Category Archives: Circular Economy

Achilles heel of Renewable Technology

By Aditya Chhatre

The first ever paper on the variations of atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to long term climate changes was written in the year 1896 by a Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius. For the analysis in this work, he uses the term ‘carbon acid’ to describe fossil fuels as a source of carbon emissions. The paper mentions fossil fuels to be a potential source for the carbon dioxide. Although later in his works, he articulates fossil fuels being the major contributor to global warming. As the electrical industry is highly based on fossil fuels, the concept of energy transition has carved its way in seeming as the unavoidable solution to most of the climate problems. Parallelly, research and development in solar and wind energy technologies had its advancements which created a sense of optimism. These renewable technologies with their high costs and having generation inconsistencies, were quite a dream to become reality in 1950s. But the urge to achieve energy transition has been only growing. Eventually, the price of electricity from renewable energy technologies dropped lower than electricity from conventional fossil fuel resources. Countries started to aim for targets of 70-100% share of renewables in their energy mix as fast as possible. Fossil fuel-based electricity is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. Also, various sectors such as transport, agriculture ought to increase the electricity consumption. Given these circumstances, energy modelling has been useful for forecasts future scenarios and requirements. We can call this century as the century for ‘Energy Transition’. Few countries have achieved and many are deploying solar and wind farms with their maximum capacity to achieve the transition. The global urgency is such that 2050 is set as the year to achieve carbon neutrality by most of the countries.

In these times where humans are trying to realign their carbon dependency, the focus has majorly been on energy resources such as solar PV, wind and batteries. Let’s look into the case of plastics – a light, durable and cheap product which turned out to be a game changer in our everyday life. Visiting grocery stores in 1950s, it was hard to find something which can keep the products more durable, increasing their shelf lives. 70 years later, it is really hard to find any product without plastic rapped around it in a grocery store. Immoderate amount of plastics made it difficult to handle turning the situation undesirable. Moreover, various types of plastics, made it worse for organized recollection. Recycling plastics has caught the eye of several start-ups but as the material is a composition of complex elements it makes it hard for the recyclers to separate the plastic which could be recycled in one facility. Countries such as US, Kenya, EU have banned the use of single use plastics. On the other hand, countries such as UK have tried introduction of tax on plastics bags with fines for breaking rules. It is a big task to get such a useful product out of the supply chain. There are lessons to be learnt for our energy transition. Renewable energy technologies are surely beneficial than the high carbon generation technologies. Concern here is to avoid the energy transition being the same story of starting a revolution with optimism and in 2050 finding a clueless heap of materials to deal with. This rapid change has vulnerabilities which are easy to miss out and it is better to assess and act on them. One of such weakness in the renewable industry is lack of circularity.

To have an estimate of the amount of recycling capacity needed, we have to look at the material requirements for individual energy resources. The material required for the different sources of energy are shown in Figure 1. Solar and wind power plants have the highest material use per Tera watt hours (TWh) of electricity production. Even though these power plants are not carbon intensive, they need a lot more material than conventional sources per TWh. After the designed life of a panel or a wind turbine, the challenge is recollection and then creating a business model which use the recycled material back in the economic chain. Renewables have a characteristic challenge when it comes to recollection of panels or turbine blades. Solar and wind power plants need much more space for the same amount of electricity generation than the conventional thermal power plants. The non-concentrated designs, increases costs and scheduling time to transport the waste to the recycling centres. Another thing which needs to be taken care is that the life of these resources is 20-25 years compared to the conventional plant of 40-50 years. Because of these reasons it is very likely that the solar panels, wind turbines and batteries have higher chances of being mishandled and landing up in the landfills without proper processing. It now becomes a need to increase the recycling capacities, ideally targeting recycling capacity to be consistent with the installed capacity. It is important for designers, policy makers and entrepreneurs to already align recycling techniques, predict the expected timeline and deploy the recycling facilities at necessary geographical locations.

Figure 1. Range of material requirements for various electricity generation technologies

Solar & Wind


Solar PV and wind power plant’s rising trend is expected to grow even further as the technology progress. As of now 629 GW of solar PV and 742 GW wind has been installed globally. To achieve energy transition, models recommend the growth to be 10-12 times of the current installations till 2050. The average life span of solar panels designed by the manufacturers is for 25 years. Also there have been cases, maintaining panels regularly, increased solar plants life up to least 30 years or even more in some applications. Recently, a study from Harvard reviewed the market PV panel replacement rate. The study shows that the utility and residential customers connected to the grid replace the modules after their mid-life period (15-20 years) which makes an economically beneficial decision considering the current technology improvements, panel prices and electricity prices. In 2021, we can expect that the panels from 1990-2000s have already started to be decommissioned and replaced. Similarly, the wind turbine blades which have a life of 15 years. Working on the yearly installation rate, Figure 2 shows the cumulative million tonnes of panels which are expected to be out of service till the year 2046. The graph gives a clear picture of the expected timeline and the quantity of the renewable waste. Solar panel and wind turbine blade waste is calculated according to the installations and assuming average weights. Also, wind technology saw an earlier installation phase even before the solar technology deployment started extensively. Therefore, we can expect a higher quantity of turbine blades as waste before high number of solar panels are decommissioned. But eventually, as solar plants have higher material to electricity densities than wind farms, solar PV waste would cross over wind waste around 2040. If renewable recycling processes are not in place, the waste would be 50 and 30 million tonnes till 2046 for solar panels and turbines blades respectively. To have a comparison, these quantities are way more than Australia’s one-year solid waste of 13 million tonnes. We can expect a boost from the year 2030 where we need to be prepared with the recycling  sectors supply chain which can handle this amount of the renewable wastes.

