Resources, Residues and Circular Economy

Sustainability of this planet depends heavily on the availability of resources.

Resources are under threat today due to severe depletion and degradation.

Depletion has been on a steep rise due to increasing population, urbanization and consumption. Degradation has been a result of reckless disposal of residues.

Strangely and oddly enough, the national governments, particularly the Ministries of Environment, have focused more on the management of residues rather than management of the resources. Legislation was evolved to set limits on the residues that will have to be met prior to disposal but not much attention was given on the limits of extraction of resources and resource pricing. The latter was more of a political issue.

Limits on residues became stricter over the years as our understanding of the adverse impacts and risks to the environment improved. We realized that residues when not properly disposed could lead to considerable damage to the humans and the ecosystems. There were severe economic implications both on damage and restoration. Many of the impacts were found to be long term and irreversible and further compounded with risks that were not easy to anticipate.

Most national governments followed a precautionary approach following “do no harm principle” in setting the limits. Over the years, advances were made in the monitoring of pollutants in the residues and the technologies were developed that could be economically used for treatment. These advances made tightening of the limits on residues possible.

Having framed the legislation and limits or standards on the residues, the national governments established institutions for monitoring and enforcement. Procedures and practices of documentation were laid down. Most legislations began with addressing wastewater but soon air emissions, solid and hazardous wastes were included. In the last two decades, specific residues such as municipal solid wastes, construction and demolition wastes, plastic waste, electronic (e) waste were also addressed by setting limits and requirements for safe disposal. Consequently, the investments on the end of pipe management of residues increased.

Unfortunately, since the institutions made responsible for monitoring and enforcement were weak, compliance to the standards or limits was not satisfactorily achieved. The resources continued to be degraded.

The polluters realized that to reduce cost of the end of pipe treatment and remain competitive, efforts were required to reduce generation of residues at the source. Concepts such as waste minimization and pollution prevention therefore emerged and the polluters did every effort to reduce residue generation by deploying better housekeeping and practicing reuse, recycling, recovery to the extent possible. This required a behavioral change, application of management systems, use of productivity improvement tools and adoption to modern technologies. The investments for management of residues essentially moved upstream leading to “ecological modernization”.  Unlike end of pipe investments, the “upstream” investments had a payback or economic returns.Strategies such as Cleaner Production, Green Productivity and Eco-efficiency emerged. These strategies showed a link between resources (in specific the resource use efficiency) and the residues that could be converted as a resource.

Gradually, importance of product design was understood that connected resources and residues.  Our understanding of Life Cycle impacts of the products made us realize that we must think of both resources and residues at every stage of life cycle i.e. extraction, transportation, processing, packaging, distribution, use, disposal.   The two R’s (viz. Resources and Residues) were thus integrated with the opportunities of 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle)

Over a period of time, the legislation on residues expanded and became more comprehensive. Figure below shows an illustration of evolution of limits, expectations and requirements for the pulp and paper sector.

Clearly, enforcement of such limits could not be done solely by the Government. It required a partnership approach where the markets (consumers, retailers) and investors were also involved. An enunciation of an umbrella policy and coordination between ministries was also necessary. The new paradigm of governance addressed both resources and residues, across the life cycle and in partnership with G-B-FI-C (Government, Business, Financing Institutions and Communities)

In India, importance of green products is not understood even today.  We are still far lagging on the strategy of eco or sustainable product design and green public procurement. Our eco-labelling program “Eco-mark” failed long ago, with no efforts made for revival. There are only handful schools in India who teach sustainable product design today. There isn’t much “market demand” either.

You can assess the “maturity of the environmental governance” of a country based on how the limits are set and are operated considering both resources and residues and how key stakeholders are involved. I would rate India at level of 4 if there was a maturity scale between 0 to 10.

As earlier said, the Indian environmental governance is still biased to the management of residues. But remember that even on the residues we have not looked into risks on disposal from ecological perspective. Although the name of Ministry is now Ministry of Environment & Forests & Climate Change, we have not paid attention to the  risks posed on our resource security due to climate change. Our approach is still conventional and dated.

Resource management in India is in the purview of line ministries e.g. water, energy, agriculture. There is a poor coordination between the Ministries in visualizing a “systems” perspective where resources and residues are integrated. Years ago, New Zeeland enacted Resource Management Act (RMA). The RMA has not been a smooth ride but there are interesting lessons that could be learnt.

The recently promulgated concept of Circular Economy added additional 3Rs namely- Repair, Refurbish and Remanufacture.   These 3Rs introduced three significant components viz. social (employment), investment and innovation. Once material flows become circular, compliance becomes of interest to every stakeholder. 

China legislated Circular Economy Law as early as in 2007 focusing on industrial estates.  Japan promoted this concept at Eco-Towns. European Union came up with country specific targets, indicators and reporting requirements on Circular Economy.

