This article provides some examples of how the pandemic affected the global supply chain, how this has contributed to the perception that a circular economy can reduce the vulnerability of companies that are committed to adopting this model, and finally cites some lessons “learned” from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization  declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic and the impact arising from this pandemic is still being weighed . The scale and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic have been unprecedented. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, social distancing measures, and closed borders have been impacting tourism, people/material flows, weakening demand for several goods types (automobile products, public transport, and textile products), and skyrocketing demand for select companies or their products (medical and household supplies) [2–8].
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Naturally, globalization has rendered supply chains more complex and interdependent, making them vulnerable to disruptions , furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic showed several weaknesses of the conventional production system and how the dependence on raw materials from one or a few sources makes countries vulnerable to breaks in the production chain, leading to the risk of shortages.
For instance, the Rare Earth Elements (REEs), which are essential for the manufacturing of permanent magnets – critical components in electric and fuel cell vehicles and wind turbines – used in Europe and elsewhere, has its supply chain controlled by China , which was the first country to be impacted by the effects of the covid-19. In the automotive sector, the supply chain steps located in countries strongly affected by the virus were hampered, leading to the breakdown of entire international supply chains .
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On the other hand, the Covid-19 pandemic also created a scenario, more favorable than ever, for the reflection that everything is interconnected, not only in the economic sphere but also at environmental and social levels. The pandemic has led to a reflection on a new global economic model where “circular economy” will play a crucial role. Through the COVID-crisis a circular business model was shown to provide resilience to companies, to more easily react and adapt to unexpected events .
To illustrate, mineral raw materials, due to the different properties they possess, are used for a highly diverse range of applications. It is therefore clear that demand for them will continue to grow . However, the current economic models and their needs in terms of resource exploitation do not guarantee the continuous use of natural and mineral resources to meet the current technological demands and, at the same time, provide the benefits of a sustainable life .
Recycling plays an important role in achieving sustainability. However, though many metals can be recycled/re-used several times for different purposes, increasing demand will not be fed by recycling only, and primary raw materials production will always remain necessary to fill the demand gap . The need to react to the COVID-19 crisis is a unique opportunity to transform our economy and put forward the change that our society needs to create a sustainable and desirable future .
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Based on the principles of the circular economy, the risk of supply of critical raw materials is increasing pressure on governments to find new sources and expand the capacity to mine and extract these materials from low-grade ores, old tailing dams, and primary concentrates, as well as optimizing the recovery and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (E-waste) . From the perspective of sustainability and environmental conservation, establishing more responsible and environmental-friendly use of primary resources will make a definite contribution to achieving the objectives of increasing the lifespan and availability of raw materials .
The pandemic impact indicates our society is more than ever demanding a more secure, healthy, and sustainable way of life, with a level of comfort not conflicting with planetary boundaries, global resource limitations, and environmental preservation . One major lesson learned from the corona crisis is the need to create a less dependent, more resilient economy by guaranteeing raw materials supplies, by ensuring higher materials and products durability, producing goods more eco-friendly, easier to recycle and repair, with higher energy efficiency, and higher degrees of materials re-used [3, 9].
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It is clear that our ability to use resources efficiently will be key to safeguarding our future. Our competitiveness, jobs, consumers, and the environment all depend on it . The circular economy approach has the potential to deliver innovative solutions and adopting its principle will ease some of the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the future . For this, innovation and new technologies are required and governments and industries should support research projects related to identifying raw material production bottlenecks and developing solutions that are economically and environmentally viable .
It remains to be seen whether the lessons learned during the pandemic will be put into practice, or whether its catastrophic effect will be forgotten before making all the positive changes it has potential for. There is no denying that the adversity faced during the Covid-19 crisis has enormous potential to incite change in the economic, social, and environmental spheres, but whether its impact will reverberate into momentary or definitive change is a matter for the next chapters.
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9. EuMaT – European Technology Platform for Advanced Engineering Materials and Technologies (2020) Report: ‘The role of Materials in the post-covid society’
10. EUMICON (2018) The EUMICON Raw Materials Charter: 25 Ideas For a Future Made in Europe
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12. Federal Ministry for Economics Affairs and Energy (2018) Raw materials – indispensable for Germany’s industrial future. https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/EN/Dossier/raw-materials-and-resources.html. Accessed 7 Apr 2021