Figure 2. Solar and wind waste quantities 2021-2046 – (Self)

Photovoltaic panels have glass, aluminum and silicon as dominant materials. Project owners usually take the easy way to send the panel to a glass recycler who uses the glass and scraps the rest. Globally, photovoltaic panels are broadly of 2 types, Silicon based and Thin-film based. As silicon based solar panels are common, the processes are developed for its recycling and is comparatively less energy intensive than recycling thin film based solar panels. After removal of the glass the solar cells are retreated with thermal processes and the silicon is reused in the form of modules and other applications. Laws for collection of solar panels are inconsistent even in developed countries. Such as in US there exists a state wise plan which is not consistently stringent nation-wide . In 2012, EU WEEE included solar panels in their electronic waste category. According to this regulation, it is mandatory for the manufacturers and companies in EU to collect the panels after their use and put them back in the recycle chain. The companies are also allowed to charge extra for the post product life activities. This framework has helped the EU solar industry to recycle 80% of their panels. This is a great way to make the authorities responsible for handling the waste and making the recycling market profitable. Similar regulations are been drafted in various countries and would soon be implemented to make solar industry more circular.

Wind turbine blades are made up of composite materials which are highly durable and light. Apart from wind turbines, composites are also used extensively in sectors such as constructions, transport, aeronautics and electrical components. So, a viable solution for recycling composites will have a positive impact on all these sectors in the terms of circularity. There are composites recycling options such as solvolysis and pyrolysis. But particularly in the wind sector it is not possible to shred the blades on site because of size and feasibility of the cutting processes. This is the reason for high costs for transporting back the blades to the recycling centers. Freight costs being high, this makes recycling an economically non-viable leading to the convenient decision to dispose the blade in a nearby landfill. Currently unlike solar panels, there has been absence of recycling regulations and laws for wind turbine blades. Even countries within EU like Germany and France are still in the research stage to implement wind blades recycling policies mainly due to the site shredding blades and transport issue. However, a project, ‘zero waste blade research’ (ZEBRA), is a 24 months project launched in September 2020 for 100% recycled wind turbine blade. This project is been regarded as an opportunity to have a full-scale opportunity for achieving technical, economic and environmental solution necessary for recycling wind turbines and reducing the blades waste.  

Batteries

The stagnant lead acid batteries market, have seen a steep rise with the advancement of lithium-ion technology in this decade. The demand of portable device and electric vehicles (EV) have bolstered the additional investment in the development of the technology. Along with it, the current trends of compatibility of batteries and renewable energy power plants for residential and grid applications has put pressure on its manufacturing capabilities. There are also questions to be answered about the end-of-life of such huge number of batteries. To consider the EV industry there are studies claiming the batteries after their life in an electric vehicle still have 70-80% capacity. These secondary applications of batteries are particularly used at charging stations or connected to the grid for ancillary applications. This improves life of EV batteries by at least 7-10 years. After a certain threshold there has be recycling tie-ups of battery manufactures for their specific battery type. The lithium-ion technology all together is a broad concept with different anode and cathode chemistries involved. Each battery application employs a different technology, which raises serious concerns over type of material used, its availability and recycling these new used batteries. Battery technology is still undergoing huge transformations; hence the topic of its recycling is still of secondary priority, but is nevertheless important.

Conclusion

We need a conceptual change where products need to have more recycled material percentage and use lesser raw material at the design stage focusing on energy efficiency and recyclability. This is a sectoral challenge where not only recyclers but manufacturers and customers have to play an active role together. Bad handling would weaken the advantages of using renewable technologies. For project owners and users, recycling can be a demanding extra step, which is also currently non-economical. We need to act pro-actively by taking steps such as not scrapping the panels, batteries and wind turbines blades to a convenient local with no expertise of recycling, but contact recycling authorities/companies and make this energy transition truly effective. There are scenarios wherein countries within EU have better recycling rate for batteries and solar panels compared to other developed nations. Hence, recycling rates are variable and eventually they would be less dependent on the technology rather more on the geographical location.

The volume of renewable waste is expected to increase exponentially and even go over the board from 2030 if recycling facilities are not in place till then. A business model should include the amount of renewable waste streamed back into the economy and in due course should make recycling profitable. Whether be it a company or a country the task is to have a 100% close loop system reusing and recycling materials. National and governmental policies are key to incentivize this market. It is crucial for governments and regulators to introduce and fund organizations working in this field to strengthen them to be efficient by the end of this decade. The recycling industry is that the sector will have a swooping growth as an effect of the market demand at the point when recycling of these products gets cheaper than mining the needed raw materials. This could be the point where market needs and the environmental needs meet.

The light bulb conspiracy: Phoebus Cartel, 1924

By Aditya Chhatre

The light bulb at the fire station of East Avenue, Livermore, California has been operational since 1901. This incandescent light bulb has seen both the World Wars and is operational for 120 years now for more than 1 million hours. This 60W hand-made carbon filament light bulb was manufactured by Shelby Electric Company in Ohio.  The decades of 1880 and 1890 were revolutionary for various incandescent light bulb designs and patents. Towards the start of 1920s the operational hours of these lights were over 2500 hours. Today, the average life of the similar incandescent light bulb is 1000 operational hours. How did we land up at such a design?

