New rules stimulate e-waste recycling opportunities

Over the next five years, Delhi-based Attero Recycling – NCR, one of the largest e-waste management companies in India, expects to invest nearly $1 billion in expanding e-waste recycling facilities. More than 70% of it is intended to set up operations in Europe, the United States and Indonesia to recycle lithium-ion batteries based on the growing share of electric vehicles in the coming years. Nitin Gupta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, says that while lithium batteries may be the company’s future, the present hinges on the growing number of e-waste his plant in Roerkee treats. He says the credit is due to mandatory recycling targets set by electronic goods makers under E-waste management rules, 2016. From 30% of sales in 2018, companies are expected to return 70% of their sales by 2023.

“Before the EPR system, recyclers like us had to pay to buy e-waste. We extract the precious metals and sell them. Informal recyclers use hazardous methods and were therefore able to do so at a lower cost. Even if recovery (of of metals) has been low, its costs were low and very profitable, and now with the EPR system, it is the OEMs who pay for recycling, and a lot is collected in the formal sector.”

A large number of technological processes deployed in his organization have helped extract nearly 98% of the copper, gold, tin, lithium, palladium, nickel and cobalt within electronic devices. We have developed these technologies in-house and have nearly 20 patents on these processes. The increasing focus on formalizing recycling means that India, in the coming years, can reduce dependence on imports of precious metals that would otherwise only be extracted from foreign countries.”

Issuance of EPR Certificates

Last month, the union’s environment ministry unveiled a set of draft rules that further incentivize registered e-waste recyclers. The main difference from the 2016 rules is the creation of EPR or Extended Product Liability certificates. Recyclers when processing a certain amount of waste will be given a certificate verifying this number by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Electronic goods companies can purchase these certifications online from CPCB to achieve their annual goals. Recyclers can also contract directly with a company to recycle a certain amount of waste and generate CPCB accessible certificates.

The challenge is verification. How, for example, does the CPCB verify that the certificates actually guarantee the amount of e-waste recycled? Prior to the EPR scheme, state pollution control boards were expected to perform checks on the recycler and monitor whether they were actually processing the amount of waste they claim. Gupta said that in the new system, this verification will be done via “software matching”. Gupta said the recycler would pay a certain amount of Goods and Services Tax (GST) annually based on the amount of precious metals mined and sold, and this would correlate with the amount of e-waste processed. This can be further matched with certificates purchased by a producing company to achieve the objectives.

The latest e-waste rules have not yet become an official law, and the Ministry of Environment has set a 60-day period for public consultation.

Independent experts say verifying the actual amount recycled is nearly impossible because none of the data — how many electronic goods were sold in a given year, how much e-waste was created, and how much was recycled — is in the public domain.

The Central Anti-Corruption Council said that in 2019-20, one million tons of e-waste was generated, 22% of which was “collected, dismantled and recycled”. Said Siddharth Singh, director of the e-waste program at the Center for Science and Environment, a prominent organization that works on environmental issues. If you ask a company how many cell phones it sells in a year, it will share the number in kilograms at most, not units. This is information that is supposed to be shared with the CPCB but the number is practically unavailable. Therefore, there is no transparency about whether the company guarantees that a percentage of its sales are actually recycled. In our surveys, we’ve seen that companies never actually visit a recycler.”

Monitor loopholes and violations

Priti Mahesh, who leads e-waste research at Toxics Link, another prominent environmental research firm in Delhi, estimates that after the EPR system, there has been a “remarkable” shift, with far more e-waste being recycled in the formal sector than in the sector unofficial. “The figure for about 90-95% of e-waste that is unofficially processed is dated. I would say this has come down to about 60%-65%. This is due to the requirement to register yourself as a recycler to have access even to e-waste. However, Monitoring is still a huge challenge. So far, we know that there are a lot of paper trading going on Hindus. This refers to doubling the calculation of EPR certificates. “I am afraid that the new system gives more incentives to producers to take no responsibility for the actual waste generated.”

Bangalore-based Cerebra Green, which is also an electronic goods recycler and refurbisher, said the EPR system was generally positive and helped smaller recyclers who could not afford to take large recycling contracts directly from the big producers but there were loopholes. Since companies only have annual goals, the finance team will only want to purchase passes at the end of the fiscal year. However, we need to recycle during the year. Where do we get working capital for that? Therefore, it is advisable to set monthly goals for recycling.”