Now that it's hit bottom in global environment index, India must adopt circular economy model to be habitable

Circular economy is an alternative to linear economy, which is based on take-make-dispose model.It starts with development and production of product, its consumption or its use as a secondary material

Now that it's hit bottom in global environment index, India must adopt circular economy model to be habitable

Rajdeep Pathak

I was glued to an old documentary on Sundarlal Bahuguna (9thJanuary, 1927 – 21 May, 2021)– well-known environmentalist and leader of Chipko Movement, a person who fought for the preservation of the forests of the Himalayas in the 70s and later spearheaded the anti-Tehri Dam movement from the 1980s to early 2004 – when my daughter’s painting on preservation and protection of Mother Earth caught my attention.

She was still busy giving her work the finishing touches. What I saw was that she drew two types of hands – one brown and one green. While the brown represented us (humans) attempting to protect the soil, the green symbolised nature nurturing our efforts by spreading her abundance around. This, she said,was a school project as part of the World Environment Day that fell on June 5.

Her creative idea of protecting planet Earth with two hands seemed perfect as far as her imagination took her flight, but it is undeniable that we adults are to be blamed for the present condition of environmental degradation.

Let me point out here that as I am writing this sitting in my room, the outside temperature in the Capital city of Delhi is 48degrees Celsius.

I was equally reminded of a promotional video where children and adults are invited by teachers in separate sessions to draw their thoughts on environment. While the parents drew plants and lush green trees and blue sky and rainbows, when the papers given to the children were placed on the table before their parents, they were startled to see what their children painted. It was dark, black and grey with no rain and rainbows.

This clearly stated how and in what condition they are living or are bound to live for the next few decades because of what we adults have done to this planet earth, which we neither inherited nor owned.

An honest confession: I couldn’t locate this video on YouTube. However, another 3.27 minute hard-hitting short documentary on ‘pollution in India’ ( depicting how humans will live in 2030 with O2 kit for their survival is enough to open our eyes to the grave threat that is looming large upon us.

What we have done to our environment

Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and commemorated annually on June 5 since 1973, World Environment Day is the largest global platform for environmental public outreach and is celebrated by millions of people across the world.

This year it was hosted by Sweden. #OnlyOneEarthwas the campaign for World Environment Day 2022. It called for collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.

The United Nations has declared a not-to-be-forgotten threat with a triple planetary emergency that the Earth faces:

  • The climate is heating up too quickly for people and nature to adapt;

  • Habitat loss and other pressures mean an estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction;

  • Pollution continues to poison our air, land and water.

It further highlights that time is running out, and nature is in emergency mode. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the global community must come together to work to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Without action, exposure to air pollution beyond safe guidelines will increase by 50 per cent within this decade and plastic waste flowing into aquatic ecosystems will nearly triple by 2040.

There is a need for urgent action to address these pressing issues, making “Only One Earth” and its focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature, as pertinently as ever.

While it is nothing new that our production and consumption lead to large quantities of waste,an important element in work on eco-cycles is, therefore, sustainable waste management.

We are in an era when we are driven by rapid urbanization, economic development and changing consumption and production patterns. Over the years, the amount of single-use packaging is rapidly increasing worldwide.

At the same time, globally waste management systems still lack effectiveness. As a result, annually 75-199 million tons of plastic find their way into the oceans, based on estimates by United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). About 60 to 90% of marine litter (waste) consists of plastics, of which much comes from single-use plastic products and packaging.

The environmental data that is being received are signalling alarm bells for us. According to an estimate, 13 lakh hectares of forest are being destroyed every year in India alone. About 8 lakh hectares of land of the country is getting rugged every year.

According to another estimate, about one lakh tonnes of insecticidal chemicals are being used in India every year, due to which 96000 tonnes of agricultural produce is lost.

One can hardly forget the tragedy that struck Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand in 2013.The initial reason that was attributed to it was heavy rains.