The invention of light bulbs dates back to 1878, the year when Thomas Edison had filed a patent with a vacuumed glass bulb with carbonized filament. This filament, when supplied with a voltage across it, after a threshold temperature, would emit light. After improvements in the filament material, the incandescent light bulb was in the market for use from 1880. The next technological development in the light bulb industry was from 1940-1980s where mercury-vapor lamp was used to produce visible light using fluorescence. These fluorescent tubes would excite the mercury when supplied with electric current, leading the inner phosphor coating to glow. Further at the end of the 20th century, a P-N junction-based light emitting diode (LED) technology was determined to be more efficient than the earlier ones. The LED light bulbs have been in the market since 2010. In 2020, the light bulb industry stands at a point of ‘socket-saturation’, a term used in lighting industry which describes the decline of incandescent bulbs and fluorescent bulbs as a whole, getting replaced by Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Light bulbs with LED technology, within just a decade, have growth to a market share of around 50%. At this point, it is interesting to look behind to a significant event in the evolution of the light bulbs. It is worth visiting this incident, which shows the pitfall when a better technology grows over the older one.

The Phoebus Cartel

In 1923, the sales of a major lightbulb manufacturing company based in Germany, OSRAM, dropped from 63 million to 28 million. The cause of the reduction in the growth was linked to the increase in the product life of the light bulbs which was about 2000 hours. A similar pattern was also felt by other bulb manufacturing companies. In 1924, the head of OSRAM was one of the first to propose a meet in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. Major lightbulb manufacturers met in Switzerland, including OSRAM, Philips, Compagnie des Lampes, and the General Electric. This body of bulb manufacturing companies was named as “Phoebus SA Industrial Company for the Development of Lighting”. Eventually this took form of a planned obsolescence by deciding to devalue the design of the light bulbs and limit them to 1000 operational hours. All light bulb manufacturers were obliged to send samples to the test facility at Switzerland. A deviation from the decided limit of 1000 hours resulted in heavy fees. This cartel achieved success within 15 years. The average operational life of the light bulbs was dropped from about 2500 hrs. in 1923 to 1200 hrs. in 1934. During the process, the increased volume reduced the manufacturing prices. Profits increased and as planned, the bulb manufacturing companies grew by 25% from 1926 to 1934.

Figure 1. Designed operational hours of incandescent light bulbs from 1879-1934

Although new technologies were given pathways after the failure of the cartel in 1940 due to the tension between countries during World War II, even after almost a century, in 2021, the average life span of incandescent lamps still stands at 1000 hours.

Closely looking at the companies of the Phoebus Cartel, after the penetration of LEDs, most of them have moved away from the front-line light bulb manufacturing. Philips dropped off the Philips Lighting into a stand-alone company, forecasting the decline of the conventional lamps market. OSRAM and G.E. took the similar path of moving out by separating the lighting business into an independent company. Not that these companies have moved out completely; they have found other markets with LEDs such as ‘smart’ applications and street light with sensor applications. LED technology has risen from such times, which have a life of 10,000 to 50,000 operational hours. Principally, the point of concern is the lack of a business model of lasting products such as the centennial light bulb. The increased life of the products, surely creates a hiccup for the economic growth. Moreover, it could also possibly impact the society by lowering down the employment rates as there would be less need of factories and its workers. The choice is between an ever-growing economy and an everlasting product market. With the inclusion of LED technology, have we found the model to move from the short-lived to long-lasting products?

Course of action

In spite of the increased importance of concepts such as energy-efficiency, recyclability and biodegradability, the repetitive sales business model which became popular in the last decade of the 20th century still appears dominant today. However, we’re seeing shift in trends for a few decades now with concepts such as circular economy emerging in the limelight. Many big businesses of today acknowledge the need of more sustainable economic models. This change would partly be driven by regulatory bodies which would support longer lifetime of the products. It would be difficult for the highly durable product market, having slower economic growth, to penetrate into the countries which use economic growth as their performance indicator. Tim Cooper, a sustainable-consumption researcher and a professor at Nottingham Trent University, suggests solutions for the systemic change for increasing the durability of the products and having economic stability:

  • Premiums: Premiums are currently used as a marketing technique for product placements and achieving higher profits. The higher premiums could be on the basis of uniqueness, limited edition products or could be on brand name. Premium products are believed to be having higher quality than a standard one. Based on products durability, an equivalent to the costs of conventional products, a premium can be charged to the products with higher life. The economic slowdown due to increased durability could be neutralized by such a strategy.
  • Second hand sector: A parallel business market shall be important to increase the use of products. A platform for second hand market will be beneficial to help for maximum circulation of products. This idea has started to take its shape, with big companies taking initiative. One of the such initiative is from Ikea, launching a program of taking back used furniture. The program is called ‘Buy back’, encouraging customers to hold up against aggressive consumption.
  • Rating schemes: Ecolabels such as Norway’s-Nordic Swan, EUs-Blue Angel have given a significant importance to the durability criteria for approval of a product. These schemes will make customers aware of products life, providing them information to compare products and make a better choice.
  • Tax: To incentivize products, the transferring the taxes of the labor segment to the use of energy and raw materials could aid the program, with the aim to have high prices for manufacturing new products and reduced cost for repair of the older ones. Also, a strategy with the sales tax could help similarly, by allocating a portion of the sales tax linked to the lifetime of the products, making short-lived products costly to buy.

