China, once the final resting place for half the world’s trash, has just banned the import of certain plastic, paper and textile waste. Western countries are scrambling to shift ‘the problem’ elsewhere – but there could be another way. They could invest more in the circular economy, which would also help them achieve the 2030 Agenda. But what exactly is the circular economy?
Sustainable development refers to a process of economic growth and development, whereby the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. It is widely acknowledged that the present volumes and forms of economic activities pose a serious threat to sustainability.
Persistent deterioration of natural resources, greater contamination of air, water and soil, diminishing biodiversity, emergence of new types of pathogens, climate change and heightened fragility of human health (even when longevity is increased) are being noted. Though the solutions to address such challenges are far from obvious, it is accepted that production and consumption patterns geared uniquely to maximise economic growth are very unlikely to be sustainable.
Till recently, economic policies for growth were aligned with the ‘linear economy model’, wherein ‘waste’ was accepted as a negative element generated by production and consumption patterns geared to maximise economic growth. Here, the focus was uniquely on how to handle the waste once produced, in the most economical manner.
Worldwide, the perspective is moving away from the ‘linear economy model’ and towards a ‘circular economy’ enlarging the focus to cover the entire sequence of production and consumption activities that generates the waste required to be disposed. Under the circular economy model, the objective is to explore production and consumption patterns that minimise waste production without sacrificing firm profit or economic growth of countries.
Moreover, waste is not destined to be simply disposed, but also recycled to serve as raw materials for new production or energy. In other words, the circular economy aims to be regenerative by design, with minimum production of waste that cannot be recycled and maximal usage of products over time, along with optimal reuse, optimal refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling of products and materials.
Improved solid waste management to transition towards a circular economy is also essential to the global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed upon by the 193 member states of the United Nations (see Table).
Links between improved Solid Waste Management and the SDGs
|Goal 1: No Poverty: Employment generation in the waste collection, transportation, segregation and recycling industries|
|Goal 2: Zero Hunger: Reduced food waste, composting of bio-degradable waste for growing food|
|Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being: Less disease caused by open dumping and burning|
|Goal 4: Quality Education: Teaching to respect and preserve environment and observe hygiene|
|Goal 5: Gender Equality: Improve lot of women in all aspects of waste management|
|Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation: Safe solid waste management includes treatment of human waste as well and protects water from contamination|
|Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy: Bio-energy from bio-degradable waste|
|Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth: Waste management is one of the world’s largest industries and conditions of work in this industry in developing countries must be improved|
|Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Innovation in terms of collection infrastructure, collection and recycling platforms and in recycling is required.|
|Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities: The poor usually bear the maximum burden of negative externalities generated by poor waste management as they are vulnerable. Furthermore, those working in the garbage industry and/or living near as they are more likely to be among the poorest. Their conditions of life must be improved.|
|Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities: Healthy and resilient cities|
|Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production: Nudging strategies are necessary to bring about changes in behavioural routines for success of SWM targets.|
|Goal 13: Climate Action: Reduced methane and Carbon dioxide generation|
|Goal 14: Life Below Water: Less plastic in the oceans and in the bodies of sea-life|
|Goal 15: Life on Land: Less rubbish on the streets and in the bodies of stray dogs, pigs and cows in developing countries and better environment for all living organisms.|
|Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Governance for safe waste management and safe working conditions for those working in the waste industry|
|Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals: A variety of consortia will be initiated between actors in the formal and informal economies|
Source: Adapted from https://wasteaid.org.uk/waste-sustainable-development-goals/
For developing and emerging market countries, transitioning to a circular economy is extremely daunting for at least four reasons. First, they have the enormous challenge of building capabilities in municipalities to ensure safe and efficient systems of collection and treatment of household and industrial waste. Second, public spaces are often considered to be the responsibility of the state, making indiscriminate littering the behavioural norm. But, this culture obviously cannot be sustained, and therefore behavioural change has to be nudged. Indeed, no government in the world can keep public spaces clean without the full cooperation of its citizens. Third, since 1 January 2018, China, the world’s largest importer of waste, has decreed that it will no longer be the garbage dump of Western countries. Its ban on imports of 24 types of waste, notably household waste plastics, unsorted waste paper and waste textiles is causing pile-ups in Western countries, which are now turning to other major waste acceptors like Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Malaysia. Finally, they have to grapple with severe resource constraints, capability gaps and heavy poverty burdens.
Given such challenges, how can developing and emerging market countries aim to catch-up with high income countries in terms of industrial, scientific, technological and innovative capabilities, under, and still attempt to transition to a circular economy? The answer is far from evident, but this multi-headed hydra, re-growing a new head whenever one is chopped off, has to be tackled, in order to not miss out on key dimensions of sustainable development.
To contribute to this Herculean task in a humble measure, we will be holding a workshop at UNU-MERIT specifically dedicated to this topic in June 2018. The need of the hour is to explore how technologies, innovations, policy designs, governance platforms, stakeholder engagements and nudge strategies can be mobilised for the optimal management of solid waste globally.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo / Kibae Park / Gill Fickling