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Electronic Waste India: Can We Learn From The European Experience?

Neeta Misra speaks with Dr Bernd Kopacek a global expert on E-Waste on the European experience and how India can draw on this at the country ramps up its efforts to responsibly manage electronic waste

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Electronic waste or E-Waste is an emerging and growing sector in India that presents new challenges and opportunities for integration of E-Waste into waste management systems. The E-Waste Management Rules of 2016 stipulate that within seven years 70% of all E-Waste needs to be responsibly disposed of and recycled. In Europe, E-Waste management is at a mature stage with many countries having enacted e-waste legislation over 20 -25 years ago.  

Neeta Misra speaks with Dr Bernd Kopacek a global expert on E-Waste on the European experience and how India can draw on this at the country ramps up its efforts to responsibly manage electronic waste.

1. European countries have taken the lead on electronic waste. How would you characterise the e-waste sector in Europe? 
The policy environment for the E-Waste sector in Europe is quite mature with individual member states enacting national legislation on E-Waste over 20-25 years ago. In an effort to harmonise the common market for Europe and to enact legislation that protected the environment the European Union in 2003 issued the WEEE (Waste for Electrical and Electronic) Directive. This is due to the very specific nature of this waste component, which contains hazardous (the health of all citizens and our environment) as well as valuable materials (precious, critical and base metals, plastics etc.). Moreover, out of the whole rate of urban solid waste, e-waste is the fastest growing, and this trend is expected to continue, coherently with the quality and quantity of hi-tech product consumption globally.

Since then the e-waste recycling market has matured. A lot of good processing technologies have been developed and are implemented. As the 28 member states of the European Union are quite different when it comes to GDP, average wages of workers and also environmental awareness we find a lot of different solutions in Europe - from manual dismantling in lower-income countries to highly mechanized recycling processes in countries where the labour costs are high. Also, the collection rate differs enormously between North and South as well as between West and East. All producers joined forces in Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs) to enable economy of scale for the sound collection and recycling of e-waste.

In summary, I can say over whole Europe we have done huge progress in protecting our environment as well as saving our scarce resources.

2. When we think about E-Waste in India what similarities and differences come to mind?
Except for valuable IT products, the e-waste sector in India is completely new driven by the EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) regulation that came out recently (similar as in Europe 15 years ago). Therefore the driving regulation is very similar.

But the mindset of the Indian citizen is completely different. Most people in Europe have adopted the concept of a "throw away" society and live according to it. When a product does not work properly anymore or a new (more trendy) product (for example a new mobile phone) comes out, Europeans buy the new product and throw away the old one. We are even willing to bring this "waste" to the collection centre and hand it in free of charge.

In India, products are used much longer. When something is wrong, they are first repaired several times before spare parts are harvested and finally it becomes obsolete. But even then Indian citizens attach a "value" to their end-of-life products. And they are used that "khabadiwalas" are coming to their door and buy their gadgets. So the Indian citizen receives a much better service than the European and the collection rates are much higher in India.

According to me, the main problem of India is that most of the recycling is taking place in the informal sector. Here a lot of valuable resources are lost and health issues created because of not state-of-the-art processing.

In Europe member states must assure that 65% of the average weight of EEE (Electrical and Electronic Equipment) placed on the market in the three preceding years will be achieved by 2019. In addition, the WEEE Directive contains also recycling and recovery targets.

In India, the E-Waste Management Rules of 2016 stipulate a collection rate of 70% that has to be reached within seven years. Several lobbyists call this target completely unrealistic and at a first sight, everybody would agree based on European experiences. But Europe is a rather saturated market, whereas India still strong growth rates in EEE. In India, the 70% refers not to the 3 preceding years (ie 2015-2017) in Europe, but to the amount of products put on the market when they were initially sold (if a product has, for example, an average life of 8 years, then it refers to the sales figure of 2010). I have done a quick comparison and found out that in order to compare them with Europe, you must divide the Indian targets roughly by 3 or 4 and then I am convinced that they are achievable. When the Indian market will become saturated at a later stage, this conversion factor will become smaller and smaller until it will ultimately reach parity. Specified recycling and recovery targets are still missing in the 2016 rules.

3. With the rapidly evolving technology around consumer products, what do you see as the biggest challenges that the sector faces in keeping up? 

I see several challenges in the sector, but two of them I consider most important because of the rapidly evolving technologies of the new products.

First, rapid technological advances make it necessary to keep up with the fast progress and develop constantly new recycling processes. Some of these technologies are only used for a rather short period of time (for example TV-sets and computer monitors had LCDs only for short period of time after the old cathode ray tubes were discontinued and now the LED technology has been rolled out) and then it is really difficult to recover their investments into new processing plants.

Second, the next big disruption that I foresee is the larger use of 3D printing for manufacturing more customised products. When these products will then reach its end-of-life stage, we will need completely different recycling technologies. Today our processes are mainly mechanical (based on physical properties of the different materials), but in the future I see more and more chemical processes taking over because the products become are more and more complex mix of materials.

On the other hand, we are facing more and more difficulties to find proper markets to sell our recycled materials to after technological disruptions have occurred. For example, we have a big issue finding buyers of the lead glass from TV-sets and monitors using cathode ray tubes (CRT) as nobody produces large quantities of CRTs anymore. Another example is yttrium from fluorescent lamps that are not used in big enough quantities anymore in LED lamps.

4. As a global expert on E-Waste, what are some of the best practices that you have encountered in India and elsewhere? 

As mentioned already before I consider the repair sector and the collection service much better developed in India compared whereas Europe is leading in recycling technologies. Therefore I would suggest following the "best of 2 worlds" approach. On the one hand, I would even strengthen the collection and repair services by formalising the informal players and capitalise on their enormous knowledge. On the other hand, I would selectively implement proven recycling processes from elsewhere in India that best fit the needs. For example, I would not simply copy and paste the Western European solution, but start with smaller scale mobile treatment technologies and then step by step upgrade their capacity.

5. Globally where do you see the e-waste sector evolving? 

I think the driver for this activity is fundamentally changing. When it starts in most countries as a way to protect our health and environment, it slowly moves to creating and securing our jobs by keeping our scarce resources in our countries in order to create a new product out of it. By that, we become less dependent on other countries who are rich in minerals and keep the jobs in our countries.

Based on the estimated about 1,8 million tons of e-waste arising this year in India at least 300.000 jobs could be established in a new market sector of more than 3 billion US$ annually. In addition, many more jobs can be secured in the production sector because of recycling precious and critical metals is the basis for manufacturing new products in India when resources are becoming scarce and because of that more and more expensive. Thus, we call our high-tech wastes already today "urban mine" and the basis for a sustainable economy in Europe.

6. Tell us about your company and the upcoming conference that you have planned.
 
In my small group of companies, we collect and dismantle e-waste in several countries in Europe, collect and re-use mobile phones and are on the forefront to develop new recycling technologies and processes since 1999.

In 1998 we established what became now the the world's largest and most prominent Congress on electr(on)ics and the environment, Going Green - CARE INNOVATION 2018 which will celebrate its 20th anniversary under the main theme "Towards a Circular Economy" in Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna (Austria) from November 26-29, 2018. This Symposium is the main platform for presenting up-to-date progress on the circular economy and the development of resource-efficient electr(on)ic products and services. It will attract again more than 400 experts from all over the world.


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Electronic waste sustainability Dr Bernd Kopacek
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