When the Olympic anthem heralded the start and end of the Tokyo Olympics 2020, along with tales of triumphs and tribulations, it sent out a resounding message on circular economy for sustainable development. For the first time ever in the history of the iconic games, the medals and the podiums for the winning athletes were produced using recycled materials.
The choice to reuse items reflects a marked shift in how people are becoming more environmentally conscious now about the products they consume. For a long time, our economies have been ‘linear’ — raw materials are used to make a product and the product is discarded after it has been used. The greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are also a product of our ‘take-make-waste’ economy.
A circular economy, on the other hand, is based on recycling where materials are reused to their maximum potential. For example, broken glass bottles are used to make new bottles or fibreglass while used notebooks can be recycled into paper towels, facial tissues or new notebook paper.
Until now, efforts to tackle the climate crisis have focused on transitioning to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. Though crucial and wholly consistent with a circular economy, these measures can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day. These cannot be overlooked. If we want to cover the entire arc of emissions reduction, we need to transform the way we make and use products. A step-change is needed if we want to put the world on track to achieve zero emissions by 2050 to meet the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Agreement.
While there is no universally agreed definition of a circular economy, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly, the UN’s flagship environment conference, described it as a model in which products and materials are “designed in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered, and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible”.
According to the Circularity Gap Report 2020, the global economy is only 8.6% circular. This means that over 90% of the resources that enter the economy—100 billion tonnes per year—are wasted. Many countries are now focusing on changing the patterns of consumption, one of them being The Netherlands, which aims to become a country 100% based on a circular economy by 2050.
India’s path to building a circular economy
India too has begun to look at other facets of circular economy. The flagship Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission is looking to go beyond making cities open defecation free and include parameters for sludge management and zero dumping of waste in the open. Urban waste management, especially plastic waste management, is one of the top priorities of the Government of India.
India generates 15 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, but only one-fourth of this is recycled due to lack of a functioning solid waste management system. This heavily burdens landfills as well as the poor socio-economic conditions of waste pickers, mostly women.
While awareness, concern and action over how we dispose plastics in the oceans and elsewhere have grown enormously in recent years, there are many other and less-known impacts of plastics, including its contribution to climate change and new challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic In this context the ‘circular economy’ offers a pathway to more sustainable resource management. It means keeping the value of plastics in the economy, without leakage into the natural environment.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy development path in India could create an annual value of ?14 lakh crore ($218 billion) in 2030 and ?40 lakh crore ($624 billion) in 2050, in comparison to the current development scenario. Greenhouse emissions would reduce by 44% along with significant reduction in congestion and pollution, thus contributing to health and economic benefits for people.
Creating circularity for plastics
For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and our partners, a key priority is making our economies more circular. Not only to integrate economic, social, and environmental objectives, but also to accelerate reductions in greenhouse emissions across all sectors. With the support of some corporates, UNDP’s Plastic Waste Management programme is working with municipal authorities to develop a new system for plastic waste recycling. Since the launch of the programme in May 2018, 79,397 MTs of plastic waste has been collected and diverted, which would have otherwise found its way into landfills or sewage networks. This has brought in savings of more than 313,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions while 174,675 litres of oil have been avoided in the production of virgin plastic.
The programme also promotes setting up of Swachhta Kendras (SKs) or Material Recovery Facilities and empowers waste pickers (Safai Sathis) – the incredible force behind India’s waste management system. Recyclable materials received at the SKs are sorted, cleaned, compacted and transported to material-specific recyclers. Non-recyclable, low-grade plastic materials like thin plastic litter, bags, multi-layered plastics, Styrofoam, etc, are converted into gatta/lumps and transported to agricultural pipe making industry or sent to end-of-life processes like usage in cement kilns, road laying, or conversion to fuel; thus making the project a zero-landfill operation.
The Safai Sathis – many of whom are socially marginalised and illiterate women – have been organised and trained in waste collection and recycling activities. They now earn double of their earlier income, and majority of them have been provided with municipal identity cards and integrated into the formal economy through self-help groups.
The unique characteristics of plastics enable them to play a major role on the road to a more sustainable and resource-efficient future. However, to improve the circularity of plastics, it is essential to make sure that more and more plastic waste is recovered and doesn’t end up in landfill. This is a win-win situation not only for the environment but also for our future generations.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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