From the learnings of the Phoebus Cartel, LEDs have overcome the limitation by increasing energy efficiency and lifetime of the light bulb. But it is still a long way for the markets to transform to an economy which could sustain products such as the centennial light bulb. Finally, it is a cultural shift of the mind-set from the newest and latest to the oldest and best.

Reimagining India through the lens of Circular Economy

By Vidushi Dembi

Indians inherently are great consumers, as in, they consume the hell out of a product. Not great consumers in the true business sense though — homely jugaads like using finished jam bottles for storing spices, old t-shirts as the kitchen cloth and making bed sheets out of old sarees can sometimes act as real substitutes to consumerist behavior. Whenever a new item is purchased, its durability is a major criterion and its life cycle is charted prior to making the decision. Circularity hence is not entirely alien to our culture.

The concept of circular economy around the world as well is not new, it has been floating in the academic circles for many years. However, in the last decade or so it has gained traction as a real buzzword, and is today more relevant than ever. World population continues to grow, with standards of living continuously improving and consumerist behaviour driving the economic growth more than ever. Global North, that doesn’t have to care about population boom, continues to consume and discard materials at an unprecedented rate. Global South on the other hand, with its increasing population, standing at the threshold of the portals to western ideals of development, has begun its journey on the same path of take-make-waste, and India is a vital part of this narrative. Before Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, India was riding a roller coaster on its way as one of the fast-emerging economies of the world.

Societies today have multiple pathways to the ultimate coveted summit of ‘development’, which don’t have to be identical to the path taken by the industrialized economies. Pushing the envelope with the take-make-waste approach, circular economy offers an alternate, comprehensive and sustainable approach to development. 1.3 billion Indians, who the next census will tell if they have surpassed China in numbers of mouths to feed, continue to compete for the country’s resources. The country’s economic slowdown, now worsened by the pandemic, has aggravated the struggle. India would need to adapt a sustainable model of development to still be able to call itself an “emerging” economy, and a developed state in the future. Even though the per capita figures are small, according to the World Bank, India produces the most waste globally, with a 2016 estimate declaring the amount of solid waste generated as 277 million tonne per year. India is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases; even as per capita levels remain insignificant as compared to the top two emitters US and China. Elite imitation is not the only alternative for becoming a developed state, and surely not for sustaining the developmental status. We have the advantage of learning from history and hence designing India as per the framework of circular economy can help us avoid taking the same wasteful path and ensuring a sustainable future.

The concept of Circular Economy

Just like the aforementioned Indian households, circular economy believes in maximizing value. Rather than the conventional ‘cradle to grave’ approach where we use and throw products – whose true value remains unoptimized and continues to contribute to the growing pile of garbage, circular economy promotes the ‘cradle to cradle’ approach, where materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible. By designing products to be reusable and recyclable, it aims at eliminating waste. Focus is laid on building not only efficient but resilient systems. Other important concepts that it encompasses include bio-mimicry, regenerative design and performance economy. Ellen Macarthur Foundation (EMF), a pioneer in championing the concept, distinguish between the technical cycle — where techniques like reuse, repair and refurbishment are used as product recovery strategies, with recycling being the last option, and biological cycle — where consumption is allowed however regeneration of the utilized nutrients is also ensured with methods like composting. They describe the following as three main principles of the circular economy:

  • Designing out waste
  • Keeping materials and products in use in circular loops
  • Regenerating natural systems

Viewing India’s future through this lens reveals the relevance of the concept to the Indian scenario. Waste management particularly has not been our strength, and we therefore need better designed products which minimize the need of dealing with materials after their life cycle ends. Large part of India’s population is also dependent on agriculture as its main livelihood, hence a focus on, say, returning nutrients to the soil and support regeneration can be a game changer for the agro sector. With 7 Rs of Rethink, Reduce, Re-use, Repair, Refurbish, Recover and Recycle, it is evident that there are multiple ways of thinking beyond the conventionally talked about Recycling approach, which sure is a part of the picture but is not the only resort to optimizing the value chain. Cascading cycles ensure optimum use of materials, high utility, replenished natural resources, eliminating waste and hence ensuring prolonged and sustainable progress.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, SUN, and McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment; Drawing from Braungart & McDonough, Cradle to Cradle (C2C)

India’s current path of development

World Bank has pointed out in the past that India’s story is one of growth and achievement. Home to rapidly emerging middle class, India has shown a rather stable growth path. However, past few years have seen an economic slowdown. Even before the pandemic put a hold on global markets, and shocked Indians with -23.9% growth rate for Q1 FY 2021, India’s growth had already started to decline in various sectors like agriculture and construction. As India now focuses on gaining the traction back, this might be just the moment for integrating circularity in the economy.

