The electronic market has seen tremendous growth in the past couple of decades. Today, electronics and electrical equipment have become a major part of each and every industry, as well as each and every household. If you look around, you might be surprised by how dependent you are on these products on a day-to-day basis. Consecutively, this boom has also led to a high amount of electronic waste (e-waste) being generated.
The world has become incredibly aware of adopting a sustainable approach in everything it does. But there is still a great absence of awareness of e-waste generation and the effects it has. We still follow a ‘make-use-throw’ approach towards these products. As such, e-waste is one of the fastest-growing streams of waste in the world which contains extremely hazardous materials.
The lack of awareness not only harms our environment, which is already choking, but also deprives us of fully utilizing crucial raw materials, thus adding to the costs of production of newer products, which could have been easily reduced had older products been recycled properly.
The Need For a Circular Economy
As our lives become more and more digitally connected, our reliance on electronics and electrical equipment has also increased. This has led to people using more electronic equipment with shorter lifespans.
Take a moment to think about the previous statement. When was the last time you thought of recycling/reusing your smartphone or laptop? In an era where better products in the electronics market emerge every day, our access to newer products has made it extremely easy to dispose off ‘old’ products in search of something better, leaving them to either rust or worse, end up in the trashcan.
“We are not aware of the hazards that come with the products we invest in, and once we are done using the product, we barely have any idea of how to responsibly dispose off that product,” says Siddharth Singh, Deputy Programme Manager at the Centre for Science and Environment.
This is where a circular economy comes into play.
A circular economy aims to reduce material and energy wastage through recycling, repairing and reusing products. Under this approach, a product’s value does not end with the end of its shelf life. Instead, extended value can be added to it, or can be used to add value to a newer product, thereby closing the loop.
Unlike a linear approach, a circular economy believes in a three-way approach: repair-reuse-recycle.
The importance of reducing wastage of raw materials can especially be recognized now as the global market for electronic equipment reels under the pressure of the violent semiconductor chip scarcity. Manufacturers are scramming for raw materials in order to meet demand and keep production going, and in the wake of this humdrum, one cannot help but wonder if adopting a circularity of materials could have thwarted this crisis.
Why is it a problem?
According to the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor, the total e-waste generated by Europe in 2019 stood at 12 million metric tonnes. Asia stood at 24.9 million metric tonnes. But while Europe recycled 42.5 per cent of the total e-waste it generated, Asia could recycle only 11 per cent. This a noticeable disparity. And a concerning one, too.
Electronic components contain materials that pose a great threat to life, and mishandling of these materials can have dire consequences. For example, each fluorescent lamp like CFL bulbs contains 4-5 mg of mercury. When 200 units of these bulbs are disposed off improperly, it could render 5,000,000 litres of water unfit to drink.
E-waste: A Warehouse of Raw Materials
“What we have in the industry is the entire spectrum of the periodic table and we can consider it as an urban mine for elements like iron, plastic, aluminium, gold, platinum etc,” says Dr Deepali Sinha Khetriwal, Managing Director of Sofies Sustainability Leaders.
As we know, electronic equipment is made with crucial raw materials that are imperative for their functioning. Apart from precious metals like gold and silver, there are other metals that make up an electronic product. But elements are not deposited uniformly in our global geography. While some countries are blessed with an abundance of elements like cobalt and nickel, others lack an obvious dearth of these. As such, reusing raw materials from used products can provide relief to manufacturers in their quest for sourcing these elements and ultimately benefit them by lowering the cost of raw materials and also minimize wastage of precious raw materials.
“The resource perspective is very important especially if India is going to be a trillion-dollar economy of which electronics is going to be one of the key sectors. Manufacturing is, of course, on its side. But it needs resources, and given that we don’t have all resources occurring naturally in our geology, it is a really good opportunity for us to make the most of what is in our hands,” Dr Khetriwal adds further.
Take the lithium-ion battery for instance.
The lithium-ion battery market in India is expected to increase from 2.9 GWh in 2018 to about 132 GWH by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate of 35.5 per cent. The recycled lithium-ion batteries global market will hit $6 billion by 2030. This highlights that there is a huge opportunity in recycling these batteries.
