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.
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 January 01, 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 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.
The Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT) is scheduled to will hold a workshop 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 writer is a Professorial Fellow at the Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT), a research and training institute of United Nations University.
-Inter Press Service