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Circular economy: The foundation for material security

The world generates almost 22 billion million tonnes (MT) of every year from industrial and agricultural activities. Of this, India accounts for almost 1 billion MT, comprising of nearly 350 million MT of organic waste and 390 million MT of inorganic waste. With the amount of waste being generated by the global population, waste has the potential to be an untapped source of energy. However, instead of creating waste and working to find a solution to manage and/or eliminate it, it is essential to use resources responsibly so that we reduce waste at the source itself and generate minimal waste to begin with.

For example, according to the latest Environment Status Report (ESR) of Mumbai conducted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), it was found that for 2 years in a row, more than 70% of Mumbai’s trash consisted of waste from food, vegetables and fruits. If treated, this can reduce upto 93% of the trash sent to landfills. Of the 9,400 tonnes of waste Mumbai dumps daily, only 7% is non-recyclable and inert waste that actually needs to be dumped; the remaining can be treated at source. Despite such a large amount of recyclables, the city only sends 8% to be recycled, part of which can be attributed to incomplete segregation – just about half of the collected waste is segregated. Mumbai’s largest dumping ground at Deonar was supposed to be shut in 2009 and yet continues to receive a sizeable chunk of daily waste. Additionally, the waste tower is now 55 metres in height, despite permissible limits being 35 metres, necessitating the use of urgent, drastic and immediate remedial measures.

Major problems with landfills include the production of toxins and leachates that are released into and contaminate the soil, surface water and groundwater, in addition to greenhouse gases that affect the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. The related cost is two-fold, we pay to keep waste at landfills and we pay for the health hazards they cause, now and in the future.

An example of ineffective waste disposal is ‘plastic soup’ or the Great Pacific garbage patch, a large floating collection of plastic and marine debris in the Pacific Ocean. This could be remedied by exploring the opportunity for its conversion to paraffin or other usable substances. Similarly, an example of a brilliant, innovative waste management solution from Beijing in China was shared where the solar-powered ‘Smog Free Tower’, which is essentially the world’s largest air purifier, sucks up smog, purifies it at the level of nanoparticles and releases clean air. Not only is this immensely effective (air around the tower is almost 75 percent cleaner than elsewhere in the city), the carbon particles filtered are then compressed and turned into diamonds.

As the experts agreed, waste is a misplaced resource, whose characteristics, strengths and usefulness is yet to be realised. The need of the hour is to use a holistic approach towards waste management and find a productive mechanism to explore the conversion of waste to useful products. We need to eliminate knee-jerk solutions, since such policies when structured in isolation have contradictions between each other, thus making implementation much more difficult.

In addition to promoting and/or mandating smart devices and newer technologies, the government needs long term planning in association with the private sector to create a market for secondary materials. It is crucial to develop a policy that will determine waste management in the future, by reviewing various metrics (consumption-related), determining appropriate mitigation strategies, and building recycling into the process, to enable minimal discard of reusable waste and reduce scavenging. Thus, a circular economy needs to be encouraged, i.e. one in which resources are used efficiently, maximum value is extracted from them, and secondary materials are repurposed and utilized by the system to the utmost extent. Waste management has the potential to provide sufficient employment in the future, but a firm policy is needed to ensure scope in this field and transform those in this profession into effective utilizable human capital.

It is necessary to build partnerships among the sectors of manufacturing, capacity building and environment product design, and encourage initiatives such as resource mapping and innovators’ workshops. Industry-specific solutions include development and access to a new class of materials for civil infrastructure and transport systems, and introduction of energy conversion technologies that expand the use of non-fossil primary energy. While the use of newer cleaner technologies may be promoted, it may face several challenges such as lack of capital; keeping it cost-competitive, safe and secure; unavailability of technology at large scale; planning for cyber policies; and gaining public acceptance and effective political commitment.

EVPL carries out monitoring for both Hazardous and Solid Wastes complying to Hazardous Waste Management & Handling Rules, 2010 and Solid Wastes Management & Handling Rules, 2000. It also recommends the setting up of an Organic Waste Converter (OWC), where possible, to be able to generate natural fertilizer that can be utilized in agricultural activities.

Content by Natasha DLima

About the CLUB OF ROME

The Club of Rome was founded in 1968 as an informal association of independent leading personalities from politics, business and science, men and women who are long-term thinkers interested in contributing in a systemic interdisciplinary and holistic manner to a better world.

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