The story so far: The Indian Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA) on August 28 released a report on ‘Pathways to Circular Economy in Indian Electronics Sector,’ following a government effort with NITI Aayog to explore opportunities to harness e-waste. The report talks about changing the outlook on e-waste management to build a system where discarded electronics can have a new life, either by themselves, or by reintroducing components and precious metals into new hardware. There could be an additional $7 billion market opportunity in harnessing e-waste, the report said.
Does India have e-waste management?
E-waste management is largely informal in India, as in the case of recycling. “Roughly 90% of collection and 70% of the recycling are managed by a very competitive informal sector,” the ICEA report says. The informal sector is good at salvaging older devices for parts and profiting from repairs with them. Then there are almost industrial hubs like Moradabad, where printed circuit boards (PCBs) arrive in the tonnes to have gold and silver melted out of them and sold.
The Union Government notified the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022 last November in order to digitise the process and provide more visibility to the movement of e-waste in the economy. The level of e-waste may grow, too, as phones get cheaper and people use them more on the back of cheaper data plans. “There has been a significant increase” in people damaging their phones (as opposed to the devices simply getting too old to keep working), Kunal Mahipal, the founder of repair firm Onsitego, said.
The informal sector relies on a number of tools and techniques to stay competitive. For instance, the report’s authors speak of ‘cannibalisation,’ a euphemism for repair shops buying whole devices and breaking them down to serve as spare parts for repair. As tariffs for finished products are sometimes lower than they are for parts, this works out in the repair shop’s favour.
Why is a circular economy important?
Demand for electronics is growing across all price segments, even as the production of these devices entails the use of scarce elements and high emissions. Instead of merely salvaging these parts, a circular economy seeks to bring them back into the electronics ecosystem. “Every material as it’s produced on earth is a resource and not waste,” Alkesh Kumar Sharma, until recently the Union IT Secretary, said during the ICEA report’s launch. “It’s wealth. We have to create more wealth.”
Sandip Chatterjee, a senior director at the IT Ministry who has focused on e-waste related issues, said that there needed to be a policy push to encourage manufacturers to reuse old components. “By 2019, China ensured that 5% of their secondary raw material went into manufacturing of new products,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “By 2030, they are targeting 35%.”
How can e-waste be recycled?
The ICEA report suggests public-private partnerships to distribute the costs of setting up a sprawling “reverse supply chain,” an expensive prospect that envisages collecting devices from users, wiping them clean of personal data, and passing them along for further processing and recycling. It also suggests launching an auditable database of materials collected through this process, and creating geographical clusters where these devices come together and are broken apart. A key recommendation is to incentivise so-called ‘high yield’ recycling centres. Facilities that recycle are generally not equipped to extract the full potential value of the products they handle, for instance extracting minute but precious amounts of rare earth metals in semiconductors. The IT Ministry launched a scheme last April to cover 25% of the capital expenditure on such facilities.
Simply encouraging repair and making products last longer — perhaps by supporting a right to repair by users — is also a policy recommendation that may reduce the environmental burden of electronic waste.
What are the challenges?
Beyond the large informal sector that is hard to track or hold to environmental norms, there are basic challenges. For instance, a whopping 200 million devices are estimated to be lying at consumers’ homes, who don’t hand them in for recycling after they stop using them. Sundeep Singh, an Accenture executive who worked on the ICEA report, said that many people are concerned about what may happen to the personal data on their devices if they hand them in for recycling.
Building recycling plants on a large scale also requires more than the initial capital costs. “Material is a real challenge for our economic growth,” Dr. Chatterjee pointed out. “Where is the material? … Two big firms came to us, interested in investing in recycling plants. But they don’t have material. They’re not asking for an import licence — they [just] want their plants stabilised.” And the materials to stabilise these plants are ‘scattered,’ he said.
Making a circular economy out of e-waste is tempting, especially given the unpredictable supply chains for electronics components. Extracting the full value of electronics is capital intensive, and will require better clustering of materials, and a viable business model. The challenge is to be able to replicate the success of the informal sector in a formalised and reliable way. But a shrinking availability of ‘virgin’ components may not be a prospect that can be ignored for too long, Mr. Mahipal said. “It is only a matter of time before the country has to focus on how to give a second life not just to products but also to parts,” he warned.
- The Indian Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA) on August 28 released a report on ‘Pathways to Circular Economy in Indian Electronics Sector,’ following a government effort with NITI Aayog to explore opportunities to harness e-waste.
- E-waste management is largely informal in India, as in the case of recycling. “Roughly 90% of collection and 70% of the recycling are managed by a very competitive informal sector,” the ICEA report says.
- The ICEA report suggests public-private partnerships to distribute the costs of setting up a sprawling “reverse supply chain,” an expensive prospect that envisages collecting devices from users, wiping them clean of personal data, and passing them along for further processing and recycling.