Creating a less wasteful economy

Bedanga Bordoloi | Updated on January 16, 2018

That’s the problem Humungous waste   -  PAUL NORONHA

Recycling must be improved with respect to industrial by-products and all sorts of waste — municipal, plastic and electronic

The current human footprint exceeds the earth’s bio-capacity by more than 50 per cent. Humankind has exceeded the planetary boundaries for biodiversity loss, climate change and many other vital parameters. Mainstreaming the norms of “circular economy”— a conceptual value-preserving model — can help transit towards a sustainable future where instead of extraction of natural resources, as in most linear industrial models, resources are reintegrated, regenerated and reutilised.

Drawing upon principles from approaches such as cradle-to-cradle and biomimicry, the ‘circular economy’ emphasises eliminating the concept of waste, and the use of renewable energy and systems thinking. Through the design of products consisting of biological materials or recyclable constituents, every component of a product can either be looped into its natural cycle or used as a resource for new products. Today, recycling activities in India are dominated by the informal sector and recycling quotas are not yet fully exploited. Secondary raw material usage in the manufacturing industries remains low (20-30 per cent) and much needs to be done in closing the material loop.

Fundamental change

Integrating circular thinking across industries could help shift the way the Indian economy works, create new jobs and enable investment. This will entail committing to a policy agenda that can optimise waste streams, recycle materials and rethink planned obsolescence of products to identify the tipping point to loop back. The good news is that reuse and recycling has been part of India’s traditions. India recently set up a circular economy working group with Germany. Value creation and preservation can happen through many approaches such as industrial symbiosis, renewable energy deployment and energy efficiency initiatives, establishing performance economy and sharing economy platforms.

India produces 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) a year. Over 81 per cent is disposed at open dumpsites without treatment. Planned efforts can lead to utilisation of about 65 per cent of the waste in producing energy or compost, and 15 per cent to promote the recycling industry and bring down the dumped waste to under 20 per cent.

India uses only 38 per cent of its total fly ash production for cement manufacturing, brick manufacturing, agriculture and so on. With continued reliance on coal, India will have 225 million metric tonnes of fly ash available for re-use by 2032. At present, there are 8.7 million end of life vehicles, which will be 22 million by 2025. It is estimated that one sharing car on the road can take up to 20 privately owned vehicles off the road.

Incredible saving

Only one-fifth of 73 million tonnes of textiles consumed worldwide are recycled each year. According to Fashion Revolution, every tonne of discarded textiles reused saves 20 tonnes of CO2 and every 1,000 tonnes of used textiles collected creates seven full-time jobs and 15 indirect jobs.

Circular thinking in the food industry can help reduce food waste and capture value in cascading bio-refineries. India’s substantial organic waste streams can create business opportunities in cosmetics, livestock feed and food additives.

In consumer electronics, innovation can help keep devices alive longer. The repair and resale market has a vital role to play. India’s legislation already places responsibility on producers to make options available for consumers to return devices.

Global ocean biodiversity is severely affected by pollution. According to Science Magazine, in India every year approximately 0.60 million tonnes of plastic waste goes into the oceans. Plastic tar roads can serve as a readymade landfill for ubiquitous urban trash such as shopping bags and foam packaging. There are more than 21,000 miles of plastic roads in India. Every kilometre uses the equivalent of a million plastic bags, saving around a tonne of asphalt and costing about 8 per cent less than a conventional road.

For greater traceability along the supply chain, companies need to track their waste beyond company boundaries. One global consumer giant is in the process of environmental remediation of damages inflicted 15 years ago while disposing of 5.3 tonnes of mercury-tainted glass scrap. Correct labelling of product lifespan will help promote a repair culture and oblige manufacturers to share the recycling costs of products with planned obsolescence.

The end benefits

Transitioning to a circular economy would bring economic, environmental and social benefits and contribute towards the achievement of sustainable development goals. However, the transition is pegged with challenges: trade barriers in reverse logistic chains, consumer preferences, mis-labelling of re-manufactured goods and volatile material prices.

New skills, systems thinking and modelling to guide behavioural changes among stakeholders would be required. Unless we put price on the negative externalities and change perceptions regarding the true value of natural resources, achieving a circular economy state may be difficult.

A number of enabling conditions will help India transition to a more regenerative and restorative economy. These include financing, education, industry collaboration platforms and true valuation of processes. India’s e-waste rules and plastic waste management rules with focus on extended producer responsibility will promote the integration of environmental costs. Many industries in India have already adopted responsible internal practices such as lean systems and supplier engagement programmes.

Waste streams have to be documented and critical points identified for capacity development and technical re-alignment of the informal sector which contributes positively towards growth. For example, because of the presence of the informal sector, almost 60 per cent of plastic is being recycled in India compared to a mere 6.5 per cent being recycled in the US. Special programmes to empower stakeholders, especially women, in the waste management and recycling business will help reinforce the social and professional appreciation of the informal sector. Including waste management in school curricula and leveraging the interest of various stakeholders in policy conscripting will help achieve the objectives.

A vibrant circular economy will help businesses integrate life-cycle thinking and resource optimisationand change the way they design, buy, make, sell, and collect their products; consumers will be more conscious of sustainability impacts and contribute to building a better working world.

The writer is Kuwait market leader for EY’s Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS) practice. The views are personal

Published on December 19, 2016

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