Product optimization has remained crucial for the common Indian. Repairing, refurbishing and recycling supports an entire bunch of people employed in the informal sector which is critical in driving and supporting this concept. e.g. 60% of discarded plastic is recycled in India, which is much higher as compared to economic giants. However, majority of this is being handled by the informal sector and therefore doesn’t lead to institutional changes needed to achieve circularity systemically. The country employs more than half of its population in the agriculture sector, even though agricultural output and its contribution to GDP is not in proportion to the people employed. The agriculture sector has seen slowdown in the past years, even as India is faced with the challenge of feeding it growing population. Agriculture struggles to thrive along with the problem of soil degradation, which is due to natural as well as human-made causes. It also competes for water resources with millions of people living in lack of water and sanitation facilities. Where developed countries face the challenge of food wastage majorly in the consumer stages, food wastage in India is spread across the entire value-chain, with millions of tonnes of grains wasted in post-harvest and storing stages. In the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India stands at 94th position out of the studied 107 countries in the 2020, under the category of “serious level of hunger”. India still is a major global exporter in the sector, however, there could be an impending supply constraint in the future with India’s growing population and increase in per capita calorie intake. India is also urbanizing rapidly, which means cities are constantly under increased pressure for supplying resources to a growing population in a limited area. Cities are key drivers of economic growth worldwide, and even though official sources suggest a figure of 30% urbanized India, several studies suggest that the actual figures could be way more depending on the way urban areas are defined. Growing standard of living improves citizen’s purchasing power which pushes them to consume more. One could even take the liberty to claim that for the emerging middle class, acquiring of assets might be more like a status symbol than seeking real utility and optimization. India’s per capita material consumption however remains rather small as compared to other growing economies. Indian government with its initiatives liked Swaccha Bharat and Smart Cities mission are expected to help build the necessary framework and infrastructure. India is involved in many joint programmes with international governments like Germany for capacity building and idea exchange, however cost benefits of such schemes could be limited if an integrated approach is not adopted at a large scale. Rapid urbanization also invited problems like traffic congestion and pollution. India is home to some of world’s most congested and polluted cities, which seen on an Indian scale is a remarkable outlier, as only a little above 2% of the Indian population owns cars. There have been many initiatives by a number of state and city governments to tackle such issues, with cities like Pune gaining recognition for many of its successful initiatives. Government is increasingly recognizing the vitality of public transport infrastructure and is also trying to push electric vehicles in Indian markets. ICE vehicles might still rule the roost for a long time till some significant policy changes are introduced. Another growing sector is the electronics market, where majority of the demand is met through imports. Managing electronic waste however is becoming a nuisance as India generates two million tonnes of e-waste annually, with a mere 1.5% of India’s total e-waste getting recycled and almost 95% of it being handled by the informal sector. Metals constitute an important component of these gadgets, extraction of which is an energy intensive process. Unorganized handling of e-waste also poses hazard to the workers and the environment. Economic development also means more commercial and residential buildings being built in India, with studies stating that over 70% of the buildings in India estimated by 2030 are yet to be built. Construction and demolition waste contribute to one-third of India’s total solid waste. Building sector makes a large part of the pie of India’s greenhouse gases emissions, which means there is a huge scope of improvement in resource efficient buildings and cities. Sectoral analysis can be done of each segment of Indian economy, especially the ones driving the growth narrative, which ultimately will reveal great initiatives taken but have huge scope for improvement in setting the framework for sustaining the growth. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a rapid pile-up of the already gigantic mountain of plastic waste, with single use masks, gloves and other medical waste putting more pressure on the existing insufficient waste management infrastructure. Circular economy focuses on making economic growth independent from linear consumption of limited resources, and hence would enable Indian state to be a more resilient system.

The reimagined path of circularity

Propelling India’s economic growth needs constant resource supply. Our resources are only limited and the world’s growth is way too dependent on the linear, under-optimized model. Ensuring that materials in the society run as much as possible in loops will allow maximum utilization of resources therefore minimizing the amount of waste generated. Circular economy as a concept is fairly well known in the Global North, especially Europe, however utilizing it in India opens a door of brand-new possibilities. As India undergoes rapid modernization in its infrastructure and institutions, the time is appropriate now more than ever. The EMF in 2016 released a detailed study of such a framework in India and reported an annual value creation of ₹14 lakh crore (US$ 218 billion) in 2030 and ₹40 lakh crore (US$ 624 billion) in 2050 as compared to India’s current developmental path. As a result of eliminating waste, a cost benefit of 30% by 2050 has been indicated.

Keeping materials in loops would mean a cut in energy use and emissions to create virgin materials, which will have a significant impact on India’s carbon footprint. Concept of ownership also is redefined in such an economy, where we take products/services on lease from the manufacturer rather than owning them, and returning them back to the manufacturer once they are close to achieving their optimum performance in the first cycle. The manufacturer then takes the product in, repairs/refurbishes/recycles it and sends it back to the market starting another loop. With reference to this technical cycle, organized refurbishing, remanufacturing and recycling sector will lead to new job creation at a large scale. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and the numbers are only going to increase, and same holds true for India as well. Promoting circularity in city planning would include optimum urban planning, space management (e.g. constructing vertically instead of horizontally in congested cities like Mumbai) and a resilient energy system. In energy sector India is hugely dependent on imports especially for oil and gas and promoting circularity through renewable energy available amply in the Indian mainland will be essential for an atmanirbhar Bharat. Building segment has ample room for cutting emissions which can be tackled using sustainable raw material and optimum design. World Economic Forum in 2016 had reported that adopting circular principles in the building segment could help many countries to achieve cost effective emission cuts and attain energy savings of more than 30%. Mobility sector also is a huge playground for the circularity concept, with public transport being key to developing a truly liveable city. With a huge population still without personal vehicles, this could be an ideal starting point to develop effective and diverse transport network to serve the large chunk of the Indian population. The EMF report indicates that the suggested circular development path could reduce total vehicle kilometres travelled by 38% in 2050, helping significantly in lowering congestion on roads. Looking at the biological loop of the circular economy framework, it would require efforts on eliminating nutrient leakage, with consumption allowed but with ensuring releasing the residues back to the ground using methods like composting and anaerobic digestion. The huge amount of losses throughout the value chain is taken care by ensuring shelf life of food is improved and residue/waste is used for regenerative process like making livestock feed and biofuels. Digitization of agricultural sector can enable farmers to be active participants and for developing an optimum process flow. There are certain successful programs already like that of ITC’s e-choupal, which is helping develop an efficient supply chain, with real-time information and customised knowledge enabling the farmers to take better decisions, align their yields with market demand, maintain high quality and ensure better productivity. Effective water management is achieved as continuous nutrient circulation prevents soil degradation and minimized food waste means decreased in the water wasted in making of the potential food. Total annual benefits of ₹3.9 lakh crore (US$ 61 billion) in 2050 with 31% less agricultural GHG emissions have been estimated.

