A Circular Solution for the Global Waste Problem

Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Linear_versus_circular.jpg

Global Solid Waste Management Problem

With headlines such as “Sri Lankans demand UK take back rotting waste”, “Cambodia vows to send back 83 containers of plastic trash to U.S. and Canada”, and “Philippines trash war: 69 containers of ‘unique material’ arrive back in Canada”, developing countries, one by one, are taking a  stand against trash. For decades, trash from developed countries has been sent to developing countries for ‘recycling’, but now, as developing countries themselves are struggling with own waste, they are refusing to import further trash from developed countries. 

Along with growing prosperity and urbanization, global waste generation is also increasing, reaching an annual generation of 2.01 billion tonnes. This means that on an average, each individual generates 0.74 kg of waste each day! Estimates taken in 2016 suggest that open dumping and unsanitary disposal in landfills led to 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) emissions annually. This amounts to 5% of total global CO2-e emissions. In the business-as-usual scenario, the amount is further expected to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes by 2050. 

To make matters worse, growth in waste generation generally outpaces growth in income generation. According to world bank report, by 2050, waste generation is projected to reach 3.40 billion tonnes per year, anticipating an increase of 40% in middle-low income countries and 10% in high income countries. Though technology is considered as panacea for many global problems, waste management, unfortunately, is not one of them. Currently, most waste (43%) is either dumped or disposed of in a sanitary landfill. About 33% is sent for open dumping, and only 19% is recycled or treated biologically. Remaining is incinerated as final disposal. 

Waste generation is directly proportional to income levels and is highly concentrated in the urban sector. Managing this humongous amount of waste is the single biggest problem faced by many cities. Especially for low income countries, urban waste management is highly expensive and typically consumes more than 20% of the municipal budget. Being home to the second largest population on the globe, India is no alien to the problem of waste management. Urban India generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per year of which only 43 million tonnes is collected, 11.9 million tonnes is treated, and 31 million tonnes is disposed of at landfill sites. 

We are over-utilising natural resources to manufacture products which we use and when we no longer want them, we trash them away. This linear economy of ‘Take – Make – Waste’ is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment. 

We are disrupting the crucial resource balance and now there is a dire need to transform the entire take-make-waste system. We need to change the ways in which we exploit natural resources, manufacture products, discard products after use and most importantly, handle the waste. 

Circular Economy: Solution for Waste Problem 

Just like a carefully balanced biological nutrient cycle, we also need to trace the resource cycle. The Industrial Revolution permanently distorted the resource cycle as with mass production and apparently infinite raw materials and energy, people started to discard used goods frequently and unsustainably. A circular economy is an attempt to re-establish this resource cycle and eliminating concept of discard or waste. 

A circular economy aims to restore resources by enhancing the flow of goods through a ‘value circle’. It delinks economic growth and resource use and focuses on an approach based on sharing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling. Whenever a product reaches the apparent end of its life, the circular economy attempts to bring it ‘back’ and create further value out of it. The following figure illustrates the outline of circular economy in comparison with linear economy. 

Vishwesh Pavanaskar

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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