India is currently the world’s third largest producer of e-waste after the US and China.

But e-waste recycle capacity in India stands at a mere 6 lakh tonnes per annum, which is grossly inadequate to cater to the y-o-y increase of 25 per cent in e-waste. Not part of this statistics is the e-waste that telecom, renewables energy and EV sectors will be adding through end-of-life batteries, which typically takes about 5-10 years.

The broad focus of the e-waste policy in India is EEE (Electrical and Electronics Equipment) waste. Some international agencies have highlighted the need to expand the scope of waste to include items such as spent Li-ion batteries. E-waste is known to be a potential source of several precious and strategic metals, some of which such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, find overlap with the metals that are part of EEE waste. Many of these metals are imported.

Urban mines

India is dependent on Chile, China, Congo and several other countries for metals that are critical to the growth expected in several sectors. It is expected that by 2030, the increased use of EEE products combined with a spurt in demand for batteries in the telecom, renewables and transportation sectors, will see the creation of ‘urban mines’ that India will need to manage appropriately. A robust ecosystem is needed to reclaim these metals and to reduce their imports.

The 2016 e-waste policy is pivoted on the environmental health of the nation with additional focus on collection, compliance and governance aspects. Currently the supply chain for EEE waste primarily involves aggregating all the e-waste from multiple sources and using an auction approach to sell them to recyclers or handlers of such e-waste. With a large part of the e-waste economy being driven by the informal sector, which has not benefited from state-of-the-art technologies that provide high purity, recoveries and minimise process waste.

Reclaiming the metals from e-waste with the idea of import substitution is key to the discussion. Using a circular economy approach to deal with these urban mines, and given that it is more than 100 times cheaper to produce a gm of gold through these secondary sources, one needs to look at e-waste as a source of significant wealth.

The current approach to look at the percentage of overall e-waste that is recycled and use it as a baseline for improvement, will not adequately address the significant amount of metal that the country will be unable to reclaim. Plugging this leakage will require sensitising individuals and corporates to collect and segregate waste at source, reinforce the supply chain and build efficient technologies.

So how do we bring about the change that this sector needs? The value generation through reclaim of strategic metals needs to be quantified and justify the investments that the sector needs. Estimated revenues from recycling 50 per cent of the EV battery waste alone in India in the next five years are shown to yield average annualised revenues upwards of $1 billion. These are some suggestions to improve the value derived from e-waste processing:

Reinforced supply chain to increase collection of e-waste, better mechanisms for segregation and a wider participation of stakeholders needs to be done. Effective source segregation can reduce the leakage of e-waste into the informal economy. Accountabilities on consumers and OEMs/ EEE manufacturers alike and mandating practice to tag parts, add QR code and list metal compositions will help with downstream processing of the waste. As practiced in the plastics space, encouraging OEMs to increase the percentage of recycled material in their raw material and incentivising them appropriately will help create a larger ecosystem.

Increase in value proposition can be derived by reducing the export of e-waste/intermediate products. Typically, recyclers take decisions on technologies to use and products that they need to extract. Recyclers also partially process and produce saleable intermediates, including black powder, which are then exported for further processing at a fraction of the cost of metals present in the intermediate. Many OEMs follow a buy/back or replacement approach to procure end-of-life products and send them abroad for recycling. Without a strong backbone of technologies and processes to support the waste recycling ecosystem, export of waste will always remain a preferred option.

Another aspect to get the best out of the e-waste economy is to get the right bouquet of end products to focus our processing on. Recycle vs reclaiming metals for use and aiming for full circularity is an important dimension to better align the framework for e-waste processing. Understanding which metals to extract and in what form (pure,aggregated oxides or otherwise) will help choose the appropriate technologies for recycle. Such a structured approach will help in hedging the risks arising from speculative prices of these rare metals in the international market.

Investment in developing technologies to reclaim minerals and metals have not kept pace with the technology advancements that consume it. With a gap in capability to reprocess waste, there is no alternative to export or producing low value intermediates/by-products. Cost effective, targeted technologies that meet the requirements of end users of these metals is of critical need.

It is time that consumer economies like India start looking at e-waste as an area of opportunity to reduce their imports. India needs to be future ready and develop technologies that maximise circularity besides bringing high efficiency and cost effectiveness. A framework that focuses on maximising value generation from e-waste will be considerably different from one that uses waste minimisation as a pivot. Given the strong processing technology synergies across EEE as well as battery recycling, a policy that includes a wider category of e-waste, essentially all potential sources of minerals and metals, is required. This will also help align knowledge, best practices besides aligning stakeholder groups across the various sectors.

Critical aspects of operationalising such a framework are flexibility and scalability that are better addressed using an ecosystem wide approach that includes supply, demand and intermediate steps. Hub and spoke topologies that are flexible to adapt to growing volumes of e-waste will ensure sustainability of enterprises.

A well thought through structure bolstered by capabilities in processing and value generation is bound to require less of government intervention. Instead of being in the driver’s seat to manage e-waste, the government needs to play a larger role of facilitator and provide the overall governance and compliance support required in the system.

Vaideeswaran is an innovator and technologist who consults in the manufacturing and Data Science / AI domains. Mittal is the founder of Hydromet Technology Solutions