12.07.2017 · Category: SWITCH-Asia Network Facility, Recycling Building Materials, SUPA, Sri Lanka Renewable Energy

The circular economy in developing countries: Tackling waste issues as a starting point

Researchers, development practitioners and representatives from business, government and civil society convened at the 3rd GRF in Brighton. (Source: Institute for Development Studies)

On July 26 - 29 2017 the Global Research Forum (GRF) on Sustainable Production and Consumption (SCP) convened researchers, development practitioners and representatives from business, government and civil society in Brighton, UK. The objective of its 2017 gathering, the third in the Forum's history, was to identify vital links between the circular economy, sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Hosted by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, with support from the SWITCH-Asia Programme this conference was attended by around 130 participants from the world's five continents.

Mr. Potočnik highlighted the fact that implementing SDGs is a priority of governments (Photo source: Institute for Development Studies)

In opening the meeting, Mr. Janez Potočnik, former EU Environment Commissioner and today co-chair of the International Resource Panel, delivered a keynote that linked global mega trends, such as poverty & social inequality, environmental issues, urbanisation and globalisation with the SDGs. He highlighted the need for a transition to a new economic model that integrates all pillars of sustainability, with SCP being identified as the most efficient strategy to create synergies among SDGs. In this context, the circular economy is a viable concept to operationalise SCP in practice.

Further Mr. Potočnik highlighted the fact that implementing SDGs is a priority of governments as defined in their strategic documents, supported by indicators, monitoring and reporting, and linked to core economic policy decisions. This means, all relevant policies should be systematically adjusted towards this end and synergies among climate change, resource management and the circular economy should be exploited.

Circular economy and sustainable lifestyles

To implement the circular economy in daily life, speakers and participants agreed on the importance of promoting sustainable lifestyles. To this end Mr. Lewis Akenji, Policy Fellow from the Institute for Global Environment Strategies (IGES), explained three factors to be further explored by all stakeholders, which are the role of institutions, clear responsibilities of stakeholders and drawing learnings from demonstration projects.

Mr. Jeffrey Barber, President of the Integrative Strategies Forum further debated on the degree of circular economy thinking behind the implementation of SDGs through a question: "Is it influenced more by linear (make, use and dispose) thinking or by the circular economy thinking?" To implement a circular economy we need to know what actually motivates people and how we can influence them to shift to sustainable lifestyles, he said. Also, he underlined that such thinking is essential as people are the ones who make strategic decisions.

Women and a more circular economy

Closing the loops for resources and materials requires an appropriate waste management at the municipal level. In developing countries waste pickers play an indispensable role in segregating waste. Mrs. Sonia Dias from the Women in Informal Employment - Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) based in Brazil challenged the audience to think about how to engage the people who work in the informal sector (most of the women) such as waste-pickers in the discourse of circular economy and sustainable development. The people working at the margin of our societies tend to be excluded when it comes to policymaking. Where possible she advocated the formalisation of waste pickers so that their work can be acknowledged and they can also enjoy a degree of social protection through the government.

Similar concerns were raised by Mrs. Nalini Shekar, Director of Hasiru Dala, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Bangalore, India, that mainly works with waste pickers. So far about 7 000 informal waste pickers have been reached out to by Hasiru Dala in support of Bangalore municipality's waste collection. Hasiru Dala helps to organise the waste pickers which in turn give them the opportunity to voice their needs to the government. There are equal numbers of women and men working as waste pickers in the city inhabited by about eight million people.

'Closing the loop' starts with waste collection and recycling. For any circularity to be successfully established in economic terms, the re-valuation of the related jobs, their social status as well as their professionalisation are indispensable.

Innovative green financing schemes

During the conference, various parallel sessions offered the participants insights into many different research projects and their results. In one parallel session Mr. Galib Ibn Anwarul Azim from the United Nations Capital Development Fund in Bangladesh explained the new green financing scheme, "refinance scheme for green products/initiatives," developed by the Bangladesh government. In this scheme, there are 51 products/initiatives from eight sectors listed, among others, renewable energy, energy efficiency and solid waste management. Besides this financing scheme, the Green Transformation Fund (GTF) is the latest on-lending window for two major export oriented sectors, textile and leather industries, launched in January 2016. This constitutes a USD 200 million revolving fund sourced from the Bangladesh Bank's own resources. GTF will support 10 types of green, environment-friendly initiatives such as resource efficiency and recycling, renewable energy, energy efficiency and waste management.

SWITCH-Asia Projects and Network Facility attending the 3rd GRF to share experiences in advancing SCP in Asia (Photo source: Kartika Anggraeni/SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)

SWITCH-Asia session

At the 3rd GRF three SWITCH-Asia projects presented their approaches and strategies to SCP and the circular economy, sharing their experiences as well as the projects' results and achievements.

