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Online Marketplaces and Precious Metals Present New Opportunities for E-waste Recyclers

  Getting access to a reliable, viable waste-stream of electronic products remains a challenge for the formal waste recycling sector.  Consumer e-Waste collections has been too cost prohibitive to formally set up in India. Some recyclers have attempted to re-invest corporate CSR budgets into setting up consumer collection centers for e-Waste, however, this approach has proved fraught with operational challenges, particularly around maintaining the security of collection sites.

To build a waste stream, many formal recyclers have (a) switched to opportunities where corporates are the target sector, or (b)  used the internet to provide a platform where corporates/individuals can sell their e-waste.

e-Waste from many Indian corporates is channelized into the informal sector with devastating environmental and social consequences.  The informal sector poses stiff competition to the formal sector, as the informal sector often has a low-cost collection network. Additionally, the sector avoids the cost of compliance that socially and environmentally responsible recyclers need to provide.

 This impacts the prices recyclers can offer to customers to source their e-Waste. Arjun Mehta, Marketing Manager of Sims Recycling Solutions, explains "Informal recyclers pay 2.5 times more than formal recyclers. The [informal sector] has pricing supremacy over the formal sector. This is on the account of weak health and safety norms for works, primitive processes, cheap overheads and virtually no adherence to regulation.” 

Changing the mindsets of Indian businesses

The biggest challenge for the formal sector has been shifting the mindsets of Indian businesses, where monetary returns from selling waste to the informal sector is preferred over other alternatives. This has forced many formal sector recyclers to educate corporates about how they dispose of e-Waste.  

While disposing of e-Waste through informal channels is illegal, there is an absence of enforcement of existing laws. Tarun Bahuguna, Assistant Brand Manager Greenscape Eco Management, explains “the lack of strictly enforced regulation means that a lot of players are able to exist in the market even if they do not recycle e-waste in a safe manner.” 

A unique example in corporate e-Waste has been the focus on greening the use of printer toner cartridges.  “The printing technology developed by OEMs is sold in the market at less rates. The demand of toner cartridge is recurring. Hence OEMs sell toners at higher rates to cover their cost of technology,” explains Abhishek K Salunke, Project Head, from Gujarat Refilling Center. The high price of OEM printer cartridges means there is an opportunity for formal recyclers to reuse and refill cartridges in a profitable way. 

To leverage this, the Gujarat Refilling Center has established a monthly recycling scheme for institutional customers (with 100+ employees).  This monthly subscription service provides security to waste material supply. Further, the recycling process is extremely efficient and environmentally friendly, while providing re-occurring savings for the business on printing expenditure:

  • toner can be refilled 30-40 times before the overall plastic cartridge must be disposed (compared to 5-6 refills if processed in the informal sector)
  • 2000 prints per toner refill are achieved, which are very close to rates for new cartridges (compared to 800-1000 prints per refill, if processed in the informal sector )
  • carbon dust is safely managed (35-40g per toner) - this dust has an extremely harmful impact on the health of the informal 

Overall, Gujarat Refilling Center reports that it can reduce the buy-back price of recycled printer cartridges to 70% of the OEM cost. It has further used revenues to set up a commissions based system for 26 collection centers in Gujarat. 

Gujarat Refilling Center is currently considering manufacturing  bio-toners in India.  This is economically viable because  the marginal cost increase from re-filling with bio-toners can be absorbed and the overall cost of recycled print cartridges with bio-toners will still be below OEM price. For institutions which already are on the e-Waste bandwagon, the use of bio-toners could further ease India’s dependence on petrochemical products and help to ‘green’ the workplace.

Flicker/ Greenpeace India

Online marketplaces - the new frontier for e-waste 

In the last 4 years, securing e-Waste streams from corporate and bulk generators of waste was the key area of competition for the formal sector. To differentiate, some e-Waste companies are providing value-added services (for example, data security services while collecting laptops).  

The likes of E-Incarnation engage corporates ‘as a one stop shop’ to further process all types of hazardous waste. Corporate collection drives and e-Waste collaborations  help recyclers to educate clients under a CSR hat while establishing on-going access to their waste streams.

Today, the new area of competition for the formal sector is setting up an integrated online marketplace for electronic waste trading and efficient collections. Companies like GEMS Recycling Pvt. Ltd. and SIMS are challenging the tremendous human power of the informal  sector with the connective power of online technology. 

The goal is to make an online platform easier and cheaper than the informal sector’s large number and low wages. The platforms will be an interactive tool where an individual entity can register and order a convenient doorstep collection of their e-waste.

Further, the platforms will work in the B2B space, where a corporate entity can execute an electronics take-back scheme for their employees. 

Emerging areas

One  area of traction is the increasing value being placed on scrap and precious metals in India. 

“The global reserves of some materials found in electronics will only last a couple of decades more,” points out CEO Gaurav Mardia, “The raw materials we collect include scrap metals, iron, steel, cobalt, aluminum, plastic which we sell to scrap dealers. Precious metals in our waste-streams are safely exported to Belgium for precious metal recovering. Once we hit the 100-200 tons, we will be able to sell directly to manufacturers.”

 As E-Incarnation states, 98-99% of all their waste streams are recycled in a zero waste output process, and the remaining 1 % is not recycled as it is toxic waste (lead, mercury, sodium) that is often handled separately.  

While e-Waste sector faces considerable challenges, waste recyclers appear to be finding fruitful avenues to address the current hurdles in the market. “Earlier people were not aware of any laws or what to do with their e-waste,” reflects Tarun Bahuguna.“The situation is improving vastly now.”


E-Incarnation, SIMS Recycling, GEMS Recycling, Greenscape Eco Management  and Gujarat Recycling Center are Parivaratan Awards nominees for 2014

 Image Credits: Flickr / Greenpeace India, Flickr / Greenpeace India

Author: Sustainability Outlook