Blog Series: COVID-19 and the Circular Economy

Effects of COVID-19 on the circular economy and plastic waste prevention


The circular economy is a potential model for a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable economy. As a regenerative and decentralised system, it represents a resilient alternative to our current economic practices. However, the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the circular economy cannot be predicted clearly, yet. There are current developments showing both potentially positive and negative effects particularly regarding plastic waste prevention.

On the first note, an increased consumption in packaged products and single-use plastics could be observed.[1] The rising sales of canned and frozen food, as well as household and healthcare products (such as cleaning agents, detergents, sanitizers and personal hygiene products) come with an increasing amount of packaging waste. Moreover, shops have cut the option of bringing personal containers for reuse purposes and switched back to offering single-use packaging due to hygiene reasons. The upcoming concerns around contamination could undo the progress made in the field of plastic waste prevention as people are focusing more on hygienic and long-life aspects in this situation.

On top of that comes the disruption of the recycling sector caused by the pandemic. With sinking oil demand and prices, the price difference between virgin and recycled plastics increases[2] and recycling plants all over the world are closing due to the market development and economic challenges.[3] A recent study by the University of Southampton and the University of Portsmouth indicates that the pandemic poses a threat to circular economy.[4]

However, the crisis points out the relevance of the waste disposal and recycling sector for our system. Waste management and recycling services are of major importance these times. In a recent statement, Svenja Schulze, German federal minister of environment, emphasises the major importance of recycling services as a source of production materials by referring to the fragility of global value chains that becomes especially visible now.[5] More investments in waste management technologies and systems create the opportunity to build a resilient circular economy.[6] Particularly with regard to plastics, circularity would allow to make use of the advantages of plastics and ensure sustainable practice at the same time.

Moreover, the current situation underlines the fragility of the dominant economic model with its complex supply chains, that create supply bottlenecks due to lack of resources. This is especially relevant for the use of plastics, considering the high global demand and decreasing availability of oil as a finite resource. Governments, businesses and consumers recognise their dependency on external suppliers which might trigger a new demand for alternatives. A new notion might develop, setting up new structures of procurement, keeping resources in the system for longer and extending their lifespan to ensure stable access to resources. Thus, the current lack of resources might foster the development towards a circular economy, which represents a less dependent alternative to business-as-usual.