Circular Economy and Climate Change by AnirudhGayathri
Preparing India to tackle Climate change in the Circular Economy way
India, the seventh - largest country by area, is bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the south-west, and the Bay of Bengal on the south-east.This country witnesses different weather conditions throughout the year due to its geographic diversity which ranges from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean coastline. Off late, the climatic conditions in the this subcontinent land has become very erratic with rising sea levels, increased cyclonic activity, increased ambient temperatures, and increasingly fickle precipitation patterns which are the effectsof global warming. These climatic changes tend to threaten the already unstable ecological balance.
Emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is one of the biggest causes of this global issue - climate change. In this proposal, we are focusing solely on the emission level due to the improper disposal of waste in the country, i.e. burning or incinerating them.
This land, which is a house to approximately 1.2 billion people, generates around 28,000 TPD (Tons Per Day) of municipal solid waste (State Pollution Control Boards, 2011-12), from both commercial and residential activities. India, which is a developing country hasn't figured efficient ways to dispose all its waste yet. Currently, the waste disposal methods used in the country are primitive which includes incineration, open pit burning and landfills being at the bottom of the pyramid and recycling being at the top. States like Haryana and Punjab have 'waste-to-energy' plants. But their operation isn't very effective due to the quality and thermal properties of the feed. As most of these plants fail to maintain the required temperatures and operating conditions, large amount of toxic fumes are released due to incomplete combustion. Open pit burning has a similar story too. In this process, the heap of waste on the surface undergoes complete combustion, which is necessarily not what happens to the waste in the core of the heap. The emission level in each of these disposal methods is too high.
Being students with a technical background, we in this proposal are trying to establish the impacts waste and excessive use of natural resource have on the issue - climate change. Trying to visualize the connect between the use of natural resources and climate change may seem to be very indirect, but the impact of the former on the latter is strong, be it positive or negative. We require natural resources to produce new goods, and more the new products, more is the waste we are generating. India hasn’t been able to manage its waste yet. So why not reduce the generation of waste itself by cutting down at the very initial state, that is to reduce the usage of natural resources itself.
And that is where we would like to propose the concept of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ which is central to the idea of a Circular Economy.
Which proposals are included in your plan and how do they fit together?
The Earth is fragile, with its carefully balanced ecosystems and natural resources and we, as humans have done nothing but destroy this balance systematically. The reason is obvious: because we need fresh raw materials to sustain the current linear economy we practice which contains nothing but take, make, use and dispose. And this produces massive amounts of waste - something that in nature does not even exist. It is thus easy to see why this model is called the ‘Cradle to Grave’ model. We are slowly using up the limited resources we have by continuously putting them into newer products, which eventually ends up being disposed improperly.
But are we really ‘using them up’ ?
Seen from a different perspective, all we are doing is transferring natural resources from mines to landfills. So what if we could somehow satisfy our need for natural resources in the future from the waste that we create today? For, the landfills of today are nothing but the gold mines of tomorrow.
And that is where the concept of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ or ‘C2C’ model comes in, which is central to the idea of a Circular Economy. Circular Economy is a pre-existing concept proposed by Ellen MacArthur who is a retired British sailor and a charity founder. We, in this proposal, have tried and applied it to the Indian system, thereby trying to reduce the use of natural resources and the production of waste. A circular economy is based upon the premise that the Earth is, in essence the same as it was 4.5 billion years ago, in terms of the amount of resources it has. Materials flow in the economy forming cycles. On taking a look at nature, we see that there is no question of waste here. One species’ waste is another’s food. Energy is provided by the sun, things grow and die, and nutrients return to the soil. And new plants can grow! This system is sustainable and it works.
But this is not the case with humans. We’ve adopted a linear approach and we just take natural resources, use them to make products, sell the products to consumers, who use and dispose them.The current economy we live in tries to squeeze out resources to the very last drop from a planet that is already in distress, which obviously cannot work long term.
If we accept that the living world’s cyclical model works, then can we change our linear business model to one that builds capital and reduces the waste generated at the same time?
