E-waste processing: A problem of scale

India benefits from having a fewer number of e-waste processing units, but of much larger capacity and closer to generation hotspots.

E-waste in India, as in other countries, is the fastest-growing waste stream. (Reuters)

E-waste in India, as in other countries, is the fastest-growing waste stream. Though the current generation of e-waste is not as high as other waste streams like municipal solid waste, industrial waste or construction and demolition debris, its current state of management is causing environment pollution while recovery and recycling of value from it in informal sector remains a cause of concern. An ASSOCHAM-KPMG study suggests that the current generation of e-waste in India is around 1.85 million tonnes per annum. Cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru alone account for 0.3 million tonnes per annum—17% of the national generation.

As per the Central Pollution Control Board records, there are currently 178 e-waste processing units in the country. The capacity of these units to process e-waste is around 43,800 tonnes per annum. The states dominating the e-waste processing units are Karnataka (57), Maharashtra (32), Uttar Pradesh (22), Haryana (16) and Tamil Nadu (14). Interestingly, if one looks at average per unit e-waste processing capacity in the states, Uttarakhand leads with around 9,333 tonnes per unit per year processing capacity, followed by Rajasthan at 6,867 tonnes per unit per year. This indicates the prevalence of larger units established in these states to process e-waste.

This raises the pertinent question on how large a typical e-waste processing unit should be in order to economically recover and recycle resources from e-waste. Typically, an e-waste processing unit in India recovers plastics, copper, aluminium and iron, which are sent for further refining and smelting. As the recycling statistics reported for China sales show, the income-generating materials are plastics (48%), copper (39%), aluminium (7%) and iron (6%). The e-waste recycling units in India still do not cater for the recovery of precious, semi-precious metals (gold, silver, etc,) and rare earth metals, as they are not equipped with technologies to do this, thereby losing high-value resources and affecting recycling viability.

The economies of scale for material recovery/recycling would essentially be a function of size of the facility, investment requirement, type and amount of pollution control and occupational health expenditure, kind of environmental and other clearances required, access to sufficient quantity of waste and the transport distance over which waste is required to be hauled for resource recovery. A 2007 study by DEFRA, UK, suggested that the optimum size required for a material recovery facility should be around 50,000 tonnes waste per annum. Certainly, the e-waste recycling units set up in India do not cater for such an intake for recycling. As far as the economics of waste recycling is concerned, transportation costs greatly influence economic viability of products recovery. Reverse logistics is one of the most important parameters in the management of waste equipment, accounting for 50–70% of the total costs. This figure is relatively high, especially when compared with logistics cost of a new product that represents only 10–15% of its price.

The Indian scenario can be compared with e-waste recycling in China. Like in India, the e-waste collection system in China is driven by the interests of the various players, including consumers and formal/informal waste collectors & recyclers. Thus, consumers are most willing to sell waste products to the collector offering the highest collection prices, which is usually the informal collector whose costs are lower, leading to most of the e-waste, especially the products containing high-value materials, flowing into the informal sector. Research shows that in China each truck can transport approximately 150 units of e-waste, and that the maximal logistic cost of each truck is $102–141. As the truck maintenance and labour fees are usually contained in the operating cost of the enterprises, the logistics cost in China would be mainly determined by the cost of diesel fuel and highway fees. Taking an average US$0.34/km cost for diesel fuel and US$0.25/km for the highway fee, the optimal transportation radius would vary from 173-239 km.

It is therefore crucial to look at the present capacity created for e-waste processing, with respect to their locations vis-à-vis hot spots for e-waste generation. It would also be useful to locate these units in say a 250 km radius from the bulk e-waste collection points and upgrade them with technologies to recover semi-precious, precious and rare earth metals to address our resource security of the future. Units processing less than 20% of the designed capacity can be subsequently phased out—a fewer number of larger units would also ensure better environmental monitoring of such units.

Suneel Pandey is Director (environment and waste management division), TERI 

Source: Financial Express

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