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How COVID-19 Is Damaging The Circular Economy

Robert Dahlstrom from BI Norwegian Business School explains how the circular economy has been impacted by COVID-19, and how staying home has spelled disaster for sustainability


Wed Apr 28 2021

Though the coronavirus pandemic has meant more of us are now working from home, travelling less, and shopping more locally, the environment has still taken a hit. 

We have found new ways to create waste, explains Robert Dahlstrom from BI Norwegian Business School, and that’s had a negative knock-on effect on the development of the circular economy—an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. 

Robert is an adjunct professor in the marketing department at BI and the Seibert professor of marketing in the Farmer School of Business at Miami University.

He has specific expertise in the circular economy, sustainable education, and green innovation. The school is at the forefront of research into sustainability and energy and the ways governments, NGOs, companies, and individuals can create less waste and be a more sustainable part of the economy.

More PPE, more plastic waste

Due to the contagious nature of the coronavirus, hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE)—masks, overalls, visors, and gloves—have become a top priority for people across the globe. 

The issue is that PPE needs to be regularly disposed of. Items are also made of materials like polyester, latex, polypropylene, and polycarbonate. 

“In terms of the industries that use a lot of plastics, there should be a movement away from these single-use plastics,” Robert explains.  

These materials are not easily recycled. Sometimes they’re not recyclable at all. This shift towards single-use plastic protection, borne from necessity, with a long and widespread supply chain has proven problematic for the circular, waste-free economy. 

BI is trying to tackle this issue and is involved in earthresQue, a center for research and innovation. The project is running until 2027 and is researching the technologies and institutional frameworks necessary for sustainable management and treatment of earth materials.

Unemployment and unsustainable consumerism

Coronavirus closures have led to widespread unemployment which in turn has affected sustainable decision-making. Workers since the start of the pandemic have been hit by furlough schemes, stimulus cheques, and unemployment. In the US unemployment reached a soaring high of 14.9% in April 2020 and 6.7% in December 2020.  

But unemployment has not only affected the wallets of individuals and the broader economy, it has also hit sustainability and the green economy.

“A lot of jobs that we took for granted have been lost and those people have lost their livelihood,” explains Robert. “The service industries have been hit particularly hard, people who work in the hotel industry, people who work in the restaurant industry, they have really been challenged by this.” 

The ways people spend and live have had to adapt to tighter purse strings. Sustainable and reusable consumer products can be more expensive than more easily disposable items. 

“If people don't have jobs, then they tend to downgrade in terms of their consumption,” Robert adds, “and a lot of that consumption tends to be non-sustainable. When people are not gainfully employed, they're less likely to be concerned about the long-term effects on the environment.” 

The acceleration of food delivery

2020 was a year of growth for food delivery companies like Deliveroo and Foodora, as nationwide lockdowns and closed restaurants led consumers to order in their favorite takeaways throughout the pandemic. The chief executive of Just Eat Takeaway, Jitse Groen, said the delivery group registered 588 million orders in 2020, a growth of 42% on the year before. 

As our consumption habits have changed, the number of polystyrene containers and plastic delivery bags filling our trash has grown. However, there are ways in which food delivery can be made more sustainable through marketing and research—a focus for academics at BI Norwegian Business School.

“When you order food online, inform them that you're delivering this to your house. Tell them you have paper products, you have utensils, and you want them to send you as little as possible—I want the food and nothing else,” Robert explains. “And that's one thing that marketing can do.” 

Sustainable marketing is an area of keen interest at BI, and a considerable amount of the school’s research focuses on changing attitudes to waste and manufacturing through education to create a truly circular economy. 

Sustainability is a priority at BI, with their MSc in Sustainable Finance combining an ethical finance education and important sustainability issues and the Executive Master of Management in Energy which focuses on the future of the energy industry, geopolitics and risk management. These courses center the green agenda and the circular economy, educating for a greener future.

The pandemic might have temporarily damaged sustainability and the circular economy, but with education and information, the damage doesn’t have to be permanent.