TERI & Vice President & CEO, GRIHA Council
“The Indian Government has been setting guidelines and policy frameworks, but implementation of the policies remain a challenge, largely because of lack of awareness and understanding of the subject.”
Sanjay Seth, Senior Director, Sustainable Infrastructure Programme, TERI & Vice President & CEO, GRIHA Council

As we know, the construction industry is significantly resource intensive and is leading to mass deforestation, depletion of non-renewable resources, extensive mining and many such critical global impacts. With the construction activities increasing manifold across the world, especially in developing and under-developed nations, the large-scale use of steel, cement and hardwood pose a serious threat. Therefore, it has become imperative for the construction and building materials industry to make a switch from linear to circular models to the extent possible, while ensuring economic growth.

Making the transition

Policy interventions, research, development, material market transition, life cycle analysis are all efforts to transition to a fully circular economy. With the increasing awareness regarding the climate change issues, the industry has geared up towards closing the loop for material, energy and water consumption. The National Resource Efficiency Policy 2019 creates a framework to reduce the primary resource consumption, while staying within the planetary boundaries and ensuring a strong economy; it focusses very specifically on SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities & Communities.

The concept of green buildings has facilitated market transition by bridging the demand supply gap. There are building materials that divert industrial waste from landfills while improving the thermal efficiency of buildings and leading to lesser energy usage.

Usage of plastic in the infrastructure sector has given a big relief from the plastic problem. New technologies are surfacing more frequently than ever to optimize resource consumption and minimize waste generation. Designers and developers are adopting life cycle assessment approach to understand the environmental impact of their projects and make conscious design choices. We have come a long way, even though the journey hasn’t been fast paced. There are challenges that need to be addressed.

Lack of awareness of the benefits of circular economyImage 1: Floor area additions to 2060 by key regions, Source: UN Environment and International Energy Agency (2017)

Skill development and environmental awareness

A complete transition to circular economy requires skill development and environmental awareness across the value chain. It’s a bitter truth that a large part of the infra and construction industry still remains informal and consists of groups that are not just oblivious to the negative impacts of construction, but also remain unskilled and unequipped in the circular economy model. Therefore, a complete transition to circular economy requires skill development and environmental awareness across the value chain along with continuous R&D, policy design, implementation, and execution.

No to the “take-make-waste” economy

In this era of “global boiling” we can’t afford to follow the “take-make-waste” economy. Recycled materials have been able to reduce the need for virgin materials while improving the thermal and acoustic performance of building envelopes; this helps in reducing energy consumption in these projects. The energy required in processing recycled materials is much lesser as compared to the energy required by virgin materials. Recycled materials are more cost effective and their use in building and infra projects reduce load on landfills, and therefore, lesser air, water and soil pollution caused by landfills.

A circular economy involving usage of efficient design, conscious production and recycled materials is capable of bringing down the carbon emissions to almost half the global total as it reduces the demand for raw materials and emissions related to extraction and processing of materials.

Lack of awareness of the benefits of circular economyImage 2: Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

High cost leading to low demand

Lack of awareness of the benefits of circular economy, an under-developed skill set, and less demand for recycled products makes their cost high. The Government of India has been actively working towards adoption of industrial wastes and recycled content in construction industry. For instance, the MoEFCC has made many mandates regarding the use of flyash in cement industries that fall within 300 kms coal or lignite-based thermal power plants. Usage of C&D waste is being promoted by various frameworks and guidelines drafted by the MoHUA, NITI Aayog, CPCB, and the MoUD.

On similar lines, the Indian Road Congress formulated ‘Guidelines for the Use of Waste Plastic in Hot Bituminous Mixes (Dry Process) in Wearing Courses’. In a nutshell, the government has been taking requisite actions in terms of setting guidelines and policy frameworks. However, implementation of these policy works is a challenge, largely because of lack of awareness and understanding of the subject.

The benefits of circular economy are less known, skillset is under-developed, and a lot of times the cost is high because of lesser demand. Forming a loop, the recycling or upcycling slows down in circular economy model due to lack of demand. Therefore, it is vital to define value chain responsibility, create awareness and bridge the demand and supply gap.
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