Coronavirus has revealed just how fragile our waste cycle is. Globally, collection services are being reduced because of social distancing, staff absences and concerns about workers’ health and safety. This is affecting the collection, sorting, processing and treatment of wastes as well as markets for materials made from recycling and composts.
In the UK alone, 46% of recycling facilities have reduced or stopped treatment. Domestic glass and some recycling, garden and food waste collection schemes have been cancelled or restricted, with almost all household waste recycling centres closed. This impact is being seen around the world, with the US reporting that 31% of their facilities have been negatively affected. Unless these recyclable materials are stored safely at home, they may end up being sent to end-of-life treatments, such as landfill or incineration.
Changes in lifestyle are adding to this problem. The amount of waste generated in commercial and industrial workplaces has drastically reduced. In contrast, home clear-outs and renovations during the lockdown are creating domestic waste that can’t be disposed of at recycling centres.
In the UK, this has resulted in a 300% increase in reported fly-tipping in rural communities. Items that could have been reused via donation to charity are being disposed of unnecessarily. The UK’s high street charity retail shops – which generate around £270 million annually for good causes – now find their future under threat at a time when demand for their services is highest.
Industries that rely heavily on recycled materials are therefore the ones feeling the most pressure in terms of getting hold of resources. The US plastic recycling industry has asked congress for a US$1 billion (£800,000) bailout “to meet the demands of this crisis”. There are warnings for cardboard shortages for future packaging as we produce and recycle less at work, and sharp increases in online shopping brings more card and paper into our homes.
Meanwhile, dramatic reductions in wood waste recycling (to nearly 10% of capacity) thanks to construction slowing, and household recycling centres closing, is having knock on effects on biomass energy generation. The manufacture of cars has reduced globally, reducing the demand for recycled steel and aluminium. Medical waste, which requires specialist collection and treatment, is increasing rapidly.
When you add the panic-bought £1.9 billion of groceries to this – and that’s just a UK figure – some of which went straight into the bin, it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a massive impact on waste management and negatively affecting the environment.
Linear or circular?
This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Economies will largely be able to deal with this disruption to the waste cycle because they are, for the most part, still largely based on a linear economy, in which virgin resources are extracted when needed to make goods and disposed at the end of their lives.
But many countries are now in the process of transitioning to a future management system based on the “circular economy”, where the aim is to reuse and return all waste material to manufacturers as a resource. Some countries, and sectors, are further ahead than others in this process, and have managed to embed recovery and return into their design, such as deposit return schemes for bottles. But this is a gradual transition and at present the world economy is still more linear than circular.
Lockdown has undoubtedly exposed problems with the circular economy. But this by no means implies that we should stick to a linear economy. A circular economy is certainly what we should aim towards, being both environmentally sustainable and economical. Circularity reduces the need to extract new resources, decreases the environmental impacts associated with mining, lowers costs and helps us to meet climate and environment targets.
But the system depends on resources being recovered from waste to match demand as production uses less virgin material. And as the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating, such systems can quickly buckle under pressure.
In a circular economy, if the supply of recovered materials is disrupted – by a global pandemic for example – stark impacts on the material supply chain result. Long-term disruptions could permanently remove several months’ worth of precious resources from the cycle, requiring large-scale industrial extraction to be restarted. In a fully circular economy, these extraction methods may no longer exist, or be limited in size. And the reduction in availability of recycled materials would reduce the rate at which the economy would recover through material supply issues.
It is therefore clearer than ever that these supply chain issues need to be addressed if the circular economy is to become a success.
Planning for shocks
To create a successful circular economy, our current waste management system will need to evolve to be resilient to the impacts of these rare, extreme global events.
As governments begin to rebuild and gradually recover from the economic shocks impacting them, action must be taken to ensure that supply chains and markets for recyclable materials are diverse and robust.
To achieve the benefits of a full circular economy, many systems need to be developed so that weaknesses in one are complemented by the strengths of another. These systems will need to take full advantage of waste resources in the community through so-called “urban mines”, adding value to waste, while embedding resilience to future pandemics.
Reducing single-use packaging, introducing more deposit return schemes and compostable alternatives, and applying novel systems to enable better outcomes would keep resources in the system for longer. Other options could include alternative ways to reuse delivery packaging in a safe, hygienic way rather than recycling to reduce dependence on cardboard and plastic.
It is crucial to ensure that waste sector staff are protected and recovered materials are uncontaminated and safe to use in supply chains. Improvements in automated sorting are needed to reduce manual sorting of wastes and allow sites to continue working in the event of staff absences.
Ultimately, all of these areas will be invested in as the value of recycled resources increases. We should use the economic stimulus packages that will come after this pandemic to invest in these technologies and systems, to build a more diverse and resilient circular economy.
Keiron Philip Roberts, Research Fellow, University of Portsmouth; Anne Stringfellow, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton, and Ian Williams, Professor of Applied Environmental Science, University of Southampton