This brings us to the two major cycles that are important in the Cradle to Cradle system: the biological cycle and the technical cycle.The biological cycle revolves around how our waste should be put into use effectively such that they don’t add on to the pre-existing waste. The answer lies in rethinking and redesigning our products and their packaging so that once their lifetime is over, they can safely return to the soil and easily degrade, without causing any damage to the environment, while promoting further growth.Now, a problem would arise if we consider products which do not biodegrade such as electronics.The technical cycle deals with the cycling of valuable metals, polymers and alloys from these products so that they continue to be useful beyond the shelf life of individual products, while ensuring availability of their constituent raw materials.One answer to the depleting stock of natural resources would be to rethink the very idea of ownership of a product.What if we never really owned the products that we purchase, and instead merely rented them from their manufacturers? After all, what we really need is washes, not a washing machine; light, not lamps; and cool breeze, not a fan. So we would simply need to pay for the service of a product and not its ownership. Repair, maintenance and all running costs, including electricity could be taken care of by the manufacturers.This could work by putting together the biological and the technical cycles and designing products which could easily be separated into their biological and technical components; the former used to promote agricultural value and the latter, to be reused by the manufacturer.Now let us apply this concept to the industry of packaging to see how the current system can be made more sustainable.
Packaging is an integral service in the delivery of any product; be it a small ring, or a double-door refrigerator. Integral, because it is not enough if a product is bought at a shop or online, it has to be brought and delivered to the buyer safely. And with the rise of globalization, people are no longer restricted to buying goods at the local store; they can purchase it from literally anywhere, even online. So it is easy to understand why in our current economy, cardboard, polystyrene and nylon have to be mass-manufactured despite the obvious fact that these materials invariably end up being burnt, as usual.For a better understanding of circular economy, systems thinking and redesign, let us look into the following examples.
In the current linear economy, this is what happens in the packaging industry. A Producer ‘A’ manufactures packaging material, which is purchased by a Company ‘B’, making products that need to be packed. The Company B packs its products using this packaging material and dispatches them to retailers, from where they are bought by consumers. These consumers unpack the product and invariably give away the packaging material to scrap dealers for a small amount of money, who then recycle it. Or so we think.
What actually happens is that the packaging material is downcycled. In the downcycling of a product,the quality of the constituent materials decreases and is not effectively used. In this case, it implies that the cardboard is sold to incineration plants, where they are burnt, albeit ineffectively, to produce small amounts of electricity. In this system, the responsibility of Producer A ends with supplying the packaging materials to Company B, which means the quality and reusability of the packaging material do not worry Producer A too much.
This means cheap materials like the nylon strap held together by tin, as shown in the above picture are used quite often, which implies that when a product is unpacked, the strap must be cut, leading to poor recycling value. But for a circular economy, we have to aim at efficiently using the material and energy that go into making a product. In order to do this, the whole system design has to be changed. Applying the Cradle to Cradle model to this system, what if Producer A owns the raw materials and thus the product (packaging material) itself? Company B would pay for the service or the functionality in perpetuity, which, in this case is safely storing products manufactured by it.
It then delivers the product, unpacks it and takes back the packaging to pack another product. So, a cycle is established, drastically reducing the need to make fresh packaging material in future.And since Producer A owns the packaging material, he would be completely responsible for the remanufacturing; that is, the repair and refurbishment of the damaged product to enable it to re-enter the cycle.
The consumer is benefited because he does not have the responsibility of disposing the packaging material anymore. Moreover, he would not have to pay for the packaging, which is generally a hidden cost. The benefits for Company B include the fact that it can keep a considerably smaller stock of packaging materials as it can go on reusing them. Producer A gains from the service charge paid by Company B as well as the fact that it retains its raw materials.
An important point to note is that the manufacturer of the packaging material now has an incentive to produce more durable products than before since it would be responsible for their maintenance. Keeping this in mind, it would now be more profitable for Producer A to use nylon straps that can be removed without cutting them, so that they too may be included in this system.
Easy disassembly of the packaging is almost as important as its functionality. For example, the box could be composed of several parts or flaps, which can easily be taken apart, allowing for replacement of damaged parts. These parts should further be labelled appropriately to help in careful unpacking of the product. It should thus be the responsibility of Producer A to label the packaging material appropriately to keep up the reusability value.
But no matter how clever we are in designing products, there will surely come a stage when they have to meet the end of their lives. Every cycle has its own leakage. In this case, if the Producer A is unable to remanufacture the product, depending upon the degree of damage, it is either downcycled to form other products of lesser quality (smaller boxes) or can be shredded to make cushion fillings. Beyond this, it is sent to the pits where it is biodegraded over time.In the entire process, the lifetime of the product is very high as compared to its lifetime in our current linear system and also the amount of waste generated is many folds less.
The systems that the companies design are built so that they are as efficient as possible within their span of control. Thus, at every step, a system is modified and streamlined to minimise the overall costs incurred along with reducing the waste generated. This becomes easier to comprehend by taking the example of the soft-drinks industry.
