The circular economy aims to reduce resource depletion and waste generation by keeping products, components, and materials in use and regenerating them at the end of their life cycle
India has a growing industrial sector, and many companies are recognising the importance of material innovation for various reasons, including sustainability, cost-efficiency, and product competitiveness. Sustainable practices and material innovation is a crucial aspect in exploring eco-friendly materials, bio-based alternatives, and recycling technologies to reduce their environmental footprint.
Material innovation in the context of the circular economy refers to the development and application of new materials or processes that enable products and resources to circulate within the economy for longer periods while minimising waste and environmental impacts. The circular economy is a sustainable economic model that aims to reduce resource depletion and waste generation by keeping products, components, and materials in use and regenerating them at the end of their life cycle.
Innovative materials are designed to be more durable, resilient, and long-lasting, which helps products remain in use for a more extended period before they need replacement or disposal. Industries especially in the electronics and construction sector are looking at easy disassembly and separation of components, making it simpler to repair, upgrade, and recycle products.
Huge investments are made in the research and development of new materials that can be engineered to be more readily recyclable, allowing them to be processed into high-quality raw materials for new products. This not only reduces the need for virgin resources but also minimises waste. Waste to Wealth is an important agenda for the policymakers as well as is a priority in India. Industry, cities and even urban local bodies (ULBs) are working to incorporate digital technologies like radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags or blockchain to track and identify materials throughout their life cycle, making it easier to recover and recycle them.
Pre-consumer waste is another area where industries especially the textile sector is working on integrating materials that are designed to produce less waste during their manufacturing process or generate less waste when disposed of at the end of their life cycle contribute to the circular economy's waste reduction goals. The use of renewable and bio-based materials, such as bioplastics or sustainable textiles, can reduce the environmental impact of production and disposal and promote a circular approach. Textile sector is also focussing on innovations in materials that can help in reducing or eliminating harmful substances and pollutants, making products safer for both people and the environment.
Drawing inspiration from nature, materials and their designs are being developed to mimic natural systems, such as self-healing materials or materials with properties that enhance circularity. These designs are increasingly being embraced in India as innovative approaches to solving various challenges in sectors ranging from architecture and engineering to product design and materials science.
Materials can be designed to be adaptable for multiple applications or easily repurposed into different products, extending their useful life. Being lighter and more efficient can reduce energy consumption during product use and transportation, contributing to resource efficiency.
Material innovation in India
Focus on material innovation in various sectors of the Indian industry is driven by the need for sustainability, efficiency, and competitiveness in the global market. India has a rich agricultural sector, making it well-suited for the development of bio-based materials like bioplastics, natural fibres, and bio-composites. These materials offer both ecological benefits and economic opportunities.
The renewable energy sector in India is growing rapidly, and material innovation plays a vital role in the development of solar panels, wind turbines, and energy storage systems. Researchers are working on advanced materials to improve the efficiency and durability of renewable energy technologies.
The automotive and aerospace industries in India are exploring lightweight and high-strength materials to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Even for Chandrayaan-3, advanced composites, carbon fibres, and innovative alloys were researched and adopted. With a thriving electronics manufacturing sector, India is investing in materials innovation to produce more energy-efficient and sustainable electronic components. This includes developments in semiconductors, flexible electronics, and nano materials.
In the construction sector, there is a growing interest in sustainable building materials, such as eco-friendly concrete, recycled aggregates, and energy-efficient insulating materials. India's pharmaceutical and medical device industries are focusing on developing new materials for medical applications, including biocompatible materials for implants and drug delivery systems.
The textile and fashion industry is exploring sustainable and innovative materials, such as organic fabrics, recycled fibres, and dyes with lower environmental impact. Material innovation is also significant in the water and wastewater treatment sector, where companies are researching and adopting advanced materials for filtration, purification, and desalination processes.
Given the environmental concerns associated with single-use plastics, Indian industries are investing in research and development of alternative materials like biodegradable plastics and compostable packaging. Some startups have been using agriculture-waste to make sustainable packaging or products that replace single-use plastics. In hot and arid regions, researchers have drawn inspiration from termite mounds to design "cool roofs" for buildings. Termite mounds have a unique architecture that allows them to regulate temperature effectively. By mimicking the mound's structure, architects and engineers have developed roofing systems that help maintain indoor temperatures and reduce the need for air conditioning. Materials scientists in India are working on developing innovative materials inspired by natural phenomena. In one such instance, they have explored creating lightweight and strong materials inspired by the structure of bones or shells.
Government initiatives, research institutions, and industry associations in India are actively promoting material innovation through funding, partnerships, and knowledge sharing. Additionally, India's national mission on advanced materials has been established to support research and development in advanced materials and their commercialisation.
(Shalini Goyal Bhalla is the founder and managing director, International Council for Circular Economy.)