However, in the assessment by environmentalists and scientists, it was pointed that one of the reasons for this tragedy was about 70 hydroelectric projects running in the region. These projects affected the flow of rivers and caused landslides and floods.

Moreover, this danger is not over yet and experts believe that if tampering with nature is not stopped, then more devastating and tragic incidents will reoccur.

To protect the environment, we need to properly manage waste. It is necessary to collect the garbage dump and recycle it into reusable waste, such as water bottles, etc. Emphasis should also be given on making manure from leaves, and so on.

Another challenge before us is that of e-waste. Due to the increasing dependence on technology, the country is turning into a heap of e-waste. It is startling to see that four percent of the world's e-waste is in India.

E-waste contains many types of chemical substances, which are a serious threat to the environment. Proper management of e-waste has become very essential.

The aim of waste management is to reduce the potentially dangerous effects of waste on the environment and human health. There is also a need to work towards waste prevention, reduction and recycling.

The aim as far as possible is to make use of the resources contained in waste. At the same time, it is important to reduce adverse effects in the form of emissions of methane gas from landfills and carbon dioxide from combustion, as well as emissions of heavy metals and organic environmental pollutants.

This primarily means that we have to try to produce as little and as non-hazardous waste as possible. An all‐embracing perspective on the area of waste is required to attain sustainable waste management.

Towards circular economy – the way forward

Governments, businesses, academia and civil society increasingly recognize that a switch towards a circular economy approach to plastic waste and waste in general is necessary to tackle many challenges faced by environment.

The transformation from a linear to a circular economy requires a much stronger commitment to sustainable management of waste and resources.

The goal of circular economy is:

(1) To increase the life cycle of different types of materials and waste and

(2) To facilitate their reuse by treating them as manageable resources.

Circular economy is not limited to waste management only, but starts with development and production of the product, its consumption or its use as a secondary material. A circular economy is an alternative to a linear economy, which is based on a take-make-dispose model.

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 the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible and waste and resource use are minimized. It underlines the general principle of an economy that decouples economic activities from finite primary resource consumption.

In this field the concept of the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) plays an important role.

A 'circular economy' model, which employs not only waste management, but reuse, recycling and responsible manufacture, could support the development of new industries and jobs, reducing emissions and increasing efficient use of natural resources (including energy, water and materials).

A 'circular economy' has been identified as a major (up to $4.5 trillion: World Business Council for Sustainable Development) commercial opportunity and could support the development of new industries and jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efficient use of natural resources (including energy, water and materials).

By maximising resource utility and incorporating the concept of circularity during production and consumption (i.e., not just focused on waste management), the circular economy boosts entire economies.

The Pangean in an article titled “Circular Economy in India”, October 12, 2021by Rajsi Sah, while quoting The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, defines circular economy as an "Industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design".

It replaces the linear economy concept with restoration; shifts to the use of renewable energy; eliminates the use of toxic chemicals that impair reuse and return to the biosphere; and strives for waste elimination through superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

It further writes, “In other words, a circular economy model seeks to bridge the gap between production and the natural ecosystems' cycles, on which humans ultimately rely”.

The circular economy concept entails two sets of activities: first, waste elimination through biodegradable waste composting and reusing, remanufacturing, and recycling of transformed and non-biodegradable waste, and second, switching to renewable energy instead of chemical substances.

In a circular economy, no product goes to waste; everything is designed to maximise the value of the materials contained inside it while preserving their high utility at all times. The transition to a circular model is expected to benefit economies in a variety of ways.

The article further points to a report titled Towards the Circular Economy’ (2013), of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation where it forecasts significant net material savings, price volatility and supply risk reduction, enhanced rates of innovation employment and capital productivity, decreased externalities, and long-term economic resilience.

The approach, it points, would thus shift the economic balance away from energy-intensive materials and primary extraction to create a new sector dedicated to reverse cycle activities.

Furthermore, since many emerging market economies are more material intensive than the developed economies, circular business models could result in even greater relative savings.