Soft-drinks are sold in three forms in India; in aluminium cans, in PET bottles of different sizes and in glass bottles. Let us take the case of soft-drinks sold in glass bottles. Customers drink from these bottles and return them to the retailers, who send them back to the manufacturers for sterilization, re-filling and sealing. This, by itself, is an already established Cradle to Cradle model where the customer only pays for the contents (service) of the bottle and not for the glass, which is owned by the soft-drinks manufacturer. The very fact that glass bottles are used to package soft-drinks today shows that this system is profitable, serving as an apt example of how a C2C model can work. Although currently not in practice, it would make sense if the metal caps too were returned to the manufacturer to be melted, remoulded and reused. This way, the soft-drink companies have succeeded to reduce the waste generated by making a small population of their customers to switch to glass bottles from PET bottles alongside making huge profits.
The interesting point to note here, however, is not the design of the C2C system, but of the bottles themselves, which has led to a more efficient manufacturing process while reducing the overall costs of production.
A close look at the shape of the finish (refer picture) of the bottles shows that the cap would fit securely onto the bottle head into the groove in the glass. This ensures that the pressurised gas inside the bottle does not escape. More significantly, the shape allows for quick and effective sterilization and refilling.This is a great example of how the very design of a product is modified in order to streamline the entire production process so that it fits better into a sustainable business model.
Ideas like circular economy and systems thinking can be implemented in the Indian industries only if proper knowledge of the whole process and its pros is properly spread among the industrialists as well as the consumers, as this transformation requires the collaboration of various organizations. Once one product is successfully established in a cycle, others will surely follow. And if there is money to be made in a C2C model, obviously industries would be interested. If one by one, they wake up to this reality, then each manufacturer and each industry would be ready to make the switch, the switch to a sustainable and circular economy in the years to come.
Explanation of the emissions scenario calculated in the Impact tab
What are the plan’s key benefits?
The biggest benefit of adopting such a system will be the reduced production of wastes, which in turn will reduce the amount of toxic emissions due to burning of these wastes, either in open pits or in incinerators. If such a system manages to replace the current system, the amount of natural resources used to produce new products will reduce leading to a reduced production expenditure at the industries. That is we will be able to establish a much more sustainable and environment friendly system by spending much lesser than before. Therefore, the reduced cost factor is another major advantage.
Additionally, policy makers can come up with ways to regard not only the GDP as a development index, but also something like a sustainability index that will the complement the entire idea of circular economy and systems thinking. Sooner or later, we should be living in a world where only a combination of a good GDP and sustainability index will determine the quality of a company and its services.
What are the plan’s costs?
The cost of implementation of such a system will be high due to the costs involved in implementation of the idea, research on redesigning the structure and implementation at operational level (i.e. working on Supply Chain Management). Indian companies should realize the problems with short-term thinking and should be prepared to make radical changes in their policies, keeping in mind that the raw materials of today may not even be available tomorrow, at any price. Agreed, changing to a completely new business model is a risky experiment, but since we are left with fewer options day by day, the companies should be ready to make investments to switch to such a system.Once one product is successfully established in a cycle, others will surely follow.And if there is money to be made in a C2C model, obviously industries would be interested. Moreover, making an investment now will definitely fetch great results in the long run.
What are the key challenges to enacting this plan?
Firstly, educating people about the fact that the product they use which is part of a circular system is not second hand, but a fully functional product that is guaranteed to be serviced and repaired as long as it is in use ; that too, at a 60 to 70% lesser price. Also, today the status and self-esteem of a person is largely governed by the products they own. This brings us to the second issue of changing the very idea of ownership today, which will surely be an uphill task.
Another bottleneck problem for the proposal is that this idea suits and benefits the consumers in many ways, but when this idea is allowed to evolve, it will eventually bring in a situation where for every product, we might end up having only a single manufacturing unit and hence a monopolized society would emerge, leaving the people with fewer options to buy from. The question we should now ponder upon is,what takes a higher precedence : climate change or a monopolized market.
For an effective system to be established, every link in the chain must be altered to suit the new settings and operation mechanisms. Every link must be strengthened, because a flaw in any one of the chains could lead to the failure of the whole system. Ensuring the easy operation of this new mechanism can take a lot of time. Initially, companies might even be hesitant to switch to such a system, but eventually they should realize that we have very few options left to save our planet. On the whole, the transition might be time taking but will be very useful in the long run.