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The mounting threat of e-waste | India Today magazine cover story – Cover Story News

Just think of the number of times you change your cellphone. Or buy yourself a new TV, computer or air-conditioner. But do you ever stop to think what becomes of the old gadgets that you are replacing? You only have to visit Mustafabad in northeast Delhi to find that out. One of India’s largest electronic graveyards, shops and godowns here exist cheek by jowl in narrow, densely populated bylanes. Enter one, and you will find green, fully-wired printed circuit boards stacked to the roof and consoles of TV sets overflowing into the street. In another, air-conditioner compressors and other parts are being stripped of their metal. A third bylane is full of copper wire jutting out of white gunny sacks. An orchestra of grinding, crunching or soldering sounds plays all around you, even as the putrid smell of burning plastic hangs permanently in the air. Every part of an electronic device comes apart here, yielding not just iron, copper or aluminium but also precious gold, silver and platinum, every last bit extracted to be sold. There’s a hundred times more gold in a tonne of electronic waste than in a tonne of ore—or so they say. It’s a fact that a tonne of discarded cellphones or PCs can give you 280 grams of gold, worth Rs 16 lakh.

Burning e-waste to extract metal; (Photo: Chandradeep Kumar)

That’s the loot your local kabadi centres are probably after. Electronic or e-waste has become a big business and a big threat in India in the past few decades. It covers the three broad categories of electronic goods—white (think refrigerators, washing machines and air-conditioners); grey (desktop computers, laptops, cellphones and printers); and brown (television sets, cameras and recorders). Half of the e-waste these products generate is iron and steel, 21 per cent plastic and 13 per cent copper, aluminium and precious metals. In addition, there are hazardous substances like mercury, lithium, lead and cadmium which, if not handled carefully, can be toxic or carcinogenic (see Decoding E-waste). India is now the world’s third-largest source of e-waste, generating around 3.2 million tonnes annually (2019), behind only China (10 million tonnes) and the US (6.9 million tonnes), according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020.

The situation is only likely to worsen, with the boom in the consumption of such goods threatening to add to the tonnes of waste India already generates. We sell over 150 million smartphones a year, 17.5 million television sets, 20 million pieces of audio equipment, 14.5 million refrigerators and 7 million washing machines. With an average product life of 9-10 years, the Delhi-based research and advocacy non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) estimates that, by 2030, India will generate 14 million tonnes of e-waste, or four times the current volume. The explosion in e-waste has seen a formalisation of the recycling industry, with over 472 units in the country currently. But they are estimated to be handling a mere 15 per cent of the total e-waste generated. It’s the informal chain, starting with the friendly neighbourhood kabadiwala, that processes the rest, taking what they need and discarding the rest, posing a hazard for the environment (see Where does E-waste Go?). That is the threat that the country needs to address.

The Hazards of E-Refuse

“You can’t have e-waste without mercury and lead. It’s there in every device,” says Asif Pasha, who runs EwaRDD Recyclers in Bengaluru and has seen both the informal and formal side of e-waste recycling. Back in the late 1990s, when e-waste was still a foreign concept in India, Pasha dropped out of college following his father’s death to take up the family business of extracting metals from electronic devices, informally, like many others in the Goripalya locality of old Bengaluru. In 2009, Pasha set up an industrial unit, as a formal recycler—the first from his locality to make the transition, fitted out with safety gear, dust collectors and fume scrubbers. By the end of that decade, e-waste had become a buzzword—and a growing concern.

Ironically enough, in a country where rising junk levels are a problem, formal recyclers complain they don’t get enough e-waste

“The amounts of e-waste in the informal sector have not really come down much, which means these processes still continue,” says Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator of Delhi-based environmental NGO Toxics Link, which has been working on e-waste for two decades. “There are a lot of primary studies outside India that show the kind of impact e-waste can have. So, we know the kind of hazard and environmental pollution e-waste ends up causing.” Electronic waste recycling involves handling heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium besides organic pollutants such as dioxins, and other air pollutants emitted during burning. A 2021 World Health Organization report identified more than 1,000 harmful substances as being either components of e-waste or artisanal processing systems.

The community of e-waste recyclers mostly comes from lower-income groups, employing cheap labour and hazardous methods to extract metals. They cannot be bothered with proper protective gear or techniques. The crude extraction of gold is a fairly old technique involving leaching using acids, exposing the worker to burns. Polychlorinated biphenyls—under phaseout and found in capacitors and transformers—are known to be highly toxic, impacting the immune and reproductive systems and possibly even causing cancer. Open burning—of circuit boards and polyvinyl chloride-insulated copper cables—releases pollutants, causing respiratory damage. That informal disposal of e-waste contaminates water, soil and air and eventually reaches our food streams is well known. The 2021 WHO report cited recent studies of soil samples from four e-waste recycling spots in India—New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai—suggesting ‘an association between informal recycling and elevated levels of toxic PCBs in soils in surrounding metropolitan areas’.

