Circular economy: Decoupling waste generation from economic growth

For more than two centuries since the start of the industrial revolution, Western economies have been built upon the premises of production consumption and waste generation.

Numerous new countries that immerged from colonisation also followed the same model of economic development expanding the challenge of waste management and its impact on the global environment.

According to World Bank report, in 2016 the world generated two billion tons of municipal solid waste (that is household and commercial rubbish) from 1.8 billion tones just three years earlier.

That number did not include the much bigger amount produced by industry.

Industrial solid waste refuse contains more valuable materials like scrap metals which has long been better managed by profit seeking firms.

And then there is the biggest waste management problem of all, the 30 billion tons of invincible but dangerous carbon dioxide dumped into  the atmosphere every year.


Just as it was the case during the time of the industrial revolution, as people grow rich, they consume and discard more and that is the reality of our world today.

Waste generation is increasing too fast.

The World Bank has projected it to reach 3.4 billion tons annually by mid-century.

The challenge facing us now is how to decouple waste generation from economic growth and rising living standards.

This can only be possible if people can throw away less and re-use more to make economies more “circular,” a term often used by environmental campaigners.

At almost every social function, the link of waste generation to standard of living is clearly demonstrated as we throw away packs of packages made up of empty bags, cups and bowls mostly made of plastic and cards away as we consume their contents.

Re-use of these things are unheard of because we are not poor people, not in this era of economic development.


Fortunately, the trend towards adoption of circular economy is not farfetched if everyone can play a role in this regard.

Local action to clean the environment up and recycle waste can lead to immediate local effects that can eventually turn into a vicious circle of change.

People are more likely to take action if they can quickly see the result of change in their behaviour.

Unlike climate change, waste especially solid waste challenge is a problem that will be very hard for anyone to deny that it exists.

Besides, one good news is that around the world politicians and the public appear increasingly alert to the economic, ecological and human cost of waste, as well as the missed opportunity it presents.

Currently 37 per cent of solid waste goes to landfills worldwide, 33 per cent to dumpsites and 11 per cent to incinerators.

In all only 13 per cent of municipal waste is recycled globally.

This is far too little.

Many governments around the world are grasping the fact that spending less or nothing on waste management means paying more for things like health care to treat its effect.


When dumps or landfills catch fire, noxious smoke smothers their surroundings.

Toxic run-off can permeate soils and poison waterways.

Discharged into seas rubbish can return to wreak havoc on land or can despoil the ocean.

Greenhouse gases from the industries mainly emitted by a cacophony of chemical reactions in landfills could account for 10 per cent of all climate-cooking emissions as of now.

Left unchecked, this grand swell of garbage risks overwhelming our planet. In the developing world only half of all municipal waste is collected.

In low-income countries as much as 90 per cent ends up in open dumps.

Lowering these proportions requires more investment in waste infrastructure such as managed landfills or low polluting incinerators.

Rich countries already have such facilities.

By  cultivating the habit of reusing many things that  are possible such as plastic cups, bottles and even packs obtained from social gatherings, we  can contribute in solving the  challenge of solid waste management that is proving a headache to the world.

The writer is with the Institute of Current Affairs and Diplomacy (ICAD)
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