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After Pandemic, Re-purpose Instead of Recycling?


Just as it finally became clear that recycling is one of the top ways to help save the planet, the onset of the Coronavirus economy has pushed it way down on the list of priorities.  But the pandemic may be creating a new urgency to not only recycle but re-purpose more materials.

Bringing your own bags has all but gone out the window, thanks to the return of the disposable economy in the time of Coronavirus. Jennifer Russell teaches about what’s known as the ‘circular economy’ at Virginia Tech.

“It’s a framework for bringing sustainable systems perspectives to how we make and consume things, where  we take it, we turn it into something and then throw it in a landfill and instead, design it from the get go, so that it can have multiple lives.” Russel says products should made with “nontoxic materials and have more value in that system, besides just being convenient and disposable.”


But convenience and disposability are now front and center because our society’s focus is on not contaminating our surroundings and ourselves, while coronavirus stalks the land.  So those once maligned, single use products are now the go-to safety position. No more refillable coffee cups, for now anyway.


In the midst of a pandemic, important issues often get pushed aside, in order to handle the emergency.  An early casualty was the already faltering recycling sector.  China stopped taking our waste products two years ago, and onshore recycling wasn’t always proving financially worthwhile. That meant more materials piling up in landfills, even though some of it could have had a new life in something called, the ‘circular economy.’


“If you think about how to implement circular economy at the level that everyone can access it, not just heavy industry, not just technology experts, not just corporations, it’s activities that the average person can access, include, reuse, and repair." 


It’s a throwback to the way things used to be, but in recent decades says Russell, packaging got more complex with layers of plastics, metals and inks, that made it impossible to recycle. The thinking now is that, planning for re-use of materials, early in the production phase, could help usher in a circular economy.


“So how do we, we understand why and when and how people are engaging in those practices? What are the environmental benefits of repairing something instead of buying a new one? And then how would we go about figuring out how to scale that up in a meaningful way so that it has economic value for communities, but also this sustainability value or environmental value.” 


Russell says new ideas for sustainability are starting to emerge with people asking,” Do we really want to go back to the way things were?”    She points to evidence she helped verify, that the pandemic may actually be bringing a new urgency to the reduce, re-use, recycle slogan.  She and some colleagues calculated that at least 75 tons of solid waste was generated just during just 5 weeks of quarantine, from disposable masks alone. Safe, reusables and biodegradables could be one way to stem the tide of re-usable masks already being found washing up on beaches. 


“Many people will feel overwhelmed that one person or one action isn't going to have an impact. But based on the research that I've been doing, it's really the individual decisions and individuals themselves that are going to have the biggest impact.”



Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.