the case of Bangladesh alone. Only after intense negotiations are some brands assuming financial responsibility in the form of compensation wage funds to help suppliers in Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh to pay workers during the ongoing crisis.

In addition, the current pandemic is damaging demand for raw materials thereby affecting mining countries. Demand for Africa’s commodities in China, for example, has declined significantly, with the impact on African economies expected to be serious, with 15 per cent of the world’s copper and 20 per cent of the world’s zinc mines currently going offline.

A further threat is expected to come from falling commodity prices as a result of the curtailment of manufacturing activity in China particularly for crude oil, copper, iron ore and other industrial commodities which, in these cases, will have direct impacts on the Australian and Canadian mining sectors.

This is all being compounded by an associated decline in consumer demand worldwide. For example, many South African mining companies – leading producers of metals and minerals – have started closing their mining operations following the government’s announcement of a lockdown in order to prevent the transmission of the virus among miners who often work in confined spaces and in close proximity with one another. As workers are laid off due to COVID-19, there are indications that the mining industry will see fast-tracking towards automated mining operations.

All of these linear risks that have been exposed through the COVID-19 pandemic reinforce the need for a just transition to a circular economy. But while the reduction in the consumption of resources is necessary to achieve sustainability, the social impacts on low- and middle- income countries and their workers requires international support mechanisms.

In addition, the current situation also highlights the need to find a new approach to globalized retail chains and a balance between local and global trade based on international cooperation across global value chains rather than implementation of trade protectionist measures.

In this vein, all of the recovery plans from the global COVID-19 pandemic need to be aligned with the principles of an inclusive circular economy in order to ensure both short-term and long-term resilience and preparedness for future challenges and disruptions.