Treating Waste Right

Given the alarming proportions the issue had assumed, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) passed stringent rules in 2016, setting targets for e-goods-producing companies to take the responsibility of routing old devices into recycling. Designated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), collection targets are devised as a ratio of total sales, and set through practices such as buyback. They were revised further in 2018. Between 2017-2018 and 2021-22, total annual collection targets set for 13 big consumer brands went up from 80,991 tonnes to 153,889 tonnes, according to a 2020 CSE report. These efforts led to a greater formalisation of the recycling process, as several Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs, 77 at last count) set up collection centres on behalf of electronics manufacturers. They have now become a major link in routing e-waste from informal collectors to dedicated recycling units, whose number too has increased. The result? The industry estimates that 1.2 million tonnes of e-waste was recycled in India last year. Under EPR targets, 350,000 tonnes was collected and processed in FY21.

It is a very exciting phase across verticals in waste management, given the government’s carbon-neutral initiatives and the push climate change is bringing, in a big way,” says A.L.N. Rao, who heads the e-waste division of the Material Recycling Association of India (MRAI), an industry body. He’s also the CEO of e-waste recycling firm Exigo Recycling, and is on the NITI Aayog panel for a circular economy. “The country needs true recycling to happen and the urban mining concept to be successful for a circular economy to take off.” New players have come into recycling and existing ones have invested in expansion, he points out, “because they know there is a big future in this industry.” India’s e-waste management is both a huge challenge and an opportunity. It starts with the urban consumer, who today must figure out what to do with their old device. “Are we willing to make that effort as consumers? Not really,” says Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, programme manager at CSE. Then there must be the e-waste from bulk consumers, including government departments. “There should be huge volumes,” says P. Parthasarathy of E-Parisaraa in Bengaluru, which was the first e-waste recycling unit in India to get a central licence back in 2004. “Where is it going?”

Informal collectors tend to give households and bulk consumers a better price for their e-waste because of their low-cost methods. A 2018 report by Toxics Link, for instance, noted that all the informal recyclers in Delhi that they documented operated out of ‘shabby and small rooms of residential or unauthorised colonies’, none of them providing any occupational health safeguards to workers and with zero emission, effluent or waste processing. ‘Waste was visibly dumped in the open or in community bins located close to drains, with the risk of contaminating soil, surface, sub-surface and ground water,’ it had noted. “The only change that has happened over the years is that it has become a little more clandestine because they know regulations have come in,” says Priti Mahesh. “Normally, people sell e-waste to scrap dealers who, in turn, dump the hazardous components in the city’s river,” says Karan Thakkar, who runs The Recycling Company, a 16,000 tonnes-per-annum recycling plant at Khopoli, around 70 kilometres from Mumbai. Thakkar, a first-generation entrepreneur, says it was initially difficult to convince people to hand over their e-waste, but the situation has improved gradually. “People call us voluntarily to collect their e-waste.” Ironically enough, in a country where the rising junk level is clearly a problem, many formal recyclers complain that they don’t get enough e-waste. Back in 2009 when he got his licence, Pasha of EwaRDD Recyclers recalls, people would give their e-waste away for free. Now, he barely gets enough material to run his small unit for three months a year. There are more e-waste traders than recyclers and people like him can’t outbid them. “This is not my problem, it’s an industry-wide issue,” he says.

Unlike European countries, who have had EPR since the early 1990s, in India, it is at a nascent stage, says Singh of CSE. “The informal sector has its set of strengths and weaknesses. The strength is collection,” he says. It’s the leakages into hazardous recycling that need to be plugged. But the way to formalise this supply chain is riddled with complexity because it’s also a source of livelihood for thousands. “It will happen. But growth is going to be slow,” says Parthasarathy of E-Parisaraa. “That is what happened in Germany, and in Switzerland too. Their collection rate was hardly 20 per cent when we (E-Parisaraa) started out. Now it has gone up.” Collection rates of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market in Germany and Switzerland, respectively, were 44.3 per cent (2019) and 68 per cent (2018).

Molten aluminium from recycled e-waste at a recycling plantin Roorkee; (Photo: Bandeep Singh)

In May, a draft set of new e-waste rules was circulated, proposing a revamp e-waste management in India. Exigo’s Rao considers them a game-changer. Among other things, a much wider range of products will now come under the e-waste umbrella—95 items compared to 21 earlier, from toys to iron boxes. Next, in a departure from the current practice, the Central Pollution Control Board and not the state boards will award licences to recyclers. Finally, a mechanism for an online portal for transactions, including EPR certificates that producers of goods can buy, has been proposed. “Overall, these regulations are extremely positive and a step in the right direction,” says Nitin Gupta of Attero Recycling, which is among India’s largest e-waste processing companies. Based in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, the plant is basically a 200-metre-long corridor with three sheds one after another. The first shed houses administrative offices in front and the primary metal shredding unit at the back. Large e-waste items such as ACs, refrigerators, large TV panels, metal sheets, etc. are shredded and sorted in smaller bits for recycling. The second shed has thousands of lithium-ion batteries—mostly from automobiles­— stacked in a neat pile, while workers dismantle their components one by one. In the rear are micro component separation areas, where smaller and specialised e-waste is broken up.

