Scrapping opportunities: Bottlenecks in the Indian e-waste management industry

Scrapping opportunities: Bottlenecks in the Indian e-waste management industry

As per the report published by United Nations University in 2017, India generated close to two million tons of e-waste in a year. Based on QLB Marketing Insights interactions[1] with e-waste recyclers, India is currently generating around three million tons of e-waste annually, and is expected to grow steadily by 20–25% in the years to come. This is expected to be driven primarily by the following factors:

  1. Steady economic growth
  2. Increasing desire of the population to satisfy materialistic needs
  3. Continuous product innovation leading to shorter lifecycle of electronic products.
E-Waste Management Segmentation

However, based on our interactions with authorised dismantlers/recyclers, we understand that only 0.15–0.2 million tons (~5%) of the e-waste is processed for recycling by the formal sector (which includes authorised dismantler/recyclers). The informal sector plays a dominant role in India in the e-waste management sector, handling about 90–95% of the e-waste generated. This sector mainly consists of a wide-spread network of unauthorised collectors (scrap dealers), small traders, intermediaries, dismantlers, and recyclers. Manpower employed in this sector is unskilled and mainly adopts techniques that can be unsafe for the environment and for their own health. Adverse practices carried out by the informal sector on a daily basis include smouldering cables for metal recovery, processing in open acid baths without the use of protective gear, and removing older and components from a circuit board with torch blows, amongst others.

Despite the shortcomings in resource skills, the informal sector collects the highest amount of e-waste due to the following reasons:

  1. Higher prices offered to consumers for their e-waste: Prices offered by the informal sector is 20-25% higher when compared with the formal sector. Lower overhead expenses (as they do not adhere to any regulations) are a major reason for their sustainability despite the high prices they offer for e-waste.
  2. Long-standing personal relationships: Many informal sector participants have been in the business of waste collection through generations. This has enabled them to establish personal relationships and trusts with consumers thereby giving them an edge as compared to formal sectors
  3. Know-how of local e-waste flows

Most challenges in the e-waste management sector can be addressed by first identifying the leakage points in the industry value chain.

Leakage Points in the E-waste management industry

The above leakage points in the e-waste management industry, if taken care of will lead to an increase of at least 50% in material availability for recyclers or e-waste processing.

While the industry value chain is ridden with loopholes, the major leakage points hampering e-waste recycling are:  lack of awareness amongst consumers leading to improper disposal of electronic waste, absence of onus/responsibility of manufacturers in collecting e-waste and ensuring that it reaches registered recyclers, ineffective monitoring system of regulatory bodies due to lack of resources, and the dominance of the informal sector.

How can the challenges be overcome?

Consumer level solutions : E-Waste Management
Consolidation : E-Waste Management
3. Effective Monitoring System    

At present, there are three regulatory bodies responsible for implementation and monitoring regulations and policies around e-waste management in India:

Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), and State Pollution Control Board. While the action plan with specific activities, parameters, and methodology is in place, there are certain challenges that can impede enforcement of regulations. Some of these challenges include the absence of accurate e-waste inventory (current data is an estimate), producer identification (those without EPR authorisation), verification of collection mechanism, and stakeholder compliance. It is crucial to strengthen the monitoring system of the Central Pollution Control Board and State Control Board ensuring that all stakeholders adhere to the regulations. On the other hand, authorities also face major challenges in ensuring regular monitoring due to the lack of adequate resources.

The COVID-19 Impact

The pandemic and its associated lockdown had a monumental impact across sectors. The e-waste management industry is no exception to this. E-waste collection during April and May (months of complete lockdown) were negligible. As a result, recyclers have been falling short of raw materials for meeting their recycling targets; capacity utilisation has been at all-time low. Several of them have also shut down operations due to the negligible amounts of material procured from businesses. Moreover, a majority of businesses have disallowed e-waste collection staff from entering their premises due to the risk and fear of contamination. This mindset can only be altered with proper implementation of safety features and regular thermal screening of outsiders. Additionally, e-waste disposal is not an aspect that manufacturers and producers focus on as stored e-waste rarely hampers their functioning.

For household e-waste, travel and logistics have posed challenges for recyclers, who are finding it impracticable to travel long distances and allocate e-waste collection vehicles for just a few households. Dependency of individuals on their personal electronic devices such as laptops, computers, and printers has increased due to the shift to online schooling and work from home. Households are postponing their decision to discard their older devices, thereby impacting e-waste volumes.

In the wake of the pandemic and its associated cost of life, it has become increasingly pertinent that every household and organisation takes responsibility towards the environment and ensure proper disposal of their e-waste. While we cannot be entirely dependent on recyclers, we should instead work towards helping the industry and its professionals create a healthy environment for us and the generations to come.

There has been a recent introduction of a policy by Union Government to strengthen collection, segregation and recycling of plastic waste. It is imperative for the government to bring such policies even for e-waste sector whose volumes are increasing substantially annually.

Please get in touch with us if you are looking for a deep dive on the following:

  • Future of e-waste management industry in India and its growth opportunities
  • Global benchmarking and best practices of the e-waste management industry
  • Leveraging the existing supply chain to diversify into e-waste management
  • Technological advancements in the e-waste recycling sector

Article written by: Neha Agrawal (Research Director, QLB Marketing Insights)

[1]QLB Marketing Insights spoke to around 40 recyclers in India to understand the industry dynamics

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