New Delhi: Imagine a world where you never throw anything away, a world where all things are produced and consumed multiple times while reducing waste to a bare minimum. That is what the circular economy is all about. The concept of a circular economy offers an avenue to sustainable growth, good health while saving the environment and its natural resources.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the world currently functions on a linear economic model – taking materials from the earth, turning them into products, and eventually throwing them away as waste, further taking new materials from the earth, and following the same pattern of take-make-consume-throw.
The circular economy advocates for sustainable production, reasoned consumption, and efficient waste management, all while fighting for the well-being of individuals.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RECYCLING AND CIRCULAR ECONOMY
In recycling, the waste materials are converted into new objects. It is an alternative to waste disposal as it reduces the amount of waste going to the landfill, conserves natural resources and reduces the mining of new resources. While recycling is a part of the circular economy, it is considered as the last resort.
The circular economy differs from recycling as from the very beginning, the products are made to last several lifecycles. There is more transparency from the time of product’s making to its usage.
Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance, and Solid Waste Management at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said that recycling is rather used in comfortable terms both by industry and consumers, as the product says that it’ll be recycled.
Recycling is rather a localised activity, something that is recyclable in Delhi may not be recyclable in Ahmedabad. When we say circular, it encompasses how the material was extracted, what went into its design, how it was manufactured, and how it can be recycled multiple times, leaving the bare minimum waste. The product may not be used for the same application, but it stays in the loop for a long time.
The circular economy talks about the entire value chain, he added.
A country like India, which has one of the highest populations and resources, the concept of a circular economy becomes all the more essential to be implemented.
Talking to the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India Team, Dr. Dr J.P Gupta, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI), informed how the circular economy was by default a part of the past, because access to natural resources was limited geographically.
People used to reuse things, from clothes, old metal, to scraps. But during the Industrial Revolution, as colonial power came in, this baseline circularity was blown open, leading to linear economies that discard resources. But now it is time to move back to the old loop.
THE HUMAN HEALTH COST OF LINEAR ECONOMY AND BENEFITS OF MOVING TOWARDS CIRCULARITY
Mr. Singh detailed out the adverse effects of the current linear model on human health and how it can be reversed by bringing the circular economy into play.
In the linear system, a lot of waste is generated until the last leg of the value chain, and a lot of it is concentrated around the civilisation which is not so affluent. If we look at urban areas, the waste hotspots are primarily the slum areas, the shanties, or the areas without regular door-to-door waste collection systems. People living in these areas suffer from chronic diseases. Besides, the communities living around waste to energy plants complain of air pollution, which they face for most of the year, resulting in severe respiratory problems.
He said it all comes down to waste management. Mr. Singh said that currently, the waste management facilities incinerate the waste, and incinerating is equivalent to building dumpsites and giving birth to human health hazards, because most of it does not reduce to ashes, and some of it releases harmful chemical substances such as dioxins and furans.
These two chemicals are generated while burning plastics and they have a significant amount of halogenated functional groups attached to them. If you are exposed to them over a period of time, you can develop some severe respiratory issues, or it can lead to cancer. They are known to have carcinogenic effects. So simply burning the waste is giving birth to another issue affecting human health.
If India does manage to switch to a circular economy, a lot of waste will not have to be processed, treated, and handled the way it is now, as the products will be made with the intention of lasting several lifecycles, without harming human health and producing minimum waste, Mr. Singh said.
Another important aspect to be addressed in order to shift towards a circular economy is transparency, Mr. Singh added.
If you look at the plastic we use for day-to-day life, right from the moment we wake to sleep, we have a lot of material made out of plastic. According to United Nations Environment Programme Plastics Science, the plastic industry uses more than 10,000 chemicals to manufacture plastic, just to give it its forms, shape, colour, and properties. Of this, 25 per cent chemicals are known to have severe human health impacts, affecting all systems—circulatory, reproductive, neurological. In the remaining 75 per cent we don’t know what kind of chemicals are used, so there is a lack of transparency there. We do not know what we are consuming and its harmful effects on us; how grave is that.
In a circular model or economy, Mr. Singh said, the companies making these products will be compelled to become transparent, take accountability, and take responsibility.
They will have to ensure these things – the type of product that is being designed, what will happen to the product packaging after it reaches the end of its life, how will it be reused or recycled, whether the recycler will be interested in the product, and will there be a market for the recycled product.
Besides, a consumer will be aware of the kind of chemicals being used to make sure that they don’t have a human health impact in the long run, he added.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY AND ENVIRONMENT
Humans and the environment go hand in hand. The circular economy seeks to discard the traditional take-make-consume-dispose method and respect environmental boundaries by increasing the share of renewable or recyclable resources while reducing the consumption of raw materials and energy.
Detailing how the linear model has currently wreaked havoc in the environment, Mr. Singh said,
The products we use in our daily routines come in single-use plastic packages. It is to be noted that most of our plastic comes from activities like mining, cracking, etc. So, making anything out of plastic is an energy intensive activity as well. So, the process of making the product and the product itself are harmful to the environment.
CHALLENGES IN MOVING TOWARDS CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Siddharth Lulla, Impact Advisory and Lead on Circular Economy And Climate Change for Corporate Strategy and Enterprise Engagement for the Circular Apparel Innovation Factory (CAIF), said that there are multiple challenges that India needs to address in order to move towards a circular economy.
The key challenge is the unavailability of recycling infrastructure to ensure that all the waste that is produced is being recycled. He said that India does not have sufficient recycling infrastructure as of now.
Second challenge is the lack of efficient recycling technologies. He explained,
So, what I mean by technology is that today all the kinds of different waste streams that are there, not many of them can be repurposed or recycled. For example, for single type of plastic, like PET bottles produced by Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies, there is recycling infrastructure or technology available, which we call as mechanical recycling; but when it comes to multi layered packaging, textiles, the clothes that you and I wear, you can recycle them to an extent; the blended textiles, which are mixed with two or three fabrics, the chemical recycling solutions are not yet available for that yet. So, technology is a hurdle rather than a boon right now.
Third challenge Mr Siddharth highlighted is the absence of unit economics (the direct revenues and costs of a particular business measured on a per-unit basis, where a unit can be any quantifiable item that brings value to the business).
You may have a lot of different solutions out there. But the question is what is unit economics? If a solution needs to be adopted at large scale, there has to be a proper case for unit economics, because you may ask someone to adopt a specific solution, but until a manufacturer finds its cost effective, he is not going to move in that direction. So, we need to ensure that when we’re testing different solutions, we need to pilot and test them to establish a business case, which needs to showcase three aspects – the environmental impact of the solution (how much carbon credit does it save), the social footprint (how many jobs does it create?) and the economic viability.
The fourth challenge he raised is consumer awareness. For India to be in a position to adopt a circular economy, there has to be a strong consumer mindset to move in that direction.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.