Written by Caleb O’Brien

The COVID-19 pandemic has given Jennifer Russell some small reasons for hope.

Russell, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials and Global Change Center affiliated faculty-member, studies the circular economy, a radical reimagining of our current prevailing economic model.

In today’s linear economy, resources are grown or mined, converted to goods, and then disposed of in waste or (sometimes) recycled. In contrast, a circular economy “is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times,” according to a Google and Ellen MacArthur Foundation report.

“What I take hope from is that, as long as I’ve been working in this space… there has been a resistance to change on the grounds that, ‘if it’s not broken, you don’t need to fix it,’” Russell says. But during COVID, “we didn’t have a choice; we were forced to do things differently… we proved that we are capable of change, and change might not be all bad. Should we choose to learn from it, we’ve proven that change can be a good thing.”

Russell met with four IGC graduate fellows on July 29 in the latest socially-distant incarnation of the IGC Coffee Convo—an informal opportunity for graduate students and faculty to interact, share, and build community.

But because the gathering took place in a cyber Zoom-scape in lieu of a coffee shop, the only reference to coffee came when Russell held aloft two reusable coffee cups to illustrate the danger of rebound effects in sustainability efforts: As reusable items become fashionable (and brand-able), people risk accumulating so many that they might offset the sustainability gains from avoiding the single-use equivalent.

Rebound effects are among the myriad ramifying complexities inherent to efforts to establish a circular economy in the United States. “The economy is embedded within society,” Russell said, “so overhauling the economy can have huge impacts on society.”

These linkages across systems is a key focus of the GCC. And after nearly two decades engaging with the circular economy as a consultant and a researcher, Russell has a deep “appreciation for the interdisciplinary approach for finding a solution.” That emphasis on interdisciplinarity and cross-system connections was manifest in the research interests of the graduate student participants in this IGC Coffee Convo—Joshua Rady, Rebecca O’Brien, Caleb O’Brien, and Devin Hoffman—who peppered Russell with questions about her work, discussed the relationships between their own research and the circular economy, and brainstormed ideas for youth outreach opportunities.

Some of the biggest challenges for implementing circular-economy approaches in the US identified by Russell are overcoming the incumbent economic model’s “entrenched tools and ways of thought,” grappling with human psychology, and challenges of accurately measuring important circular-economy metrics. But there is some evidence that change might be on the horizon. For example, recent legislation advanced by two congressional democrats would require manufacturers to fund recycling efforts instead of taxpayer-funded (and cash-strapped) municipalities.

And although health is the highest priority during a pandemic and single-use items are appropriate during an emergency, Russell highlighted instances of circular-economy approaches to medicine that could serve as models for a retooled healthcare system in the United States. For example, in 2018 an Australian hospital successfully diverted 600,000 kg of waste from landfill. And in Europe, a novel business model is supplying reusable surgical implements such as scalpels to hospitals, which might not have the space or infrastructure to sanitize, test, and repackage implements in-house.

On more a personal level, Russell’s work has highlighted some of the ways individual consumers can support a circular economy, such as being thoughtful about the packaging of their purchases and opting for items that can be repaired. And her research has led her to practice what she preaches: “I’m repairing my own things,” Russell says. “I’m learning how to sew; I repaired a toilet.”

But there are, of course, downsides to all that knowledge, Russell says: “It takes me a lot longer to go grocery shopping than it should.”