JAN 2022  
E-waste Recycling: Cutting the Gordian Knot

Kumar (name changed) sits on his haunches weighing a bundle of old newspapers. His day alternates between manning his 4 feet by 3 feet asbestos roofed waste recycling shop and knocking door to door in the neighbourhood to collect all kinds of waste. The pandemic has been brutal for Kumar, largely due to the drop in newspaper waste as newspaper circulation itself has dropped dramatically during COVID-19 pandemic. Kumar has started collecting another category of waste produce–end-of-life electrical and electronic appliances, better known as ‘e-waste’. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor Report India generated 3.2 million tonnes (MT) e-waste in 2019, the third largest in the world. India has enacted laws on E-Waste collection and processing as far back as 2012, borrowing the principal of “polluter pays” from European laws, also known as EPR or Extended Producer Responsibility. Simply put, manufacturers are liable for ensuring collection and safe disposal, usually through specialized outsourced agencies called PROs (Producer Responsibility Organization). In 2018, specific targets for e-waste treatment were set, an increasing percentage of production to be treated every year. In theory, all this sounds logical and should work. If we can control e-waste processing through the fountainhead—at the production—then all downstream activities can be controlled as well. The numbers tell us that in practice it is not working. As per official estimates, India processed just 10 per cent of the e-waste generated in 2018–19 and only 3.5 per cent of the e-waste generated in 2017–18. A key reason is that a bulk of the e-waste is being processed in the informal sector with primitive methods. This failure to treat e-waste is a tragedy on two counts. First environmental—as residues of mercury, arsenic, lead and lithium seep into the soil near our landfills or even river beds, contaminating water and soil for years to come. Second, mineral security—India is deficient in many of the 60 metals used in these appliances, such as lithium, cobalt or nickel. As electrification increases, we can create a strategic resource by recovering these elements. For instance, one of the uses of cobalt is to keep electric batteries from catching fire. As the demand for electric batteries has increased, so has the demand for cobalt. More than two-thirds of the world’s supply is from Congo where Chinese and the US companies are battling it out for the mines. India has no access to these mines and it is too late and too expensive to join the race. We must therefore, at a minimum, salvage all that we can— burning or throwing it away in our landfills is simply not an option. To understand this problem, it is important to reflect on the logistics of e-waste—it is small disaggregated collectors such as Kumar who collect 95 per cent of the e-waste and then hand this over to the informal sector for extraction. There are three reasons for why Kumar hands e-waste to the informal processing sector and not to formal recyclers or PROs—convenience, no harassment and a higher price. The informal extraction sector has some important advantages despite my criticism on poor use of modern methods for extraction. They are more efficient at harvesting parts and restoring equipment and in scavenging non-metallic portions, such as plastic or rubber. This coupled with lower overheads may be the reason why the informal extraction sector is able to offer (counterintuitively) better rates to procure e-waste. This extra payment of ₹50 more for an end-of-life toaster or a feature phone from the recycler to the collector may seem a trivial issue to you, I assure you it is not. Ultimately this enables the poor waste collector to pass on a part of this to the household. Middle class Indians are very price conscious and blissfully unaware of the environmental degradation e-waste causes. It is not surprising that the higher price coupled with the convenience of the home pick-up offered by the millions of small collectors across the country are difficult to match by any high-cost formal collection service. Kumar wins hands down against the feeble attempts of organized e-waste aggregators. All this may sound like a hopeless situation, quite the opposite. This form of micro collection is actually our strength. Though dispersed, it is low cost, provides livelihood to many and catches every item. The real solution for India lies in channelizing this dis-aggregated collection into the more efficient aggregated extraction of the formal sector. In other words, factors of production should move to where they are most efficient—which is to collect through the informal sector and extract through the formal sector. To achieve this, first and foremost the policies around e-waste need to recognize the role of the informal sector collector. In the current policy there is no real participation envisaged for the modest waste collectors. A word of caution though, words in the policy won’t cut it either—fair price needs to be given for the collection of e-waste, perhaps even by stipulating formal price bands. Secondly, the electrical/electronic manufacturers need to play a more active role. Just like policymakers, they too need to wake up to the important role that the humble kabadiwala can play. They must show intent by setting aside a corpus to ensure that micro collectors are fairly paid for their efforts. It may be commercially loss making to begin with but with scale and better extraction technology, it will turn profitable. An even bolder step could be to stipulate schemes to purchase back end-of-life instruments. One example that comes to my mind with reasonable success is the Deposit Refund Scheme (DRS) for lead acid batteries where the consumer gets a discount on a new battery for returning the old battery to the retailer. In theory, lead is a low-cost metal with low value for extraction but with economies of scale this becomes commercially viable, ergo this arrangement should also work for these more expensive e-waste elements, assuming scale. There are more initiatives that can be taken but the heart of the solution lies in showing genuine respect—respect for the Earth that we all share for sure, but also for the marginalized micro collector aka Kumar. Therein lies the sword to cut this Gordian knot. # Dhruv Verma, Grade – 11, The Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, Maharashtra.

© TERI 2020

Nominations open for CSP Today India awards 2013

The inaugural CSP Today India awards ceremony takes place on March 12, and CSP developers, EPCs, suppliers and technology providers can now be nominated.

CSP has made tremendous progress since the announcement of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in 2010. With Phase I projects now drawing closer to completion, the first milestone in India's CSP learning curve is drawing closer. CSP Today has chosen the next CSP Today India conference (12-13 March, New Delhi) as the time for the industry to reflect upon its progress and celebrate its first achievements.

At the awards ceremony, industry leaders will be recognized for their achievements in one of 4 categories: CSP India Developer Award, CSP India Engineering Performance Award, CSP India Technology and Supplier Award, and the prestigious CSP India Personality of the Year.

Matt Carr, Global Events Director at CSP Today, said at the opening of nominations that CSP Today are excited to launch these esteemed awards, which will enhance the reputation of their recipients. I am particularly excited to launch the CSP India Personality of the Year award, a distinguished honor for the industry figure deemed worthy by their peers."

All eyes will be on the CSP Today India 2013 Awards when nomination entry closes on February 4 and the finalists are announced on February 11. The awards are open to all industry stakeholders to nominate until February 4 at or by e-mail to

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