India is estimated to become the fourth largest economy in the world in about two decades. This economic growth is however going to come with challenges such as urbanization with increased vulnerability (especially due to climate change), poor resource quality and scarcity and high level of unevenness in the socio-economic matrix due to acute poverty. India, if it makes the right and systemic choices, has a potential to move towards positive, regenerative, and value-creating development. Its young population, growing use of IT, increasing emphasis on social and financial inclusion as well as the emerging manufacturing sector can make this happen. For this, the conventional linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model of growth must change and an enabling policy framework at the national and sectoral level needs to be evolved. Developing a national policy framework on Circular Economy therefore makes sense.

The recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on India shows that a circular economy path to development could bring India annual benefits of ₹40 lakh crores (US$ 624 billion) in 2050 compared with the current development path – a benefit equivalent to 30% of India’s current GDP. Following a circular economy path would also reduce negative externalities. For example, Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) would be 44% lower in 2050 compared to the current development path, and other externalities like congestion and pollution would fall significantly, providing health and economic benefits to Indian citizens. This conclusion was drawn based on high-level economic analysis of three focus areas viz. cities and construction, food and agriculture, and mobility and vehicle manufacturing.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) of Government of India set up the India Resource Panel (InRP) in 2016 to examine the material and energy flows across key sectors following a life cycle approach and to assess resource efficiency. I am a member of InRP. Sectors such as Construction, Automobiles, Iron & Steel and Metals were considered and key cross-cutting areas were examined. Recommendations of InRP are now taken up by India’s Niti Ayog (Planning Commission chaired by the Prime Minister) and is expected to develop a national framework to foster and support India’s Circular Economy.

The Government of India has embarked on several iconic projects to improve and expand its infrastructure (transport, cities and energy) and undertake ecological modernization of important sectors such as water, agriculture and food. In these Mega projects, Foreign Direct Investment is encouraged and these investors are asking for good practices on Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) apart from conventional compliance. The 100 Smart Cities program, Make in India initiative, Swatch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India), Namami Gange (Ganga River Action Plan), Interlinking of Rivers, Climate Resilient Agriculture etc. are a few examples. In all these projects, an application of the principles of the Circular Economy is extremely relevant and, more critically, leadership on the circular economy will need to be built in Cities, Industries, Investors, Project Developers and with Policy makers and Regulators.

Circular Economy is thus a concept that brings management and resources and residues together in the interest of economy, livelihoods and the environment. If implemented well then it will spur innovation and stimulate investments. The question is which institution in India will champion and how will we mainstream Circular Economy at national, state, city and industrial estate levels. Leadership in Circular Economy is going to be the key to bring in the necessary change.

We need to start walking the talk. But who will bell the cat?


Cover image sourced from http://www.guengl.eu/news/article/a-true-circular-economy-must-be-anchored-in-the-grassroots


I am developing an international leadership program on Circular Economy to be launched in 2018. Do write to me if you are interested to learn more or get involved 


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5 thoughts on “Resources, Residues and Circular Economy

  1. Dear Prasad

    Well said and succinctly put.

    Our residue orientation was only natural as natural resources came(and come) free here unlike in the EU, Japan etc. so they are forced into a circular economy much faster.

    But a time has come for us to join the CE movement as our productivity is at nadir and we use the highest amount of natural resources per unit output in the world.

    Count me in for your project.

    Will support as best I can.

    Best Tishya

    On Thu, 19 Oct 2017 at 5:50 PM, Prasad Modak’s Blog wrote:

    > Prasad Modak posted: ” Sustainability of this planet depends heavily on > the availability of resources. Resources are under threat today due to > severe depletion and degradation. Depletion has been on a steep rise due to > increasing population, urbanization and consumpti” >

    Like

  2. Time has come to modernize the environmental regulations to the present day needs, particularly, Air and Water Acts, which merely rely on end of the pipe treatment. Moreover, a common environmental regulation instead of plethora of laws will contribute more to resource conservation and also ease of doing business.

    Like

  3. Yes! This is the perfect way of putting it! We are still stuck in the waste and residues mindset.The circular economy concept itself is starting to degenerate into “let’s do more recycling of waste”. Industry too needs to start looking at every output as a material with value and to do this we have to talk to each other across sectors and companies.
    Always here to support your projects Dr. M 🙂

    Like

  4. Hello Dr. Modak

    Your blog as always was a great read. Having recently transitioned from India to Canada, I see a lot more regulatory action on Circular Economy at both Federal and Provincial level here in Canada. I am presently working for a consulting company in the field of Circular Economy and Product-Packaging stewardship. I will be happy to engage with you on your Circular Economy Program.

    Best regards
    Jaspreet Sidhu

    Like

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