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Metabolising resources

Kiran Rajashekariah

Globally, rapid economic and population growth creates an insatiable demand for natural resources. Current production and consumption patterns are fast depleting natural capital, degrading the ecosystem, thereby undermining the capacity of countries to meet material needs in a sustainable way. In response to this worldwide scenario, UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 advocates inter-linking the production and consumption of resources, and adopting a holistic approach.

India, in recent times, has seen a dramatic rise in the consumption of resources and generation of wastes, particularly in the urban areas. With the number of people living in urban areas expected to exceed 590 million by 2030, India has the potential to unlock many new growth markets in consumer goods, electronics, housing, infrastructure, and transportation, among others. However, unsustainable material use and disposal of waste pose serious challenges to the environment, public health, and sustained supply of resources.

Plastic and packaging waste

India is a growing market for plastics. Currently the country consumes over 15 million tonnes of plastics every year, valued over US$ 32 billion or 4% of the global market. The plastic industry in the country has grown over 16 percent in recent years. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India currently generates about six million tonnes of plastic wastes annually, of which only about half is recycled, while the rest is disposed of as litter, posing a threat to the environment as well as public health. The problem of plastic disposal is unlikely to diminish, as it is currently inextricably linked with the rise of consumerism.

Electronic waste

India is emerging as one of the world’s major electronic waste (e-waste) generators. According to a UN report, India produces about two million tons of e-waste a year; only four countries in the world exceed this. However, a mere two percent of the e-waste produced in the country is recycled. With the electronic market in the country poised to grow nearly six-folds, from US$ 70 billion in 2012 to US$ 400 billion by 2020, production of e-waste in the country is expected to cross five million tons by 2020. Disposing of such huge quantities of waste will lead to irreparable damage both to the environment and to public health, from air pollution, ground water contamination, and soil acidification from leachates.

Food waste

In India, over 67 million tonnes of food, valued at US$ 15 billion, is estimated to be wasted every year. Ironically, India also ranks 100th out of 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Apart from the wastage, resources used as inputs in food production are lost, resulting in financial inefficiency and environmental damage throughout the production and supply chain. Unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation, and excessive groundwater extraction has degraded nearly 45 percent of India’s land. Further, the decay of food waste under anaerobic conditions produces methane — a highly potent greenhouse gas partly responsible for climate change.

Where next?

In India, current trends indicate that environmental pressures and risks of resource scarcity will intensify as greater demands are placed on the environment, notably from the doubling of the urban population by 2030. Further, consumers’ increasing demand for goods produced through sustainable measures and efficient management of wastes will put pressure on both government and industry.

This makes it imperative to develop policies that decouple the use of material resources from economic growth. Such policies need to be founded on a good understanding of how resources — minerals, metals, nutrients, timber, and others — flow through the economy, throughout their lifecycle, and how this affects economic productivity and the quality of environment.

Some of the measures could include developing integrated life-cycle oriented approaches, resource efficiency, pricing externalities, and circularity of waste stream among others. Implementing such policies would reduce the quantity of resource extracted and diminish associated environmental impacts, improve competitiveness among others over time.