An upper floor in this shed has an army of workers dismantling and extracting minerals out of e-waste from smaller items such as phones, printers, laptops and smaller LCDs. This floor also has material testing labs as well as a section for extracting precious minerals. The far end of the shed has micro platforms of hydro metallurgical processes to extract metals and minerals from soluble e-waste. The last shed houses the furnaces where metals like copper and aluminium are smelted from segregated waste and poured into moulds to form ingots. Large water troughs on the opposite side have separate soluble waste using silting and ion exchange procedures. At the forefront of e-waste recycling in India, Attero processes about 160 tonnes of e-waste every day. Building on its success, the company is preparing to open two more plants—one in India and another in Poland.

Despite the recycling industry getting formalised, with 472 units in the country, they handle only 15 per cent of the total e-waste we generate

Not everyone in the current supply chain, though, is as optimistic as Attero’s Gupta. “There is a lot of worry about these rules,” says Pranshu Singhal, founder of Karo Sambhav, a PRO with 55 collection centres across the country that pick up 5,000 tonnes of e-waste annually. The new draft disarms the PROs of that mandated role, Singhal fears. Though the proposed rules do not mention PROs or dismantlers specifically, they reduce the number of recognised entities in the supply chain to four—manufacturer, producer, refurbisher and recycler. “There is very little focus on the setting up of collection channels which, for me, is at the heart of going circular. We are imagining that the recycler will magically collect (e-waste),” says Singhal. Shobha Raghavan, COO of the Bengaluru-based non-profit Saahas Zero Waste, one of the early entrants in waste collection, agrees. It’s only in the past five years when e-waste rules kicked in that the whole sector began moving towards a more formal system involving massive awareness and training outreach. “Disrupting an ecosystem built over five years by removing the PRO and dismantler entities was unexpected,” she says. “Nowhere in the world does an industry have a supply chain with just a starting and an ending point.”

The Way Forward

While the new draft rules do need to accommodate such concerns, there’s now a simultaneous focus on sustainable consumption. In July, the Union ministry of consumer affairs set up a committee to work on a comprehensive Right to Repair legislation framework, the rationale being that consumers should be able to repair and modify their products. “Right to repair has a very broad ambit, which also includes the problem of e-waste,” says Prof. Ashok Patil, chair of Consumer Law and Practice at the National Law School of India University, who is on the committee. The situation has reached dire proportions. Consider the uptick in smartphone and laptop sales during the pandemic, which necessitated working from home and online classes. These devices will reach the end of life in 4-5 years and enter the scrap market. Are we ready for it? “Obviously not,” says Ravi Kumar Neeladri, CEO of Cerebra Green, a Bengaluru-based refurbisher and recycler. “The steps are all in the right direction, but it all depends on how we integrate the informal segment into the formal,” he says. “It is a sunrise segment in my opinion and we have not even scratched the surface.”

A 2021 WHO report identified more than 1,000 harmful substances as being either components of e-waste or artisanal processing systems

Experts also propose long-term solutions to manage e-waste, including pushing manufacturers to develop envi­ronment-friendly products that not only have longer life spans but also use material that can be safely recycled. Priti Mahesh of Toxics Link advocates a rethink on the way products are designed—for longevity, as it used to be, and not for the dump, as it is now. “The life span of products has obvio­usly come down in the past 5-7 years.” The responsibility rests with us too. As consumers, we should insist that all products we buy can be recycled safely and not end up in electronic graveyards, returning to haunt us as toxic waste.

—with Anilesh S. Mahajan and Kiran D. Tare

Li-Ion, king of the e-waste jungle

Stacks of lithium-ion batteries at the Attero recycling plant in Roorkee; (Photo: Bandeep Singh)

Lithium battery recycling

  • With the rise in electric vehicles, Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery recycling has become the next big thing
  • Recyclers like Attero and Exigo are among the early entrants in India
  • Attero plans to grow plant capacity from 3,500 metric tonnes to 16,000 tonnes in a year
  • Exigo is setting up new 7,500 metric tonne plant

Nine metal and mineral extracts from the cells; (Photo: Bandeep Singh)

The Process

  • Li-ion batteries come with different chemistries
  • EV batteries commonly have nickel-manganese-cobalt as their cathode and graphite as the anode. In between are separators made of aluminium and copper foil
  • There are three broad approaches to recycling Li-ion batteries
  • Battery is processed mechanically to get two outputs: iron/copper/aluminium flakes and black mass. The last is a mixture of electrode materials— cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite and manganese
  • The second approach is via smelting to extract these materials (not used in India)
  • Hydrometallurgy (used by Attero) using chemical technologies like leaching and solvent extraction to extract electrode materials constitutes the third approach

Recycling companies globally use these meth­ods in various hybrid combinations

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