Need Circular Economy To Achieve Just Transition

By Dr. Praveen Saxena June 05, 2023

World Environment Day 2023: An efficient 'just transition' strategy must incorporate widespread adoption of a circular material-use model, energy efficiency, and waste-disposal practices

Need Circular Economy To Achieve Just Transition
Circular economy. DepositPhotos

India has adopted several ambitious measures for sustainability, renewable energy, energy efficiency in various sectors of industries, achieving lower emission intensity in non-fossil based electricity generation, and introducing a circular economy. Some of the approaches for accomplishing this aim include a focus on renewable energy, promotion of clean energy, increased energy efficiency, creation of climate resilient metropolitan centres, and a sustainable green transportation network.

At the Glasgow summit, the Hon’ble Prime Minister announced that India will attain net zero emissions by 2070 to combat climate change. He also announced that India will raise its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030 while meeting 50% of its energy demand from renewable sources, and cutting its carbon emissions by a billion tonnes by the same year. Net zero can’t be achieved until we substantially reduce emissions and adopt the principle of a circular economy as a national task and a way of life.

The circular economy is a production and consumption paradigm that incorporates reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing resources and products for as long as possible. The circular economy is oriented toward nature as its role model. The goal of the circular economy is to maintain a closed loop for raw resources. In this way, resources are maximally used, the need for new ones is reduced, waste is avoided, and the life cycle of products is increased. The waste of today becomes the raw material of tomorrow. The circular economy differs from the current economic system, which is normally a linear system, in which products are manufactured, used, and disposed of.

A circular economy is based on three principles driven by design: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerating nature. A true circular economy has zero waste. If the industrial cycle is to be sustainable, then the energy that powers it needs to be entirely renewable. Customers are no longer consumers, but users.

Therefore, the circular economy seeks to maximise the use of the material resources at our disposal by putting three fundamental concepts to use: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycling. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended, waste is used, and a more efficient and sustainable production model is established over time. Among the main aspects are to promote efficient use of materials, as well as the use of recycled materials; contribute to a more efficient management of the water footprint; and advance the economy's decarbonization to help find a way out of the energy crisis.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in urban India is estimated to be at 70 million tonnes per year, or 500 grammes per person each day. India is the world’s third largest garbage generator, and around 60% of this scrap is recyclable. 275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year in India, that’s about 10 million bottles per day. One recycled plastic bottle would save enough energy to power a 9 watt LED light bulb for 20 hours. Every year, the average family discards roughly 40 kg of plastic that could otherwise be recycled. The use of plastic is growing by about 4 to 5% each year. Plastic can take up to 500 years to decompose.

Around 100 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured worldwide each year. 25 million tonnes of non-degradable plastic are produced out of this, which accumulates in the environment. Globally, the oceans and seas get about 70.000 tonnes of plastic waste. Each year, these bags cause the deaths of some 100,000 animals, including penguins, dolphins, turtles, and whales. Plastic waste interacts with water in landfills to produce dangerous compounds. If these compounds seep down into groundwater aquifers, they degrade drinking water quality. Blockages created by plastic accumulation serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other dangerous insects that can spread a variety of diseases to humans.

The government has issued the Recycled Plastic Manufacture and Usage Rules. The Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, laid down certain conditions for the manufacturing, stocking, sale, and use of plastic carry bags and sachets, which were required to be monitored and implemented by the State Pollution Control Boards/ Municipal Authorities. 

The Plastic Waste Management Rules aim to:

·   Increase the minimum thickness of plastic carry bags from 40 to 50 microns and stipulate minimum thickness of 50 microns for  plastic sheets also to facilitate collection and recycle of plastic waste,

·   Expand the jurisdiction of applicability from the municipal area to rural areas, because plastic has reached rural areas also;

·   To bring in the responsibilities of producers and generators, both in the plastic waste management system and to introduce collect back system of plastic waste by the producers/brand owners, as per extended producers responsibility;

·   To introduce a collection of plastic waste management fees through pre-registration of the producers, importers of plastic carry bags/multilayered packaging, and vendors selling the same for establishing the waste management system;

·   To promote the use of plastic waste for road construction as per Indian Road Congress guidelines, energy recovery, waste to oil, etc. for gainful utilization of waste and also address the waste disposal issue; to entrust more responsibility on waste generators, namely payment of user charge as prescribed by the local authority, collection and handing over of waste by the institutional generator, event organizers.

In addition, the expected outcomes from the new rules include:

  • Increasing the thickness of plastic carry bags from 40 to 50 microns and stipulating a 50-micron thickness for plastic sheets is likely to increase the cost by about 20 %. Hence, the tendency to provide free carry bags will come down, and collection by the waste-pickers will also increase to some extent.
  • The producers, importers, and brand owners who introduce plastic carry bags, multi-layered plastic sachets,  pouches, or packaging in the market within six months from the date of publication of these rules, need to establish a system for collecting back the plastic waste generated due to their products.
  • Phasing out the manufacture and use of non-recyclable multi-layered plastic.
  • All institutional generators of plastic waste shall segregate and store the waste generated by them per the Solid Waste Management Rules, and hand over segregated wastes to authorized waste processing or disposal facilities or deposition centres, either on their own or through the authorized waste collection agency.
  • The local bodies shall be responsible for setting up, operationalizing, and coordinating the waste management system and for performing associated functions.
  • Retailers or street vendors shall not sell or provide commodities to consumers in carrying bags, plastic sheets, or multi-layered packaging, which are not manufactured and labelled or marked, as prescribed under these rules.
  • The shopkeepers and street vendors willing to provide plastic carry bags for dispensing any commodity shall register with the local body.
  • The options on reuse of plastic in various applications namely, road construction, waste to oil, energy waste will enhance the recycling of plastic.
  • The responsibility to provide land for establishing a waste management facility has been assigned to the Department with the business allocation of land allotment in the State Government. This would eliminate the issue of getting land for the waste management facility.

The effective nationwide ‘just transition’ strategy must include the large-scale adoption of a circular way of using materials, energy efficiency, and an appropriate way of disposing waste. Green jobs, a green economy, and sustainable material use would be the keys to achieving the target of net zero emissions by 2070. 

(The author is CEO, Skill Council for Green Jobs)