Increasing circularity means moving away from a linear (take-make-dispose) economy, to one where products and materials are reused, repurposed and recycled. This reduction in consumption of raw or virgin material not only reduces waste, but can also reduce the need to extract and process additional raw materials.

Whether one is operating from a pragmatic and environmentally-conscious standpoint, adapting some principles from the circular economic model just makes sense—especially when looking at the long-term.

For the circular economic model to work, there is a ned to find ways to minimize our overall material consumption. We must look at our current waste patterns and find ways to fill the gaps. And, rather than relying on raw materials, we have to find ways to use recycled resources in our manufacturing processes and to handle our waste more responsibly.

Not only this, research suggests that there is strong case for the development of innovative technologies that overcome identified challenges and support continued growth. A circular economy is not only beneficial for the environment, but it has proven economic benefits as well. In fact, research suggests that moving to a circular economy could offer $4.5 trillion in economic opportunity.

The Indian perspective

By embarking on a circular economy transformation, India could create direct economic benefits for businesses and citizens while reducing negative externalities. With its young population and emerging manufacturing sector, the country can make systemic choices that would put it on a trajectory towards positive, regenerative, and value creating development.

The core ideas of the Circular Economy are the elimination of waste by respect for the social, economic, and natural environment, design, and resource-conscious business conduct.

Built on the backbone of these principles, the Circular Economy has demonstrated to deliver tangible benefits and viability to address the economic, environmental, and social challenges of our days. Sustainability and circular economy (CE) are growing interest for governments, investors, companies, and civil society. Sustainability envisions a balanced integration of economic performance, social inclusiveness, and environmental resilience to benefit current and future generations.

Rajsi Sah in her article in The Pangean also records that “Circular economy ideals (reuse, re-purpose, and recycling) have been prevalent and practiced in Indian society for a long time, passed down as lessons from generation to generation, making a strong case for India to transition to a circular economy. Doing so will not only reduce resource dependency but also increase competitiveness”.

Rashi quotes the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which says that a circular economic development path in India could generate a yearly value of $218 billion in 2030 and $624 billion in 2050, as compared to the existing development scenario.

Reports suggests that the Indian economy has shown strong signs of being resilient during the pandemic. Efforts to make a circular transition can be seen across sectors. A lot of work in the different Ministries and Departments has been happening for quite some time.

A report titled “Circular Economy in India: Rethinking Growth for Long-Term Prosperity”by Ellen Macarthur Foundation, presents seven key insights that make the case for the application of circular economy principles in India:

1. A circular economy development path in India could create annual value of ₹14 lakh crore (US$ 218 billion) in 2030 and ₹40 lakh crore (US$ 624 billion) in 2050 compared with the current development scenario.

2. By adopting circular economy approaches, businesses could achieve material cost savings and increase their profits. The key drivers of value creation include better product design, innovative business models, and reverse logistics.

3. A circular economy development path could significantly mitigate negative environmental externalities. For example, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be 23% lower in 2030 and 44% lower in 2050 compared with the current development scenario, helping India deliver on its targets promised in the recently ratified Paris agreement.

4. A circular economy could deliver benefits for the Indian population, such as cheaper products and services and reduced congestion and pollution. In all three focus areas studied, the analysis showed that the cost of providing the expected services for each citizen would be considerably lower on the circular development path than on the current path.

5. Leveraging digital technology to enable the circular economy could reinforce India’s position as a hub for technology and innovation. The interplay between circular economy and digital technology creates fertile ground for value creation and given its renowned IT sector, India is particularly well positioned to leverage these opportunities.

6. By actively leveraging and reinforcing circular economy opportunities now, India could move directly to a more effective system and avoid getting locked into linear models and infrastructure. As the systems that provide housing, food, and mobility require development in a growing economy like India’s, the country could realise significant value by developing them in a circular, rather than a linear, way.

7. High-growth markets like India can achieve competitive advantage over mature economies by moving to a circular economy.

In conclusion, a circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

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    Published: 07 Jun 2022, 9:00 PM