The Government of India estimates that over 18 crore metric tons of waste is lying in over 15,000 acres of land across the country. Can landfills be recovered and converted into feedstock and eco-parks?
India is the third largest consumer of resources after China and the United States. It imports 80 per cent of its oil and gas and 100 per cent of its precious metals. The irony is that a good percentage of all these materials which India pays huge money importing, are lying idle in the landfill mountains across the country. At last, India seems to have woken up to the abundant wealth its waste promises.
The Confederation of Indian Industries in collaboration with the Government of India, released the Waste to Worth – Draft Circularity Taskforce Report on 30 November 2023 in New Delhi. It shows that the central government and the industry are serious about driving the transition from waste to worth through aggressive policy outreach and collaboration with the industry.
India’s largest waste-management company ReSustainability values Indian waste at five trillion dollars by 2030. Most of the waste can be converted into various forms of resources and supplied as raw materials to industries. The optimum way to utilize these resources is when waste recovery companies are set up in clusters alongside companies that need the waste as their raw material.
SustainabilityNext, the media partner to the CII-led International Conference on Waste to Worth’ captures a few significant insights from the conference:
The draft draws a roadmap for stringing together various policies that exist around circularity. They are currently disparate and fragmented. The Circularity Draft is a collaborative effort with several experts and central government officials from various departments.
Unified Circularity Policy
The draft framework has proposed a holistic circularity framework that involves several commodities from a recycling and resource recovery point of view. So far only a few regulations exist for plastic, e-waste and construction waste. The draft recognizes that the approach, the direction related to recycling goals, and the obligations associated with each of the resources are different. There are many commodities and materials, which form a big part of the waste, that are not addressed so far and will come into the ambit.
Design for obsolescence or longevity – the choice is now clear. The corporates are eager for early obsolescence of their products so that they can introduce newer products soon while consumers and environmentalists prefer longer shelf life of products.
Masood Mallick, CEO of ReS, said there was little understanding about design for repair, reuse or life extension in the country. “What we have now is designed for obsolesce, not a design for longevity. There is a need to reverse this.” He notes, “The first radios had an average life of 28 years, today they may not last even a year. The life of products has been reduced significantly. No one is asking this question from a regulatory standpoint.”
Mobile phone companies used to provide replaceable batteries. Today, they are embedded in the phone. Mallick adds: “Products are becoming complicated, and their lifespan is decreasing. We need new regulations on producer responsibility. We need to challenge the make, take, throw culture. This can happen if the government helps to make recycling profitable. If they don’t comply, penalize them. We need a level-playing field for producers to help them comply.”
National Waste Exchange
Prof. Anil Gupta, grassroots innovation evangelist and former faculty at IIM Ahmedabad headed the panel that gave away awards for innovative companies in waste recovery and recycling. He urged policymakers to add ‘Repair’ to the popular 3 Rs of waste management – recycle, reuse, and reduce. “Indians have a knack for repairing anything, we should support this talent,” he noted.
For him, the categorization of waste is a critical aspect of the circularity policy which the draft had not focused on enough.
He proposed a waste exchange, similar to commodities exchanges, for other materials. But for that categorization is critical.
Roopa Mishra, Joint Secretary – SBM, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India, said a pilot is on for setting up waste exchanges in 30 cities and towns. She hopes a national exchange for waste would boost the waste recovery sector immensely.
India is likely to have materials recovery centres in most cities in the next three years. They could create two crore jobs in a decade. Energy waste offered immense promise in cities. What is important, she noted, is to de-risk it so that entrepreneurs would find it worth investing.
Masood Mallick believes that the waste exchange has immense potential. However, waste exchange as a concept needs a lot more infrastructure around it to become sustainable and scalable. Waste needs processing before it gets value. The real value is in processing. Transformation of this waste into feedstock from a downstream industry is where value unlocking will happen. Only then can economic value be attached to waste, which will be much higher than the commodity value it currently offers.
“Commodity offers extremely low margin and is subject to vagaries of the market and little opportunity to scale. However, if we could create products from this waste or raw material for several industries, we would have added immense value. This is the sweet spot for those in the waste business,” he told SN on the sidelines of the conference.
Waste exchanges need to become circularity parks – a cluster of different industries that are complementary to each other. For example, Mallick observes, “We are setting up an end-of-life car recycling facility at Manesar. If there were electronics plastics or metal recycling facilities nearby, we could supply them with all the raw materials. A lot of value is lost in transportation. So, circularity parks are good both economically and environmentally.”
ReS is working on a blueprint for setting up circularity parks in various parts of the country. The first draft is being discussed with the government.
Several countries are exploring the idea of circular parks. ReS wants to lead this transformation. “We think our opportunity is unique. Given India’s resource intensity and import intensity of resources is high, so we are in a good position to leverage this, from an environmental, economic and resource security point of view,” Mallick noted.
The L1 Curse
As per law governments are obliged to offer tenders to the lowest bidder. However, this policy has been responsible for the stalling of most infrastructure projects. And low quality of roads and bridges in India is blamed for the L1 policy.
How to get around the L1 curse? Experts believe a more detailed tender specifying capabilities needed at every stage will encourage weaker companies to apply.
Redefining Waste to Wealth to Waste to Worth
The transition from waste to wealth to worth reflects maturity; it reflects pragmatism. The waste-to-wealth movement emerged from the belief that the value of waste has not been recognized sufficiently. Since value is often measured in terms of wealth, there was a cost attached to converting waste to a resource. Most often, the cost is higher than the value of the derived resource.
Also, there is risk and uncertainty in extracting wealth out of waste. And at the end of the value chain, we find no residual wealth. However, what we do have is resources. Something worthless in an economist’s view has been transformed into something that has worth.
We hope that soon worth gets translated into wealth. That is why investors are interested in this as a business proposition. At scale, investments are being made and innovative business models are being created. It is the promise of wealth. We have to measure ourselves in terms of the worth we are creating. It is a long-term play. We are in it to make it a long-term sustainable and profitable endeavor.