Is India ready for a circular economy revolution?

09 November, 2016

It was an eventful day at the Mahindra & Mahindra “Waste to Wealth” Seminar, I was invited to speak about waste management best practices in 3 sectors – automotive, IT and hospitality. The audience from various group companies had folks with experience ranging from 3 months to 35 years! I felt I was in an ocean of practitioners who had a wealth of knowledge to share.

In my talk I introduced the concept of “circular economy” wherein the thrust is to move away from “Take, Make, Dump” to more restorative material and biological cycles that mimic how nature works. Circular models please the environmentalists as well as the economists, since it identifies new ways of doing business while reducing resource consumption. I cited examples from the Ellen MacArthur foundation and CE 100 companies.

What I learnt, from my visits and interactions with various industries which have adopted great housekeeping practices, process orientation, lean systems, or 5S and supplier engagement, is that they are on the threshold of a great circular economy revolution. However at present no industry in India has looked at true circularisation of its business. While waste management within the boundaries of the factory has been institutionalized, I would really like to outline what is required to circularise more broadly the Indian industry.

It is heartening to note that there exists an intention to explore the opportunity circularisation offers, however as with any new “concept” industry is wary of it. To understand what is circular economy, companies need to look at two key indicators - materials procured and wastes generated. Then identifying how one can drastically reduce its resource consumption by reconsidering its design, processes, reuse and repurpose. With this in mind I have outlined 5 major areas where companies can initiate steps in circularisation of their business operations thereby leading to job creation and societal value.

  • Authorised vendors: Responsibility of the company does not end when waste is handed to an authorised pollution control board vendor. It is important that each company does not take consent of waste vendors at face value. Trace where your waste goes beyond company boundaries and whether the vendor has the required permits, processes and has done exactly what he has said to the waste taken from your site. That way your waste will not come back to bite you as in the example of Unilever and mercury dumping in Kodaikanal. Visit your waste vendor, request for their EHS audits, if required do the audit of their processes to be convinced that leakages are nil.
  • Recycled content: What I learnt through the day, as well as through numerous industry visits, most companies have integrated management systems and processes in place for waste minimisation and recovery. Indians being frugal (a virtue now disappearing) anything of value is recovered and sold – what companies need to do is to use more recycled content instead of virgin material. That way the closure of loop is ensured. Virgin material has higher embodied carbon! It definitely makes business sense to check how you can work with various dealers and write off your scrap against material obtained from the vendor. What needs to be done is to diligently measure and monitor this to increase recycled material in the product
  • Design: Waste in manufacturing primarily occurs due to process – there is huge potential for improvement in product design where all players across the value chain work on design improvisations which cut wastes. Products that are designed to last instead of designed to use and throw will be game-changers, there is a growing dissatisfaction with too much stuff and products that lose value in a very short time. Products can be reused, repurposed, upcycled after end of life instead of recycled. Great design and quality go hand and hand, products can be designed for the dump or planned obsolescence, and high quality well designed products last a lifetime and are handed down through generations!!
  • Regulations: India’s E-waste rules and plastic waste management rules are focusing on extended producer responsibility, but I have seen very little action by OEM producers on setting up collection and recovery mechanisms – this needs to be strengthened with guidance to companies to ensure that what the rules state are implemented.
  • Collaboration: One industry’s waste is another industry’s resource. Cross industry collaborations for purpose of managing its resources more effectively in local as well as scalable fashion is need of the hour. Waste exchange platforms can be strengthened, we are already seeing such platforms in India. In real terms collaboration is also about networking to find out synergistic progress areas for diverse industries. Example of synergies between construction waste and road industry is well known. One well known case of collaboration is co-processing of high calorific value hazardous wastes in cement industry furnaces. Geocycle initiative of the Lafarge group is housed at ACC plant in Thane and provides solutions for many industries. We need more such options which are viable and familiar to industries.

In my view Indian Industry is poised to take a leap in exploring this new thinking. I say this based on the fact that as Indians, who used to hold dear everything of value, as opposed to what we has now become “take make dump” economy, it’s time to mimic natural cycles of circularity and give nature its due. What is needed is leadership commitment, strategic thinking and reassessment of business models.