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Circular economy principles are alleviating COVID-19 shortages

With medical supplies and personal protection in short supply, hospitals and companies are embracing refurbishment and reuse.

COVID-19’s unanticipated arrival has overwhelmed healthcare workers, medical institutions and the personal protective equipment (PPE) supply. At the outset, we anticipated needing as many as 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles per month. Three months into the pandemic, we are experiencing a manufacturing and supply chain shortage that is only expected to worsen. Dozens of hospitals and clinics across the nation are down to a one-week supply.

In light of this shortage, we’d be wise to apply circular economy principles to address it with materials and technologies already in existence.

For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has partnered with industry and thought leaders to accelerate the transition to a circular economy in the United States and globally. A circular model reuses and recycles materials, water and energy involved in the production process to eliminate waste. While such an approach is key in preparing us for a viable future, ready to withstand resource constraints, it also can be a solution to the needs we face today in the midst of COVID-19.

Lessons from past crises affirm this approach has been used effectively. In World War II, we saw nations come together to conserve materials and products to sustain themselves through the war effort and redirect manufacturing and construction toward wartime purposes. But we also saw the reuse of existing materials such as metal and rubber to reproduce needed wartime supplies. President Franklin Roosevelt’s U.S. rubber drive asked Americans to contribute everything from tires, raincoats and hoses to shoes and gloves, with as many as 450,000 tons estimated to have been collected and repurposed.

Roosevelt’s U.S. rubber drive asked Americans to contribute everything from tires, raincoats and hoses to shoes and gloves, with as many as 450,000 tons collected and repurposed.
We also can take lessons from current circular economy practices adopted by a range of industries.

In the apparel industry, Eileen Fisher’s RENEW line, Cotopaxi’s (Re)Purpose Collection, The North Face's Clothes The Loop approach and Patagonia’s Worn Wear program are just a few examples demonstrating the long-term economic and environmental opportunity that refurbishment and reuse represent.

This shift also has been occurring in the healthcare industry, driven largely by the high-cost equipment hospitals depend on. Philips Healthcare’s approach to servicing the healthcare industry shifts the focus from ownership to access via service contracts that allow for refurbishment and reuse of everything from MRI machines to CT scanners.  

An urgent need for action exists in healthcare today, and fortunately, innovative efforts are underway across the country to address the huge surge in demand for limited PPE supplies.

Companies such as San-I-Pak, Advanced Sterilization Products and Bloom Energy; research centers such as Duke University and Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute; and medical centers such as Providence St. Joseph Health are using sterilization agents commonly found in hospitals as well as steam and vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks for prolonged use.

The disinfected masks coming out of the process have the same filtering quality as new N95s, and the Food and Drug Administration is moving quickly to approve these methods. These scarcity-driven innovations are paving the way for long-term reduction of medical waste and can be a model to address other shortages we face.

This year marks the first in what has aptly been dubbed the "decade of action" on sustainability priorities. This is because we are in the final stretch of runway to achieve the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The COVID-19 pandemic should not be viewed as a hurdle to corporate sustainability efforts at the outset of this crucial decade. On the contrary, this moment presents an opportunity to innovate further, and demonstrate the power of more circular practices and products as a sustainable solution to the resource constraints — during COVID-19 and beyond.

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