Long story short

Parts of the circularity concept exist in the ethos of Indian society; however, their manifestation has largely been informally and unorganized at smaller scales. To enable circular economy in India would require a systemic paradigm shift from the linear model to the circular model to be able to reap the entire set of benefits. Businesses as well the government has taken note of the future possibilities of this pathway, and the government would need to make active policy changes in order to encourage circular behaviour in businesses. Multi-level governance is of key importance in this regard, and this would need more decentralization of power to local government as well to make significant impact. Each sector of India’s economy could operate in its own loops which then are connected in inter-sectoral loops forming a comprehensive framework. There are huge opportunities for bringing down the country’s carbon footprint, creating new jobs, and creating true economic and sustainable development. Circular loops would enable better, inclusive and healthier ways of living for the citizens. Awareness would play a major role in propelling the concept in the country, hence educating the conscious Indian youth beaming with ambitions and innovation could potentially be real advocates of the concept. Circular economy is not just an on-paper idea but an extensive structure which makes business sense along with real socio-economic benefits. The recent European Green deal has recognized circularity as a key concept for sustainable development. India today has a chance to be an early adapter in order to drive its transition as well as gain advantage over the conventionally industrialised economies for a better future.

The plastic pandemic: Managing single-use plastics in india amidst Covid-19

By Vidushi, Aditya C

Single Use Plastics (SUPs) ever since their emergence in the 1980s have played a ubiquitous role in the world economy. Their versatility and convenience have served us in multiple ways, and only recently has the public drawn its attention to the undisposed SUPs choking our city drainage systems and killing birds and animals who mistakenly consume it as food. The world was already struggling with the ever-increasing plastic pile, before the pandemic came along and exacerbated the problem like never before. With more than 1 million people dead from COVID-19 globally and economic growth at halt (with the positive side-effect of clearer skies) the pandemic has catapulted humanity in a colossal plastic waste management crisis. India’s waste management infrastructure has continued struggling for long to keep pace with the country’s growing economy, which now coupled with the large population has worsened the plastic pollution situation.

The plastic mountain

Medics and Health workers working on the fore-front are required to wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) which comprises components like respirator, face shield, gown, goggles and gloves. The entire PPE is majorly made up of plastics like polyester and polypropylene [1], with the exception of gloves in which the latex variant is also available [2]. India has seen a drastic growth in the number of cases since May 2020 and hence is struggling with consequential plastic waste generated from the medical sector. The initial shortage of PPE kits was quickly fulfilled with numerous companies emerging in India to manufacture PPE kits, making India the second largest PPE kit producer. [3] Availability of the kit is still a problem even with more than 600 licenced PPE manufacturers in the country [4], and an even bigger problem awaiting is safe disposal of these single use plastic kits. Even though international travel is restricted, domestic travel requires passengers to wear the PPE too. According to a recent study, 3 in 4 urban Indians (76%) wear masks in public places [5]. Other major behavioural changes recorded in the pandemic are bulk buying (or ‘panic buying’), increase in packaging materials as people prefer home delivery of groceries in cities, online shopping and tendency of customers buying plastic packages items for better protection [6], all which is gradually leading to a cascade of unmanaged plastic. A recent study observed a surge of 55% in online shopping in India [7].

Already insufficient waste management infrastructure of the country has been now put to a bigger test. China is the biggest manufacturer of face masks and reports say that those masks are hard to recycle owing to their multi-layer composition [8]. Consumers while using SUPs tend to believe that it will get recycled ultimately, however due to higher cost of recycling of SUP as compared to other plastics, companies are less interested in investing in SUP recycling. Decreased recycling means SUPs could end up in landfills, ultimately contaminating the ecosystem and putting waste handlers at risk of COVID-19 infection. Plastics being non-biodegradable after much wear and tear are reduced to microplastics which ultimately ends up entering the food chain and hence our bodies as well. Energy requirement of the medical sector and hence the ecological impact has increased, which is finally going to waste due to the large Single Use items involved. Even before the pandemic there were reports suggesting ridiculously minimal rate of recycling of the world’s plastic waste. The problem now has intensified as the drastic dip in global oil prices have led to virgin plastic being cheaper than recycled plastic, which has rendered the recycling process less lucrative [9].

