Circular economy

Turning e-trash into cash

Preeti Mehra | Updated on November 30, 2018

An Indian start-up has built a prosperous business out of refurbishing and recycling electronic waste

Akshay Jain occasionally finds himself referred to as a sophisticated kabadiwala (rubbish collector), but he’s the one having the last laugh. His e-waste recycling start-up, Namo E-Waste Management Ltd, is poised to reach a turnover of 120-150 million Indian rupees (US$1.8-2.3 million) this fiscal year—an impressive increase over last year’s 45 million Indian rupees (US$700,000).

India ranks just behind the US, China, Japan and Germany in the production of e-waste—old computers, mobile phones, TVs and other obsolete electronic gear. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2014, compiled by the UN think tank United Nations University, estimates that India discarded 1.7 million tonnes of electronics and electrical equipment that year. Since then, the annual amount has likely doubled.

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and Jain, who studied waste management while completing his MBA at Greenwich University in the UK, saw a business opportunity in the mounting piles of unwanted electronics. In 2014, the then-25-year-old launched Namo E-Waste. He spent two years doing extensive research, sorting out funding issues, acquiring the necessary licenses and sourcing the required technology for his plant. Then in 2016, he was finally ready to build a refurbishing and segregating unit on land leased from his father in the Delhi National Capital Region of Faridabad, also the site of his company’s headquarters.

Namo E-Waste collects all kinds of electronic waste (laptops, air-conditioners, refrigerators, microwaves) and reconditions many of these items for continued use. Items that are beyond repair are dismantled for useful parts, with hazardous materials being segregated from other waste, which goes through a separation process to recover semi-precious metals such as copper and aluminum. The hazardous waste is also separated so that metals may be extracted from it; it is then safely stored and transported to a government-approved treatment, storage and disposal facility (TSDF). To date, Jain and his team have recycled more than two million tonnes of electronic waste.

Last year, Namo E-Waste won two awards—Best Green Start-up and Refurbisher of the Year —from Franchise India. Another boost came from new rules for disposing of e-waste, introduced by the government in 2016.

The regulations put the onus of managing e-waste on the producer. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rule requires every company to formulate an EPR plan and submit it to the Central Pollution Control Board. The plan must include details of its e-waste channelisation system for targeted collection, including a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) and an e-waste exchanger.

The deadline for implementing the rules was September 2017. In anticipation, Namo E-Waste positioned itself to be the PRO for several top Indian companies. Today, its clients include some of the biggest names in Indian business: Flipkart, Telenor, Havells, Voltas, Tata Sky and Godrej. It is also a selected vendor for companies such as Samsung, Whirlpool, Blue Star, Hitachi and Carrier, and can participate in their e-waste auctions. So far, Jain has encountered little competition for their business.

Jain and his team are now drafting a consumer-centric model with the aim of expanding into the B2C sector through a programme called Planet Namo. This initiative will create an extended marketplace to buy and sell second-hand electronics and will reach out to the community with e-waste collection drives and a door-to-door pick-up service. “The biggest challenge we face to growth is procurement,” says Jain. He notes that his semi-precious metal recovery machinery can handle 500 kg/hour. “But today, it runs at just 10 percent capacity, even though we buy waste from all available sources—companies, small kabadiwalas, electronics dealers....”

Jain also plans to set up a precious metal recovery plant, enabling the company to extract gold and silver from e-waste, a process that is currently carried out only in Belgium and Japan. For now, however, the young founder is single-mindedly focusing on just one goal: to collect and recycle as much e-waste as possible. It seems that for some, going round in circles can be a profitable entrepreneurial adventure.

Published on October 27, 2017

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