Ms. Delgermaa Lkhagvsuren (Caritas Mongolia), project manager of "Sustainable Construction and Demolition Waste Management in Mongolia" (2016 - 2020) explained that waste management is still relatively a new endeavour in Mongolia. Only in 2012 did the Mongolian government first introduce a law on waste management, following which, many stakeholders from public and private sectors are still not aware of their responsibilities, tasks and roles. In the construction and demolition (C&D) waste sector, where the project is directly working and which the Network Facility visited in 2016, so far there is not yet a systematic mechanism to treat C&D waste. However, two SWITCH-Asia projects addressing green building and construction sector have been successfully implemented and their achievements documented. The waste sector itself is still very much informal and government's intervention needs to fill in the gap. The project is currently working on identification of C&D waste that could be reused or recycled to design and produce new, innovative products for the booming construction sector.

The recently completed project "Sustainable Aquaculture Value Chain of the Pangasius Sector in Vietnam" (SUPA) was represented by Mr. Thinh Le Xuan (Vietnam Cleaner Production Centre) who explained how the project contributed to improved resource efficiency and circular economy in Vietnam's pangasius (catfish) supply chain. The project worked with a whole range of stakeholders including pangasius farmers, fish-feed producers as well as pangasius processing, retailers and consumers. Besides creating new benchmarks for the industry in terms of energy and water consumption as well as waste reduction, the project employed a co-creation approach to develop new pangasius derived products. The former by-products of pangasius fillet production are now used to produce fish meal pads, sauce, sausage and spicy powder. This has added commercial value to most of the by-products. In the past, these by-products were considered of less value and therefore were only used to produce fish feed.

Mr. Thinh Le Xuan explained the SUPA's project approach to SCP and circular economy (Photo source: Kartika Anggraeni/SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)

The third case study was presented by Mr. Damitha Samarakoon (Janathakshan Ltd. Sri Lanka). The "Biogas Sri Lanka" project promoted the use of biogas technology for turning food waste into renewable energy in Sri Lankan hotels. Despite the big potential of biogas as waste management option at household and municipal levels, this technology had been abandoned by Sri Lankan citizens due to maintenance issues and to people moving from rural areas to cities with access to stable power supply and limited space for organic material digesters. Addressing this issue, the project showed the importance of engaging with provincial governments, hotels, schools, households as well as biogas plant designers, producers and aftersales service providers in promoting the re-adoption of biogas technology. Through the installation of 1 067 biogas units, the project contributed to annual reductions of 2 895 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission, 2 250 metric tonnes of firewood and 10 000 tonnes of solid waste.

From the ensuing discussion, it was obvious that circular economy strategies employed in many developing countries are currently falling under the category of waste management (waste avoidance, collection, reuse and recycling) since waste is a visible and tangible problem requiring significant investment in infrastructure and personnel. Such investments are still to be made by governments. While waiting for the waste collection and processing infrastructures to be established, municipalities and households have to find intermediate solutions for their waste issues and biogas (or other waste-to-energy) technologies can be an effective solution. In the meantime a more active role from the governments is required in defining circular economy in their countries' local contexts and formulating adequate policies (and incentives) for public and private sectors. However, a common opinion was shared among participants that citizens, NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs) and businesses can be pioneers in advocating for the circular economy in various levels of the society where they live in.

Putting the circular economy into context

The third conference day discussed the history and perspectives of the circular economy, a concept that nowadays is drawing attention throughout the world.

In fact, the matters currently discussed were raised decades ago, first with the Club of Rome report on 'Limits to Growth' followed by the report of the Brundtland Commission titled 'Our Common Future'. The difference, made by the circular economy reports published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since 2012, is the intrinsic promise that pursuing circular economy principles will generate new sources of economic growth. It is worth mentioning that additional economic growth will go hand in hand with putting more resources into circulation and requires additional energy for the reverse logistics and secondary raw material recovery activities. Without questioning the pro-circular economy business arguments, it appears that the pursuance of the circular economy principles is enjoying an unprecedented momentum nowadays because of the rising costs of increasingly scarce ecosystems, mineral and metal resources.

It was pointed out that societies could have achieved the desired results earlier at lower overall cost if sufficient action would have been taken following e.g. the Club of Rome and Brundtland Commission reports already during the 70's and 80's of the last century. Further, the circular economy presents a set of concepts intended to re-organise, rationalise, and technologically optimise our current global production systems. Although substantial policy measures will be required to flank a successful development of the circular economy, in particular pricing resource consumption and the utilisation of externalities, this new business model presents itself as de-politicised. This differs from approaches like sufficiency, small is beautiful or de-growth, which are not promoted based on economic returns to be generated by a specific economic transition, but rather follow a normative approach that asks what is good and what is bad, right or wrong for societies and livelihoods.

Authors: Ms. Kartika Anggraeni, Dr. Uwe Weber (SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)

Editor: Ms. Silvia Sartori (SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)