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Today, products are designed to have a particular shelf life, meaning they only last for so long before we are compelled to dispose of them. This could be either because we think we have exhausted its “usability”, or a newer, more efficient version of the same product has been developed. In a constant race to stay updated with the latest and the fastest technology, we involve ourselves into repeated consumption and disposition. This forms a linear pattern, is not as feasibly sustainable when it comes to the environment. As an ever-growing population, India plays a major role in making a global impact on the environment. And the time couldn’t be riper than now for the country to recourse to a circular economy.

What is the Circular Economy?

To ensure a future that has sufficient raw materials for food, heating, shelter, and other essentialities, our economy must become circular. This means staving off wastage by making materials and products more efficiently and resorting to reusing them. The linear pattern of economic construct demands a resource-intensive industrial infrastructure whose focus leans more towards extraction and consumption of natural resources than on conservation or replenishment. This calls for an alternative model of industrial value creation—regenerative in outlook and ensures maintenance of products to their highest utility in perpetuity. When the need for new raw materials occurs, it must be ensured that they are obtained sustainably so as not to incur damage to the natural and human environment.

The principles behind the circular economy are oriented towards preserving capital and deprecate system risk by diligently tracking and managing limited stocks. A circular economy ensures that manufacturers design products to be reusable. It is based on sustainable practices. But more than that, it tries to encourage a change in the way that people carry out their businesses. It requires them to focus more on making products which last for as long as possible rather than resorting to replacing them frequently. For instance, electronic devices are designed in a way that they can be easily repaired. The circular economy attempts to mimic the biological world where nutrients metabolized by life processes are produced with the help of other living systems after their death—ensuring the maintenance of a steady, self-contained ecosystem on earth. It tries to achieve the same results in technical cycles through strategies such as reuse, repair, refurbish, re-manufacture, and recycle.

To develop a global circular economy, changes are desired at an international level and countries are taking part in the transition—various mature economies have put forth similar legislations. Taking the lead is the European Union (EU)’s Circular Economy Package, which broadly deals with transforming the way plastics and plastics products are designed, produced, used and recycled. Further, Sweden is giving tax breaks (50 percent cut on VAT) on repairs of washing machines, bicycles, or simply any broken item. It passed a law that directs retailers selling electronic goods to accept the same quantity of products they had sold, for recycling or reuse. The Netherlands and Japan have also promoted intensive circular economy legislation. The Dutch government has introduced several programmes to attain a circular economy such as the Green Growth, From Waste to Resource (VANG) and the Biobased Economy. All these programmes attempt to create a healthy and safe human environment.

Moreover, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is planning to release a circular economy report in Laos, which is about to be upheld by the government. China, on the other hand, with a commensurate development path to that of India, had adopted a Circular Economy Promotion Law much earlier in the year 2009. The Law was defined for the purpose of expediting circular economy, increasing resource utilization rate, improving and protecting the environment and encouraging sustainable development.

Circular Economy in India

A multitude of circular activities is inherently practiced by Indian society. As a people, it is bred in the bone in us to reuse and recycle to the maximum possible extent. As a matter of fact, the collection and recovery rate for a slew of scrap materials as also the re-use rate of goods is relatively higher than most developed countries. We are always striving for novel ways to squeeze the extended value out of forsaken objects, revamping our old T-shirts into dusters, washcloths, and mops, disposing of them only when they are too tattered to be used. Regardless, most of the time, this recycling takes place at the far end of the value chain by the poorest sections of society. This part of the society treats the reusing activity as a scarcity management approach instead of making it an essential part of the economic construct. An obvious result of this is a value loss, in addition to health risks for those who obtain value from waste such as the garbage processors and rag pickers. In addition to that, as the people belonging to the lower strata of the society and the population, in general, are expanding, we are losing touch with our innate circular habits.

The current government in India has launched a slew of ambitious programmes with certain rudiments of circularity present in them. These are anticipated towards leading India to a more sustainable and high economic growth paradigm. These programmes and policies have reflected India’s commitment towards United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Accord. However, these policies still focus on areas and themes in isolation, tend to be disintegrated, and are deficient of a systemic approach. This leads to confusion for businesses that are interested in adopting circular business models. All of these schemes and policies of the government has the potential to harness a circular economy in India. These are the building blocks constituting an initial assortment of tools which could be harmonized into an ambitious circular economy plan.

The Way Ahead

India has the elbow-room to integrate principles of circular economy in her social fabric. One of the most substantial steps taken towards a circular economy in India is the initiative of the Indian Resource Panel (InRP). This was introduced as an advisory panel by the Indian Government to prepare a meticulous roadmap for appropriate utilization of secondary sources. It was conceived to establish an environment for recycling, advancing suitability and disentangling India’s growth from fossil fuels. At present, the InRP has its eyes on the problems caused by the automotive sector and construction & demolition (C&D) waste. Although this measure has been taken with all good intentions, there are still some factors which might impede the realization of its goals. The recommendations and reports put forth by InRP have realized the importance of policy reforms in and the congruence between these policies. To bring this congruency and reflect it well into our regulations is a herculean task, no doubt. So, a step ahead in this direction would be to involve the business sectors.  A huge chunk of the informal sector is part of this, and when the importance of resource efficiency is highlighted in their business projects by implementing circular practices only then can it prove to be an absolute resource efficient measure and thereby enable India towards a circular economy.

Another challenge for the government is the lack of appropriate statistics. There are conflicting reports on how much we generate and no appropriate methodology of how we estimate the potential of resources. When there is such uncertainty in the characteristics of construction waste, private entities hesitate to participate. In such a situation, either there is a lack of or no bids taking place, or bids going into litigation. So, there is a meager scope of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model in dealing with Resource Efficiency RE. Subsequently, the InRP should put forth an approved methodology to build credible data so that private entities are encouraged to participate.

India knows how to manage resources when it comes to sorting, separating, and the other low hanging fruits. But, when it comes to advanced technologies, there is scope for India to incorporate some expertise. This can be done by creating a nexus between the research institutions and industry. There is a need for a coherent roadmap that ushers mutually complementary and boosting transition towards a circular economy. This is an opportunity which India should harness, to take the lead in a circular model of development—sans sacrificing economic growth.

References:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016). Circular Economy in India: Rethinking growth for long-term prosperity. Retrieved from http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (2018). Circular Economy. Retrieved from https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DITC/Trade-and-Environment/Circular-Economy.aspx

European Commission. (2018). Circular Economy: Implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm

Government of the Netherlands. (2018). From a linear to a circular economy. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/topics/circular-economy/from-a-linear-to-a-circular-economy

Image Source: Circular Economy Australia

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Written By Bipasha Sonowal

I write and I know things.

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