Circular economy: Indian ways of recycling, reusing and re-purposing

In a recent article by science journalist Maddie Stone she highlights the new “repairability index” that France will introduce in 2022. According to this rule, manufacturers of certain electronic devices, including smartphones and laptops, selling these devices in France must give their products a score, or repairability index. The index is based on a range of criteria, the ease with which the product can be taken apart and the availability of spare parts for repairing them and related technical documents.

In recent years, electronics of all shapes and sizes have become difficult to fix due to a combination of design choices and software locks. The cost and complexity of repair means that many consumers don’t even try to fix old electronics. Instead, they throw them away and replace them for new ones that take additional energy and resources to produce.

Based on the new law introducing the repairability index, it is hoped that manufacturers would choose to make products more repairable – which in turn is likely to give rise to a circular economy. This system is meant to minimise waste and prevent the design of products with short lifespans or to even discourage the “use and throw” mentality of the consumer society.

Recycling in research and development laboratories

In emerging economies and many underdeveloped nations, the idea of reuse and recycle is not new. In households, reuse of jam jars as containers or plastic trays to go grow vegetables and reusing old clothes to wipe cloths have been routinely carried out. How a reuse and recycle system works can also be seen in many countries which have large banana plantations or coconut groves. Here, every part of the banana plant or the coconut tree is used to make disposable cups and plates, drinking mugs, curios and artifacts.

Even before the word “recycling” became the norm in many countries, developing economies started applying it in research and development laboratories. In my lab, researchers were using eco-friendly cardboards as stands for their test tubes and centrifuge sample tubes as pen stands already some 15 years back. Today, I see that some laboratory suppliers are announcing replacing single use plastics with cardboard and other biodegradable materials.

In many government R&D labs in India, instruments are repaired, repurposed and custom built to solve many research problems. In my country “necessity is the mother of invention” has been the basic mantra for many years.

Solving problems by “quick fix” intelligent solutions

Recent research from the University of Notre Dame has suggested that people who live in extremely resource poor environments become highly innovative in different ways and practise “recycling and reuse” of resources innovatively and effectively.

In poor countries, finding “quick fix” intelligent solutions by thinking constructively and differently about innovation and strategy is often the best way to look at a problem. And while the solution may not offer a competitive advantage for a business enterprise, as is typical in western practices, it does benefit the person, the community and the industry as a whole.

While working at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, the lab work never suffered because of the well-equipped and resource rich departments. During those years, never did I think that further down along the line in few years, I would wander down the workshops in my Indian institute with racks and shelves of countless formless mutilated old electronics instruments, old microscopes, unused stirrers, familiarizing myself with PVC epoxies, pipe cutters, types of halogen lamps used in automobiles, and erratically machine teflon bars to resemble a trough.

Innovations that last for decades

On my return to India, I joined a fairly well-equipped lab in an institute with analytical instruments. However, for stretches in the first two years, not a week would pass without my trudging on at least one, if not several trips to the workshops, to automobile repair units nearby searching for the miscellanea one needed to make a bare-bones scientific project happen. Ours was a national laboratory set up specifically to help and trouble shoot problems for the local industries.

Once, a European polymer manufacturer wanted to collaborate with the Indian leather industry to market their chemicals for leather processing and design. Our proud moment was when our European partner made an analysis in his laboratory in Europe with a computer driven device accurately. He found our results from our home-built instrument matched his to an accuracy of one percent. Every time the industry partners came to us seeking solutions, we built instruments from components salvaged from wide array of old instruments which had become obsolete or were missing some component to make them work.

Increase our capabilities in science and technology

When resources were available and instruments were imported, we fashioned accessories to augment the capabilities of these instruments to analyse and study other parameters not originally envisaged by the instrument manufacturers. This in turn not only saved precious financial resources, it helped to increase our capabilities in science and technology. One such instrument that we had designed some 19 years ago still works and at least two generations of students have learnt their science and used it for their research.

Thus, be it a new Goniometer to look at liquid droplets, or a device to evaluate adhesive strengths of materials or evaluate stability parameters of formulations for the food industry, we innovated by combining and recombining available resources into unique instruments until a problem was satisfactorily solved.

It is however possible that the prosperous enterprises in western countries may ignore and even dismiss this form of innovation because they will argue that its impact is localised and does not benefit the organization. However, the benefit here is inclusive and impacts the lives of the people associated with the innovation and the lives of those in their community.

Author: Aruna Dhathathreyan

Who is Aruna Dhathathreyan?

Aruna Dhathathreyan is a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR – Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. She received an INSA-DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (2010).

She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy.

Her first stay in Germany was in 1983 at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen. Later she worked at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research in 1996 and had collaboration with further stays in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Aruna Dhathathreyan is a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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May 2021