Clean Tech

From rag-pickers to manufacturers: Tapping into operation clean up

Preethi Mehra | Updated on: Jan 31, 2018

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An effort is on to build an ecosystem for e-waste disposal and recycling

Hemanti Devi may be at the lowest rung of the recycling chain, but she is proving to be the most crucial. Her task entails house calls to collect used electronic products ranging from mobiles and chargers to laptops .

Living in a basti in Mainpura in Patna’s Nehru Nagar, she has graduated from a garbage picker to an e-waste collector over the past four-five months. She says the work is more clean, systematic and has turned into an organised vocation that fetches her almost ₹2,000 more than before. So, with around ₹4,500 from e-waste and a modest income from her small kirana shop, she is able to spend more on the welfare of her six children as a single mother.

The 35-year-old woman sells what she collects to Umang, an e-waste aggregator company. The aggregator in turn pushes the products further down the recycling chain to dismantle or refurbish them as the case may be.

Organising the unorganised

Hemanti is just one of the 300 women in this Patna slum collecting from households in a three to four km radius. They have been organised into skilled self-help groups for the purpose by voluntary organisation Nidan. “Their profession is much more dignified now and as they are organised, the work gets done faster,” says Bindumati Karn, a community mobiliser on the staff of Nidan.

But can a replication of this cycle solve the mammoth problem of e-waste that India faces? It generates an estimated 18 lakh tonnes of e-waste per annum and imports almost 50,000 tonnes for dismantling. Given this volume, India would have to create a Nidan at every corner for mere collection and thousands of enterprises for its recycling. It is said that India’s e-waste production is estimated to be 52 lakh metric tonnes per annum by 2020, at a compound annual growth rate of about 30 per cent.

It is to tackle this enormous problem that outfits like Gurugram-based Karo Sambhav have taken root.

It has formed a tech enabled e-waste Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) with prominent e-waste producers such as Apple, Dell, HP and Lenovo as its members. The PRO has set up a country-wide “transformative solution on e-waste management” with the fundamental objective of “working together with electronic producers to keep obsolete or discarded electronic products out of landfills; optimise the recovery of resources from electronic products or their components; develop a globally harmonised and locally relevant system for responsible e-waste management in India.”

Producer responsibility

Karo Sambhav is helping manufacturers comply with environment rules that have been thrust upon them by the government as part of its effort to solve the country’s massive e-waste problem. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change first formulated the law in 2011 and re-formulated the E-waste (Management) Rules in 2016 to reduce production and increase recycling. The rules were amended in 2017 to introduce Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR), which makes producers liable to 10 per cent to 70 per cent of the e-waste they produce over seven years.

The industry finds this a task too massive to handle. According to a study by The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) Council on Climate Change & Environment, it is unable to cope with such targets as only 1.5 per cent of the country’s e-waste gets recycled and around 95 per cent of it is managed by the unorganised sector including waste collectors, second-hand dealers, repair shops, and e-commerce portal vendors.

Karo Sambhav is also trying to create what it calls a “movement” by building a business model around e-waste involving training of recyclers, aggregators, entrepreneurs and integrating the unorganised sector (read Hemanti Devi and her band of collectors) into the formal e-waste recycling chain.

A window of opportunity

“Any systemic and sustainable solution to India’s e-waste problem will need to include formalisation and integration of unorganised channels of e-waste collection. This transition will affect a huge number of livelihoods dependent on the sector and have considerable economic, social and environmental impact. The significant presence of informal waste pickers and aggregators also offers a great opportunity because of their reach across the country which is currently unmatched by any formal channel,” says Pranshu Singhal, Founder of Karo Sambhav.

The PRO is also developing an applied research platform specific for Indian conditions along with International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. The research will include formulating codes of conduct for working with e-waste collectors; guides for monitoring and evaluating Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programmes and auditing the check-lists for those who recycle and dismantle.

IFC, which follows a global strategy of ‘Creating markets, creating opportunities’, is focussing on e-waste as it believes that the norms for e-waste management could propel a formal market in this area, attract entrepreneurs to step into the recycling arena, attract investments and create jobs. Says Ronojoy Sircar, Consultant with the Advisory Services unit of the World Bank Group, “The current perception that e-waste is solely a matter of compliance should evolve into an understanding that e- waste, if managed strategically, is a resource rich waste stream capable of self-sustaining and generating value.”

Published on January 30, 2018
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