UNEP declared plastic pollution to be a worldwide crisis in 2017 and since then attempts have been made by governments and businesses to tackle the problem. Even before the pandemic had struck, Ellen McArthur Foundation had reported that plastic in the oceans will outnumber the fish by 2050. With the plastic menace bigger than ever, PM Narendra Modi recently appealed to the public to avoid using SUPs as well. To wait until after the pandemic ends would be too late and hence immediate and effective action is essential.

Conquering the mountain

The plastic problem can be alleviated by a combination of behavioural changes by the common masses and strengthening our infrastructure for a sustainable pathway of overcoming the pandemic.

1. .Lowering the environmental impact of PPE

Use of PPE for healthcare workers is a mandatory condition. Majority of PPE in use today is designed for single use, and since it is largely made of polypropylene, recycling is not easily achieved. Hindustan Times reported in June 2020 that daily biomedical waste generated by medical institutions in Delhi has increased to 2.5 – 4 kg per bed during the pandemic as compared to the usual 500 g per bed. Using such big sized PPEs once before sending them to landfills doesn’t help India’s plastic pollution situation. Even as we deal with the plastic menace, many parts of India are still facing PPE shortages. There could be a couple of ways to approach these problems.

1.1 Using reusable PPE instead of single use PPE

Reusable PPEs could be a means to tackle the problem of PPE shortage as well as plastic pollution. Single Use gowns are made from nonwoven fabrics like polypropylene and PET whereas reusable gowns are largely made of woven PET. Accounting all the processes of manufacturing and life time of a reusable gown, it has lesser cost, energy demand, environmental impact than a single use PPE. A study shows that switching from single use gowns to reusable gowns can lower the energy consumption by 64%, water consumption by 83%, solid waste generated by 84% and greenhouse gas emissions by 66% [10]. Reusable gowns need to be disinfected and sterilized after each use, for which different methods are available. Chemical decontamination methods include chlorine dioxide, bleach, ethylene oxide, ozone and hydrogen peroxide. Physical methods include methods like treatment with UV rays and gamma radiation. Many studies are available that prove disinfection and sterilization of PPE does not lead to a decrease in its efficacy. [11] Strong evidence is available proving that coronaviruses are affected by vaporization of hydrogen peroxide [12]. Methods with less environmental impact and more efficacy are hydrogen peroxide vapour [13], ultraviolet radiation [10], and ozone gas for masks.

1.2 Reusable masks for uninfected masses

Masses especially in urban India tend to rely more on surgical masks and respirators for a better protection. As per a latest study, while single use surgical masks scored 99% in material filtration efficiency, three layered cotton masks scored 86.4%, which is not a very exceptional difference [14]. The Prime Minister and many other leading politicians are frequently seen donning reusable masks. For healthy and uninfected people who follow other precautions of social distancing and general hygiene, reusable cotton masks can be a cost effective and environment friendly substitute for a surgical mask.

2. Replacing conventional plastic with bioplastics

The cost of environmental effects of crude oil and natural gas draws attention to other manufacturing means. Bioplastics made from sugar, starch, cellulose by mixing fibres have a quite high potential for substituting conventional plastics. Bioplastics can be categorised by bio-degradable, bio-based or both. Global bioplastics production capacity is set to increase from around 2.11 million tonnes in 2019 to approximately 2.43 million tonnes in 2024 [15]. There are four types of bio-plastics available [16]:

Figure 1. Classification of bioplastics [16]

There are mainly three ways that can be chosen to manufacture bio-based plastics. The most popular one is wherein natural polymers are preserved and chemically modified to starch or cellulose based plastics. This type of material is used for non-food applications (e.g. cellulose acetate). Second method is a two-step process used for conversion by chemical transformation followed by polymerization. Third method is a process to manufacture polymeric material. (e.g. PHA) [17]

The University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a sustainable solution during the COVID-19 pandemic. A medical grade N95 mask has been made using wood fibres as raw material. Moreover, this mask is claimed to be made from all local materials, is inexpensive, and is compostable and biodegradable. The mask is currently being tested for achieving required Canada’s health standards.

Currently the percentage of bioplastic are only 1-2% of the global plastics production. However, bioplastics have already penetrated through industries such as packaging, food-services, agriculture, consumer electronics and automotive. Bio-plastics show a great promise to replace plastics in the future and can be hence used to manufacture products with soaring demand owing to Covid-19.

3. Suitable disposal techniques

There is only a limit to earth’s waste handling capacity, and waiting for the threshold sure isn’t the wisest option to pursue. The concept of circular economy is the way forward where we aim at reducing as much waste generation as possible by inculcating recyclability within the design of a product. Majority of plastic in use today is recycled mechanically. Mechanical recycling however has limitations in case of coloured, multi layered or mix material plastics. For such cases the option of chemical recycling can be used, a process whose aim is to recover the basic building blocks of polymer. Chemical recycling seems to fill the short falls of mechanical recycling, although it has not been commercialized on a larger scale. In case recycling is not a profitable or feasible option only then should the option of incineration come into picture.

