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Circular Economy> Recycling Culture Updated: 17 Apr 2020

Recycling and energy consumption during the pandemic: a sustainability experiment?

Our routine, and consequently, our consumption patterns have had to adapt to this new reality. Will this experience bring us closer to a new energy model and more sustainable consumption? Some consumption trends are already making their mark, as well as the effects of our recent lifestyle change on pollution. We will review some of the lessons we are learning about consumption and sustainability during this exception lockdown.

A break for the atmosphere thanks to COVID-19

In fact, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) tracks fine particle levels (less than 2.5 micrometers in size), one of the biggest pollutants of the atmosphere in terms of health risks, according to UN. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in China in the beginning of the year, CAMS has detected a 30 percent reduction from levels for the same dates over the past three years. A trend that was also confirmed in Italy. Without a doubt, the lockdowns, industrial restrictions, lack of traffic and movement reduced to a minimum have a direct effect on our atmosphere, as confirmed by data from NASA and the European Space Agency.

Two images taken by the NASA Sentinel-5 satellite show the concentration of nitrogen levels over China before and after the COVID lockdown. - Image: Josh Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

In terms of the sources for the CO2 emission reductions in the European Union, according to data from the consulting firm Sia Partners, emissions have declined 58 percent from the lockdowns and industry is responsible for 60 percent of the emission reduction. The energy sector represents 40 percent, although household consumption has increased emissions 29 percent. In this regard, it is important to underscore the role of Internet consumption and online streaming services, which have increased substantially by up to 70 percent according to Forbes data. This also has a significant carbon footprint.

However, it is important to understand that although emissions are lower, this does not imply an immediate slowdown of climate change. According to Bloomberg, what we know about the impact of the pandemic on global CO2 emissions is incomplete, and the seasonal perspective must be taken into account. The mechanics of the Earth’s carbon cycle is much more complex and involve very different factors, such as the forests’ ability to generate more oxygen, for example.

New energy patterns and consumption needs

An unprecedented interruption in the global economy has redrawn the map of energy and fossil fuel consumption. According to a report by a group of economic experts at Bruegel, electricity consumption in Italy has declined by 27 percent compared to 2019 (compared to the same day in the previous year), as shown by the interactive infographics developed by the same source. The trend is similar in all countries affected by lockdowns that were included in the study.

Meanwhile, in terms of emission reduction, we are on the way to having the greatest annual CO2 emission reduction in history, according to the analysis mentioned above. Similarly, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has published a report in which it predicts that there will be a historic reduction in the use of fossil fuels in 2020. 

In parallel, and although the EIA estimates that renewable energy will be the source of greater growth in 2020, COVID-19 will also have its impact, as the same report predicts that the economic slowdown from the crisis will probably have an impact on the development of new constructions, which would entail a reduction of five and ten percent in terms of the ability to generate wind and solar energy, respectively, compared to previous predictions.

Coronavirus: a challenge for recycling as well

The lockdown measures imposed in different countries have forced millions of people to spend more time at home, changing the way we buy, consume and recycle. Ecoembes data on the recycling of packaging in Spain confirm that the use of yellow recycling bins has increased by 15 percent since March 14th. According to the same organization, this increase is directly related to changing household consumption. We cook, eat and drink more at home. A similar trend is confirmed with data on recycling in Mexico published in Forbes magazine: the increasing in the recycling of packaging rose by 25 percent during the first week of lockdown. Perhaps this experience imposed by the circumstances will serve for us to better interiorize the rule of the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle.

However, despite the promising data on the awareness of recycling in households, the halt in industrial activity and border closures also have consequences for recycling markets. The logistics of picking up and processing recycling, for example, are affected by movement restrictions and border closures, which prevents the transfer of materials to and from the recycling units when this takes place in another country.