Scaling Sustainability Through E-waste Recovery

The parameter that needs to change the most is the consumer’s mindset. There needs to be greater awareness that e-waste is both an environmental and economic challenge, but one that can be solved

Did you know that the old mobile phone gathering dust in some drawer or closet in your home, or that decade-old defective music system, or the many chargers that are lying somewhere, are all a source of precious metals and other valuable materials? Discarded electronics, including phones, chargers, and computers, contain small amounts of precious and rare-earth metals such as gold, silver, platinum, cobalt and lithium, which can be recovered and put back in the economy as raw materials.

Most urban households in India will have one or two laptops and an average of four mobile phones, but when these devices reach the end of their lives, many people choose to store them in perpetuity in some forgotten cabinet, instead of properly disposing of them in a way that enables recovery of valuable materials. This raises the need to increase awareness about the importance of resource recovery from electronic waste (e-waste).

For the waste that eventually gets collected, another reality is that over 90 per cent of e-waste “processing” takes place in the informal sector, where actual recycling and resource recovery is limited by technology and socio-economic factors. Marginalised groups living in urban slums, including children, work manually in this “industry”, without any proper health precautions. Typically, the e-waste is “recycled” by burning it in open, and then metals are recovered using hazardous methods like acid leaching, cyanide and mercury treatments, leading to not just significant environmental pollution, but a multitude of health hazards including cancers, brain damage and a lifetime of impaired health.

Such manual and haphazard recovery of metals from e-waste at “cottage scale” is also highly inefficient and yields low recovery rates and returns because the impure alloys recovered are often unfit for re-use.

Ironically, India imports most of its precious metals because we do not have large mineral deposits for many of these precious and rare-earth metals. The other major component of e-waste is plastics, which are produced from crude petroleum, another resource that India imports heavily to meet its requirements.

Therefore, every kilogram of this waste that is not scientifically processed and recycled, leads to a cascade of impacts  – unscientific proceeding and dumping of e-waste in landfills is causing significant environmental pollution and public health impacts; at the same time, precious resources are truly being “wasted” and economic value is being lost; also, more mineral resources is being continually mined, to make new electronic products, which has its own environmental and social impacts; and every day, more foreign currency is spent to import these resources!

On top of this cascade of environmental, economic and strategic impacts is another fact – all these natural resources are finite; many are already rare and as they become more scarce, their cost will increase exponentially.

It is abundantly clear that the linear consumption model in use right now – “take, make and throw”, is not sustainable, not just environmentally, but economically as well. As a developing country, it is imperative for us to understand the strategic importance of resource recovery at scale. It is essential for the regulations around e-waste management to evolve and become more resolute in their enforceability.

The coverage and enforcement of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) needs to be more stringent and an ecosystem needs to develop which has efficient reverse logistics and aggregation processes integrated shared between manufacturers, retailers, e-commerce platforms and consumers. Manufacturers also need to incorporate the “resource first” methodology at the design stage itself to prolong the life cycle of devices on one hand, and also its end-of-life recyclability.

For all of this to work sustainably, in addition to policy support and enforcement, it is scale that is required. The diversity of feedstock, from a refrigerator, down to a mobile phone, presents unique logistics, processing technology and viability challenges. A high degree of mechanisation and automation is required to address these challenges, which, in turn requires, significant aggregation and scale. Also, a fundamentally different approach to processing itself is needed where only high-yield, advanced technologies are employed for e-waste processing to maximise resource recovery. These are capital intensive technologies and only become viable at a particular scale.

Whilst there are challenges, the benefits too are many - if structured well, an integrated e-waste EPR program can materially improve India’s resource security status, not just for precious metals but also rare-earth minerals. It can catalyse countless Make-in-India initiatives across product categories, significantly accelerating the Atma nirbhar Bharat vision.

Repair, refurbishment and life extension business models presents a great opportunity to not only reduce e-waste, but enhance technology penetration in the society at more affordable price points. There is also an opportunity to upskill and include the so-called “informal sector” in this value chain, allowing them to work in safer and better managed conditions.

In conclusion, the parameter that needs to change the most is the consumer’s mindset. There needs to be greater awareness that e-waste is both an environmental and economic challenge, but one that can be solved. Once consumers are aware, they actively become a part of the solution, and the ecosystem around “at-scale” management of e-waste will get enabled.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house