Figure 2. Stages of plastics use (cradle to cradle)

Lessons to be learnt

The most important lesson from this pandemic is the unpreparedness of our infrastructure to handle such emergencies. We have however couple of options available to alleviate the current situation and prepare for the next one. Replacing single use plastics with reusable materials as much as possible should be the main priority. Suitable methods are already available for disinfecting and sterilizing the reusable materials such as PPE kits. Reusable materials awareness among the masses regarding the unnecessary use of plastic products out of paranoia needs to be handled with relaying appropriate information. Replacing conventional plastic with bio-plastics is a promising scenario to retain the properties of the product with added benefit of reduced environmental impact. In case when reusability is not possible, disposal techniques need to be chosen accordingly depending upon the type of waste material, amount and cost involved. Incineration is the best method for disposing large volumes of waste, where as physical or chemical disinfection can be used for smaller amounts [18]. This is also an appropriate time to realize the menace the increasing plastic pile is creating for our country and hence should be seen as an opportunity to invest in waste-to-energy technology. In the long run, we need to promote circular economy in India in preparation of the next emergency. Recyclability should be built in design and manufacturers need to take charge of extended producer responsibility as well, wherein the product is designed keeping the entire life cycle cost in mind. Indian culture already allows the space to reuse and recycle materials at home informally, which we need to promote more extensively. It is now evident more than ever that the synergy between government policies, business operations and citizens’ behavior is essential for effective crisis management, as well as sustainable development for all.

References

[1] Pan American Health Organization, World Health Organization (2020) Requirements and technical specifications of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the novel coronavirus (2019-ncov) in healthcare settings [online] Available at: https://iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/51906/requirements-%20PPE-coronavirus-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[2] Misman, M.A., Azura, A.R., 2013. Overview on the Potential of Biodegradable Natural Rubber Latex Gloves for Commercialization. AMR 844, 486–489. https://doi.org/10.4028/www.scientific.net/amr.844.486

[3] Mezzadri, A; Ruwanpura K N (2020) How Asia’s clothing factories switched to making PPE – but sweatshop problems live on [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-asias-clothing-factories-switched-to-making-ppe-but-sweatshop-problems-live-on-141396

[4] Chandna, H (2020) ‘Modi govt to allow PPE, ventilator exports as Indian companies are mass-producing them now’, The Print [Online]. Available at: https://theprint.in/health/modi-govt-to-allow-ppe-ventilator-exports-as-indian-companies-are-mass-producing-them-now/447460/

[5] Bhatia, M (2020) ‘3 in 4 Indians wearing masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 – Ipsos 15-Nation Survey’, IPSOS [Online]. Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/en-in/3-4-indians-wearing-masks-protect-themselves-covid-19-ipsos-15-nation-survey

[6] Arora, N (2020) ‘Consumer sentiment and behavior continue to reflect the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis’, McKinsey & Company [Online]. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/a-global-view-of-how-consumer-behavior-is-changing-amid-covid-19

[7] Hyun, M.C., 2020. Korea sees steep rise in online shopping during COVID-19 pandemic. ZD Net [Online]. Available at: https://www.zdnet.com/article/korea-sees-steep-rise-in-online-shopping-during-covid-19-pandemic/

[8] Aragaw, T A (2020) ‘Surgical face masks as a potential source for microplastic pollution in the COVID-19 scenario’, Marine Pollution Bulletin

[9] TERI (2020). Webinar on Plastic Pollution amidst Covid-19: Protector or Polluter. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-giuMWJ7uY&t=1s

[10] Vozzola, E; Overcash, M; Griffing, E (2020) ‘An Environmental Analysis of Reusable and Disposable Surgical Gowns’, AORN Journal, March 2020, Vol. 111, No. 3

[11] Zhao, Z et al. (2020) ‘Germicidal Ultraviolet Light Does Not Damage or Impede Performance of N95 Masks Upon Multiple Uses’ Environmental Science & Technology Letters 2020 7 (8), 600-605 DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00416

[12] Rowan, N.J., Laffey, J.G., 2020. Challenges and solutions for addressing critical shortage of supply chain for personal and protective equipment (PPE) arising from Coronavirus disease (COVID19) pandemic – Case study from the. Republic of Ireland. Sci. of the Total Environ. 138532

[13] Saini et al. (2020) ‘Development of a highly effective low‑cost vaporized hydrogen peroxide‑based method for disinfection of personal protective equipment for their selective reuse during pandemics’, Gut Pathogens, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13099-020-00367-4

[14] Ho, K F et al. (2020) ‘Medical mask versus cotton mask for preventing respiratory droplet transmission in micro environments’, Science of the Total Environment 735 (2020) 139510

[15] Bioplastics market data (2019), European Bioplastics [Online] Available at: https://www.european-bioplastics.org/market/

[16] Bertling, J.; Borelbach, P.; Hiebel, M.; Kabasci, S.; Kopitzky, R.: Recycling of Bioplastics – Fraunhofer UMSICHT takes position, UMSICHT position papers, Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology UMSICHT (Eds.); Oberhausen; July 2018 doi.org/10.24406/UMSICHT-N-507110 http://publica.fraunhofer.de/dokumente/N-503692.html

[17] European Bioplastics (2017) ‘Recycling and recovery: End-of-life options for bioplastics’ [Online]. Available at: https://docs.european-bioplastics.org/publications/pp/EUBP_PP_End-of-life.pdf

[18] S. Gertsman, A. Agarwal, K. OHearn, R. Webster, A. Tsampalieros, N. Barrowman, et al., Microwave- and Heat-based decontamination of N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFR): a systematic review, (2020) 1–43. doi: OSF Preprints. April 10. doi:10.31219/osf.io/4whsx