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Getting around digital scrap

Manon Verchot | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on November 30, 2018

Toxic screen: Under the government E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, only recycling centres certified by the Central Pollution Control Board can process electronics   -  MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Enterprising companies make sense of India’s growing pile of e-waste

Did you just chuck your old cell phone into the bin? Then you may well have added to the ever-growing, harmful pile of e-waste that India has been generating every year.

India is expected to produce 3.3 million tonnes of e-waste by the end of 2018, says the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and IT firm NEC Technologies. But recycling centres are struggling to meet government standards for reducing the electronic industry’s toxic impact on the environment, e-waste startups say.

India’s domestic electronics manufacturing grew from $31 billion to $60 billion in 2014-15, according to Assocham and NEC Technologies. As the sector grows, so does the digital waste management sector. By 2025, the industry is expected to reach $13.6 billion with an annual growth of 7.17 per cent, market research company Novonus states.

Under the government E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, only recycling centres certified by the Central Pollution Control Board can process electronics. But only 5 per cent of e-waste ends up in the formal sector, Assocham adds. The rest is handled informally — and it comes at a terrible cost to the people handling the raw materials. Around 76 per cent of e-waste workers have respiratory problems.

The waste includes all dumped electronic devices — from cell phones and tablets to computers. The most valuable components for recyclers are the precious metals in electronics. To separate the metals from other components, devices are burned and bathed in acid baths. When e-waste isn’t recycled with the appropriate equipment, the process of extracting precious metals releases toxins such as lead, mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin). These toxins have been linked to cancer and skin, lung and eye irritations in humans.

These aren’t just challenges for the informal sector, though, points out Archana Tripathi, programme director of Saahas, an NGO working on waste management in Bengaluru. The formal sector often relies on the same processes used by the informal sector.

“Proper recycling which maximises resource recovery and minimises negative environmental and social impact requires heavy investments,” she says. “As the volume of e-waste that reaches the authorised recyclers is small, they struggle to keep their businesses running.”

Achitra Borgohain, CEO of Binbag, another Bengaluru-based company, agrees. Binbag currently connects e-waste generators to recyclers. “There’s a need to create shared infrastructure,” Borgohain says, and adds that that it will be easier if companies share the cost of setting up recycling centres.

In the coming years, Binbag plans to set up two of its own recycling facilities. Many collection startups have similar plans, in compliance with one of the stipulations of the 2016 e-waste rules. Companies can no longer just be independent collectors.

Dr Shalini Sharma, CEO and co-founder of E-Waste Exchange, a company that works with state governments on e-waste, says there are many resources online for people interested in disposing e-waste through government-regulated channels, but the reality on the ground is different.

“Though India has the digital infrastructure, it doesn’t have the local infrastructure,” she says.

E-Waste Exchange stopped collecting e-waste from customers because it felt the recyclers it was working with were not disposing of e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner, she says. They started collecting again once they found credible recyclers.

Yet, despite these challenges, e-waste companies are thriving.

ExtraCarbon, a recyclable waste collection company in Gurugram, earned ₹70 lakh in one year after it started operation in 2013. The company now has an estimated projected income of ₹1 crore a month, co-founder Anant Avinash says.

“Any business in India where you’re organising an unorganised sector has potential,” Avinash says.

ExtraCarbon links customers to kabadiwalas (scrap dealers) through their apps in nine cities, primarily in North India. It picks up all recycled goods, from bottles and books to electronics. Customers are paid in cash and shopping credits. ExtraCarbon then sells recycling materials to government-certified waste processors. Reselling makes up 70 per cent of the company’s revenue.

The company is also planning its own waste recovery centre. “We want to have our material recovery centres near dump yards so ragpickers can be used as our resources to segregate (matter) and we will buy it from them. So they will have a place to work and confirmed buyback,” says Avinash.

E-waste accounts for around 40 per cent of lead and 70 per cent of heavy metal contamination in India’s landfills. Only 15 per cent of e-waste comes from households, according to a 2011 Rajya Sabha Secretariat paper. The bulk of e-waste comes from manufacturers, according to the document.

Every year, ExtraCarbon collects about 6,000 tonnes of e-waste and other waste, while Binbag collects 240-360 tonnes. But these numbers barely scratch the surface of the e-waste generated in India.

India’s startups aren’t the only ones eyeing e-waste processing. In 2016, Apple launched its own iPhone 6 recycling robot, ‘Liam’. In one year, Liam can take apart an estimated 1.2 million iPhones, Apple says. This year, the company launched Liam’s successor, ‘Daisy,’ which can pull apart 200 iPhones of different generations in an hour. Apple reuses the leftover components in their new devices, so the company doesn’t have to buy as many new materials (Only Apple has Liams and Daisys at this point, for internal use). iPhones launched in 2018 are already built with recycled materials; their logic board is made with recycled tin. Clearly, no waste is the new mantra.

Manon Verchot is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

Published on November 30, 2018
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