For EV batteries, the most critical elements present are cobalt, lithium, magnesium, graphite, aluminium, copper, nickel. The cathode is another critical component of an EV battery.
“Lithium-ion batteries not only contain lithium-ion. Almost 20 to 30 per cent is made up of cobalt since that is where most of its value chain comes from,” says Dr R. Raatesh, Director of C-MET Hyderabad.
Cobalt forms an important component that affects the weight, among other things, of the battery.
It is estimated that as much as 125,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 35,000 tonnes of cobalt, and 86,000 tonnes of nickel could be recovered from 2030 from waste batteries.
These EV battery packs can be repurposed for a second life application in energy storage devices that is suitable to their reduced performance capabilities.
In a similar sentiment, solar PV panels can also be recycled to provide material for EV batteries.
Dr Raatesh adds, “When talking about the circular economy, we very recently realised that spent solar cells can be used as an anode material for Li-ion batteries.”
Silicon, having the highest discharge capacity, is a noted anode material in lithium-ion battery applications. The commercialized anode that is graphite 370 mah per gram has very little discharge capacity when compared to silicon 4200 mph gram. However, due to the huge production cost, the feasibility of using silicon in commercial-grade battery applications is limited. In this context, spent silicon modules from a solar cell can begin fully exploited as anode materials for lithium-ion batteries.
Recycling Scenario In India: Opportunities and Challenges
The recycling scenario for e-waste is grimmer than expected, where the informal or unskilled sector is handling most of the waste being generated. The people involved in this sector lack the skill to recycle or reuse such waste.
“More than 90 per cent of it goes to informal recycling and despite the hazardous activity involved, the resource recovery is very less. If you look at the yield, it is less than 25 per cent,” says Dr Raatesh.
“A large number of people are actually working in this sector are unskilled which is creating a lot of trouble. This is where the government and private sector needs to join hands” Mehra.
Currently, India has close to 407 recyclers with a recycling capacity of around 1.1 million metric tons of e-waste. But as per a report submitted to the National Green Tribunal, only 20 per cent of waste was recycled at the authorized facilities, while the rest is actually handled by the informal sector. The report also highlights that most of the state control boards have assigned recyclers a very high target with respect to what they can actually process.
“This entire sector needs to have a systemic approach which is not just at the policy level, but which brings the government and various stakeholders on the same table where they can discuss the issues and ways to resolve them,” says Gautam Mehra, Deputy Team Leader at GIZ India.
Challenges are present in every stage of the value chain, says Siddharth Singh. Consumers lack the knowledge to repair or recycle an electronic product, and manufacturers can sort after this lack as an opportunity.
“Here again, the opportunity of job creation and skill development plays a very major role because if producers start to put products on the market which can actually be repaired at the end, then there is a whole new ecosystem that can actually be supported just through jobs like repairability of these products,” adds Singh.
One way to tackle these challenges, Singh says, is educating the consumer about the modular design of the electronic product they use.
“So, if any component of your device goes faulty, you can just replace or repair the component and not trade off the entire product,” he explains.
Singh further informs, “The second approach is shifting this industry to a service-based approach that provides electronics products as a service and not actually as a product. This means once the product reaches its end-of-life, it goes back to the manufacturer who can extract whatever is useful and place a new product on the market by a closed-loop method.”
Initiatives are being taken by companies like C-MET which, along with IIT-Hyderabad, signed an MoU to start a 2-year joint M.Tech program on E-Waste Resource Engineering and Management and Recycling.
“The government of India has also initiated the process of upskilling people involved in the e-waste management sector. The National Institute of Electronics is one such initiative,” says Gautam Mehra.
Despite the challenges, if we learn to tap the opportunities that this sector provides us as consumers as well as manufacturers, we can not only help save the environment but also utilize our products to their full value resulting in a win-win situation for us, as well as the environment.
This article is inspired by the recently held interactive panel discussion held on ‘Transparent Sustainability: Circularity & E-Waste Management’ by ESSCI