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FEATURE: Benefits of a circular economy – A view from Nepal

The circular economy is an alternative to the linear economic model which ends in product disposal. This is why it is gaining much attention globally and is widely popular among businesses – report Kaustuv Raj Neupane and Rachana Upadhyaya, who are researchers at South Asia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS), a research institute in Kathmandu, Nepal. A longer version of this article first appeared on My Republica.

All hands were raised in the meeting hall in response to a question raised by the facilitator in a training organised by ICLEI-South Asia (CDKN Asia team) in Delhi last month. The question was: Have you dumped mobile phones or any other electronic devices within last year?

The participants were mayors and deputy mayors from Nepal and Bangladesh. ICLEI-South Asia is a network of more than 1750 local and regional governments for sustainable urban development worldwide

The raised hands and the resounding ‘yes’ were an anticipated response and it is suggestive of the amount of electronic waste (e-waste) produced by a group of just 60 individuals in a room.

Electronic devices are the most generic example. But if we look around us, we as individuals generate heaps of waste from things that outlive our usage or our fancy. According to a study by Department of Environment, Kathmanduties alone discarded 18,000 metric tons of e-waste in 2017. Yet another highly conspicuous example of waste is plastic. Plastic waste has been a hot debate not only in Nepal but worldwide. Just walking around Kathmandu, one can see huge amount of plastic waste in the city. Waste is an inevitable by-product of the ‘take-make-dispose’ model of the ‘linear economy’: a system in which finite resources are taken from the nature to make artificial products, which in course of time get disposed.

The rapid rise in global population and subsequent increase in middle-class consumers has created an unprecedented demand for extraction of natural resources to meet the rising demands.  Unbridled mass production and hyper-consumerism has been taking its toll on finite natural resources and with the current trends, the pressure on resources will only exacerbate in future. Here lies the shortfall of the linear economy: it has dual effects on the environment, first through production which results in natural resource depletion and carbon emissions, and second, through the ‘end of life’ of product resulting in waste.

Waste management has been a challenge globally and it is nothing new to Kathmandu, where litter has become part of our living environment. Hence as an alternative to the linear economic model which ends in product disposal, the concept of the circular economy is gaining much attention globally and is widely popular in businesses and government policies, particularly in the last decade.

However, in Nepal, circular economy is in an embryonic stage and is yet to gain traction. The circular economy, in its present form, exists simply conceptually and the discussion is limited to a few blogs and youtube videos.  Since the circular economy is now being considered as a solution to problems like climate change and carbon emissions resulting from hyper-consumerism, a wider discussion is required immediately among prominent stakeholders particularly municipalities, and business sectors as this model of economy seeks collaboration and partnership.

What is the circular economy?
The circular economy, as the name implies, shifts from the existing linear model of “take-make-dispose” to a chain or circular form. The simple typological change from line to circle carries a significant meaning with it. In a circular economy, any material produced and used can/should be taken to another production cycle—biological or technological. The ‘end of life’ concept is replaced with restoration, regeneration and reuse. Ultimately the waste is reduced by superior design of materials, products, systems and business models. A simple example could be designing laptop and mobile phone chargers that could fit different brands and models.

Circular economy is often equated to waste management which is a narrow understanding of a much broader concept. Circular economy operates within three basic principles: a) design out waste and pollution b) keep products and material in use and c) regenerate the natural system. To sum up, it promotes less production of waste in the whole production system. It promotes minimisation of waste production rather than waste management.

More than recycling
The circular economy could be easily mistaken as recycling of waste. However, the most consequential trait of this model is its minimisation of waste production. Instead of managing the waste at the end of a production cycle, the circular economic model requires thinking through the entire production cycle and the end use of the product beforehand. Hence, it ensures that a minimum of waste is generated as the products will have longer life span and are reused in different forms. Hence, recycling is not required or is minimised. The goal is to create no waste and reduce the need to buy new commodities.

Alexandre Lemille, circular economy expert in his article in The World Economic Forum has cautioned that the advancement of the recycling industry may maintain the status-quo of ‘take-make-dispose’. At present, only nine percent of economy is circular, 91 percent of waste does not go back into the second production cycle.

In this scenario, recycling is vital to cope with the mass waste production. Nevertheless, the recycling process consumes energy and does not decrease production. Transitioning into a circular economy is not easy as it is a complex process. It is even more so for countries like Nepal where consumption is much higher compared to domestic production. Therefore, the first and essential step toward circular economy in countries like ours is by reducing consumption by refusing products.

Time to promote
The circular economy demands technological innovation so that the materials and products after their primary use can be looped back to production system. Thus, we need to rethink our development approach and redefine the circular economy model.

To promote circular economy, we need to consider three Is—indigenous knowledge, innovation and incentives. We have discarded much of indigenous and local knowledge. We need to revive it. Development should be redefined according to our value systems and resources, encouraging the ‘reflect, realise and revive’ principle to promote circularity.

Second, a favourable environment needs to be created for promotion of innovation in business. This can be achieved through start-ups. Doko Recyclers and Tyre-Treasures are widely popular for their up-scaling of what used to be considered as just waste. With their work they have added new values to waste products. The new business models should be encouraged to come up with an idea that promotes circular economy. Finally, the government should provide incentives for businesses to promote the circular economy. Tax exemption for a certain time could be a way to begin.

By promoting the circular model, the country will benefit more as the cost of waste management will be higher tomorrow than incentivising businesses today.

 

Image: ‘plastic recycling man’, Kathmandu, Nepal; courtesy Mike, flickr.

 

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