Innovation is crucial for cities

A piece in The Economist earlier this year stated that of the top ten plastic polluters in the world, all but two are from developing Asia. These account for two-thirds of the plastic spewed into the ocean, the report said. Thankfully, India is not among the top ten. This is a pleasant surprise given its population of 1.3 billion and rapid, relentless urbanization.

The Economist study found that India is out of the top ten ‘thanks to its armies of ragpickers’. These ragpickers sift through mountains of waste, bearing the stench and often at risk to their health, in order to pick up things which have some residual value to be sold to recyclers and thus to earn a livelihood. Recognizing the valuable role of ragpickers in managing cities’ waste, policy initiatives at the national and local levels seek

to mainstream their efforts rather than let them perish at the fringes of an informal economy. There is urgent need for full and effective implementation of such measures.

Waste management is among the biggest challenges for cities and calls for innovative solutions. Fabric waste is an example. In India with its large population, there is a colossal amount of fabric waste that is being generated and will continue to grow with rising incomes and choices. Cloth is one of the most widely used commodities in our lives – for clothing, furnishing, home decor, bags and so on. Yet there is little recycling in the true sense. All ‘recycling’ efforts are limited to ‘repurpose’, i.e., use for other purposes. One is tempted to give away no-more-wanted clothing for charity or to use old furnishing items for making bags or cleaning rags. At best, reprocessors chop cloth into small bits and use them as insulation or to make quilts. All claims to innovation end here. Especially in these days with extensive use of polyester and manmade fabrics (nylon, polyester, etc. could take a hundred years or more to biodegrade), safe disposal is rather tricky and calls for technological solutions to address this problem which could one day become as stubborn as plastic. There is hope, though. Several international fashion brands have joined the Make Fashion Circular movement to reduce global waste from fashion by recycling raw materials and products. A report on the subject by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reveals that less than one percent of clothing is recycled. Half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres are released from washed clothing annually, exacerbating ocean pollution, the report says. The movement envisages a new textiles economy where clothes, textiles, and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards, never ending up as waste.

Technology solutions are urgently called for in handling/disposing of all waste in our cities. Take the example of incineration of waste. It seems an effective solution as it reduces transportation cost of waste, rapidly disposes waste, puts less waste in landfills, and generates energy. However it is currently not a preferred option due to health and environment concerns caused by emissions. Notwithstanding the concerns, Sweden and Japan appear to have adopted this method with success. The Japanese government website states that there are 19 incineration plants in central Tokyo, all of which emit just vapour and no smoke. Technology seems to have overcome potential hazards. And therein could lie a lesson.

AIILSG, in association with several global, regional and local partners, successfully organized the 4th South Asian Cities Summit in Delhi in May. The Summit adopted the Delhi Declaration 2018 which aims to facilitate implementation of the SDGs. The Declaration resolves among others to make cities smart, resilient and inclusive while promoting sustainability, mainstreaming gender issues, encouraging innovation, sharing and cooperation. In this issue of Urban Update we bring you coverage of the event.

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