How 'urban mines' are redefining e-waste management

A clutch of companies in India are helping turn waste to wealth

94-Workers-at-the-Cerebra-plant-at-Narasapura-Karnataka Treasures from trash: Workers at the Cerebra plant at Narasapura, Karnataka | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

A trip to the e-waste recycling plant at Narasapura Industrial Area in Karnataka reminds one of the famous Kolar Gold Fields, which used to be near the plant decades ago. Run by Cerebra Integrated Technologies Ltd, the Narasapura plant has a similar function―it is an ‘urban mine’ where precious metals and useful material are separated from electronic waste.

Cerebra is one of the largest organised e-waste processing companies in India. Spread across 12 acres at Narasapura, it has three facilities with a built-up area of two lakh square feet. Inside the buildings are huge piles of old monitors, keyboards, modems and laptops―e-waste getting ready to be ‘mined’. Around 80 people work in three shifts here.

Cables and wires of various kinds are heaped up in one facility. They would yield copper and aluminium. There is a dedicated area for crushing printed circuit boards and segregating plastic and other material. Cerebra also provides dedicated e-waste processing facilities for specific customers.

Urban mining could well be the next big sunrise industry in the larger technology sphere. “Opportunity-wise, urban mining is phenomenal,” says Ravi Neeladri, CEO, Cerebra. “If it weren’t so big, it would not have been mentioned in the economic survey and the Union budget.”

E-waste can yield not just plastic, copper and aluminium, but also precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium. But a lot of processes go into the segregation and mining part. “A tonne of ore from a gold mine can yield gold worth around $400, whereas a tonne of good-quality PCBs (printed circuit board) can give gold worth $38,300. This is the reason urban mining is getting such traction,” he says.

India is the third largest generator of e-waste in the world. Every year, the country churns out 3.1 million tonnes of electronic waste, which the growth of the urban mining industry can help turn to wealth. According to Neeladri, refining copper from copper cables is more energy efficient than extracting copper from copper ores.

The precious metals being mined at Cerebra include palladium, copper, gold, silver and nickel. “Palladium is used in circuit boards and computer chips for multi-layer ceramic capacitors,” says Neeladri. “Precious metals can also be recovered from household appliances, IT and telecommunication equipment, consumer electronics, and small industrial, professional and medical tools.”

Neeladri says urban mining in India has a long way to go before it catches up with developments in the west. “Governments there ask OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to charge a certain amount from customers who purchase electronics items. The money will only be returned when the customer returns the used item at their own expense. Concepts like that do not exist here. In the European Union, one can dispose one’s electronic waste by going to a designated area, dropping the waste and paying [the waste processing company].”

Breaking new ground: The Metastable Materials facility in Bengaluru. Breaking new ground: The Metastable Materials facility in Bengaluru.

Around 95 per cent of e-waste in India ends up with kabadiwalas, or untrained scrap collectors. They take whatever is useful and dump the rest. The absence of a proper channel―for people to dispose their e-waste and for e-waste companies to access them―is the biggest challenge that urban mining in India is facing.

The market potential, however, remains huge. The global electrical and electronics market is expected to grow from $3.08 trillion in 2021 to $4.1 trillion by 2026. The increasing volume of e-waste across the world is driving the demand for processing and recycling technologies. The Economic Survey of India for 2018-19 had highlighted that India can extract $1 billion worth of gold from mining urban e-waste.

With sustained economic growth and the increasing pace of digitisation in India, there has been a huge uptick in the use of electronic items, especially in tier-II and tier-III cities. But experts say urban mining clusters in India have only reached the developing stage. There are no significant clusters that can be counted as fully developed. Though majority of the e-waste in India are processed by players in the informal sector, they cannot be counted as urban mining clusters.

“Players in the informal sector are processing e-waste in an inefficient, and potentially unsafe, manner,” says Masood Mallick, CEO of the Hyderabad-based e-waste management company Re Sustainability Ltd. “Urban mining, which is in the formal sector, can lead to the safe and efficient recovery of resources. Because of the rapidly increasing demand for electronics, it is critical that efficient refining technology takes a firm place in the Indian economy. It will reduce import dependency, increase safety awareness, and build a circular economy.”

Mallick says an effective and sustainable refining system would provide enormous opportunities for India’s economy. He says his company’s facility in Hyderabad is the first of its kind in Asia. It is positioned to achieve certification as the first LEED Platinum facility in Asia. (LEED, which is the acronym for leadership in energy and environmental design, is a widely used green building rating system.) The facility is spread across 13.26 acres, and it has a processing capacity of 20,000 tonnes.

New companies are joining the urban mining bandwagon. Bengaluru-based Metastable Materials, for instance, is trying to change the outlook on how urban mining processes can be carried out by borrowing from old mining practices. Metastable claims to be one of the first in the world to recover as much as 90 per cent of material from dead lithium-ion batteries without the use of any chemicals.

It is developing a new technology to extract lithium, cobalt and nickel out of dead batteries. Metastable is also in the process of commissioning its first urban mining unit on the outskirts of Bengaluru, which will be capable of handling as much as 6 per cent of India’s current recycling needs.

“The future is promising given the exponential rise of electric vehicles,” says Shubham Vishvakarma, founder and chief of process (engineering) at Metastable Materials. “The volume of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries that will be discarded from EVs and consumer electronic devices would require the industry to scale up. India simply cannot lose the opportunity to let such valuable resources go to waste.”

Vishvakarma says sustainable processes are needed to keep the hazardous lithium-ion batteries out of landfills. Also, India does not have its own mines for rare metals like lithium, cobalt and nickel. “A major challenge in urban mining is the processes used themselves,” he says. “Current industry practices rely heavily on the use of chemicals to extract metals like cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper and aluminium from lithium-ion batteries, which are going to be a major contributor to e-waste in the coming years.”

Currently, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are gradually developing as urban mining clusters. But a key challenge to the industry is absence of awareness about the need for disposing e-waste in a safe manner.

“The [disposal process] is dominated by the informal sector, which does not cater to global health norms,” says Kudiarasu Selvan, managing director, E-Cycle Solutions, Bengaluru. “The quantum of e-waste generated in India is such that there is huge potential for existing and upcoming organisations. But it will be difficult to predict the future of the sector until there is a paradigm shift in public thinking regarding e-waste.”