Achitra Borgohain, CEO of Binbag Recycling Services, which has recycled over 900 tonnes of e-waste from across the length and breadth of the country since its inception in conversation with Utkarsh Akhouri, Mining and Metals Lead of the Circular Collective
With the increasing pace of urbanization, e-waste is among the topmost issues in the modernized world and constantly generating several hazardous and toxic elements like calcium, lead, mercury, chromium and polybrominated biphenyls to the environment. As the demand for advanced electronic products increases the resource required for production become scarce, and thus managing e-waste is the best solution for the reverse supply of the resources.
The Circular Collective: Thank you again for taking out time for the Circular Collective. This month we are looking into critical raw materials and their linkages to Circular Economy. I believe you have a background in venture capital, investment banking and consulting service. What was your motivation behind starting an e-waste management company?
Achitra: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. It goes back to 2014 when we were moving homes and I wanted to dispose of our old computer and other electronic junk that you accumulate over the years. What I thought was a substantial amount of old electronics was not enough for recyclers to come for a pickup. And there were no drop-off points or collection centres for e-waste that I knew of. I thought there must be a better way to do this.
The first version of Binbag was creating a network of collection agents for consumer e-waste. I collected e-waste from door-to-door in my car for the first 15 months. But the economics of collection was difficult to make it work. I was too naïve to think we could service the whole of Bangalore.
Cut to the chase, we pivoted to B2B model with a focus on SMBs who had a similar issue of generating smaller lot sizes and overlooked by recyclers. Today, we operate two recycling units and setting up the third one.
The Circular Collective: Manufacturers of electrical and electronic goods are required to manage their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) through a Producer Responsibility Organisation or PRO. Could you please elaborate on how does this work in India? In the Netherlands, for example, the costs for the collection and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment are borne by the producers and importers. How does this work for a country like India? And where does Binbag work in this ecosystem?
Achitra: E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016, made EPR mandatory for the producers in India. The working model is similar to the Netherlands, or any other Western country, where the producer pays a ‘fee’ to the PRO for collection and channelizing the e-waste to recyclers. Under EPR, the collection target was 10% in the first year and increases by another 10% in the subsequent years. We are at 40% right now, which is huge. To put this in context, the EPR target for the major white goods manufacturers in India is approx. 1mn tons in the next two years. The quantum of the collection target and positive regulatory factors has brought the focus on PROs. At last count, there are 34 PROs in India registered with CPCB. We are also an authorized PRO and work with a couple of producers.
The Circular Collective: At a global level, how would you rate the level of e-waste management ecosystem in India (in terms of technological advancement, government policies, enabling business environment) as compared to the more developed and proactive countries?
Achitra: Compared to developed nations, India is definitely at a nascent stage but fast-evolving. One reason for this could be that we never saw electronic goods as waste until it was staring at our face with all the toxic dumping in the landfills. Suddenly, it was a big problem which needed urgent action. And we framed regulations mandating companies and bulk generators to comply with. But, as we all know, compliance is a long and gradual process. Especially SMBs who do not generate big lots of e-waste and recyclers do not find it viable to service them. How do we make the collection more efficient? This requires more proactive intervention from the government (e.g. create common collection centres in an industrial zone) and financial interventions (viability gap funding) that bring more and more companies into the formal recycling ambit.
From a technology point of view, I believe there has been some progress in terms of recycling precious metals within the country. Most of it otherwise was going outside of India. But my point is - today, we are at less than 10% recycling rate in the formal channel. Even if there is a superior technology available, where is the material to process? On the positive side, the regulations are favourable and given the size of the problem, recently we have seen a lot of recyclers entering into space.
The Circular Collective: The success of a Circular Supply chain for any consumer goodwill largely depends on the level of support and commitment of all stakeholders involved including manufactures, retail sellers, and consumers. In your experience how is the awareness and response of stakeholders in the electronic goods supply chain towards the recycling initiatives?
Achitra: I have a 3A theory for a circular economy. If the circular economy is the end goal, these 3As act as the pillars laid on the foundation of strong regulations. The three As are - Awareness, Access and Assets.
Whether its manufacturers, retail sellers or consumers, Awareness is the first step. While regulations are making it mandatory for bulk generators/manufacturers to dispose of their e-waste through right channels, small retail sellers and consumers are still not aware of their responsibility. Government, Industry bodies, PROs, recyclers should come together to create awareness about the issue.
By Assets, I mean recycling infrastructure. As a country, we have an installed recycling capacity of 0.8 mn tons per annum. Compare this with the annual generation of 3 mn tons, we are at one-fourth of what we require. Hence, we need more recycling and processing units.
The Access part is the most tricky and difficult, in my opinion. If you are an aware citizen but require to travel 50 km to the outskirts of the city to dispose of your 10 kg CPU, would you do that? If you said Yes, then you are in the 0.01% of the population, which is good but not enough. The remaining would dump it with other garbage, or at best, not take the action at all. So while we are asking for a change in habits, we need to shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can’t help but score a victory. Some of them could be creating permanent drop-off centres in residential localities, retailers, mailing e-waste filled boxes to recyclers.
All these seem overwhelming when you look at it as one Big, Audacious Goal. Which is why there is a play for many different players across the value chain.
The Circular Collective: The process of waste separation and material recovery is highly labour intensive and technologically complex. As someone who has been a part of this industry, what do you feel has been the toughest challenge in this end to end process?
Achitra: In my opinion, the collection – collecting efficiently - is the most difficult part. I was reading a book Junkyard Plant by Adam Minter and he summarizes it very well “ Finding enough computers to justify opening computer reuse or recycling business? That might be even harder”. The point he was making that the technology to recycle is available or can be hired if you have the money. But how do you ensure a continuous material supply to keep the plant running optimally?
At Binbag, our focus from day one has been to create the collection network, or supply chain if you may, for e-waste. Which is why we are taking a distributed, decentralized approach of setting up recycling units. This helps us to be closer to the markets we operate and sell, and keep costs low.
The Circular Collective: From an Operational perspective, given the initial success of Binbag’s mission of accelerating adoption of a circular economy, what are your plans for scaling up? (In terms of locations and services offered?). Particularly, how do you see the potential of tier II and tier III cities in India as service locations?
Achitra: Our overarching goal is to grow the market. Everybody wins when the market grows from the current 10% to say, 70%. For this to happen, we would need to act on all the 3As I mentioned earlier.
As for Binbag, we want to partner with smaller recyclers that are present in markets that we can’t reach or new ones who want to set up and we can work with them. And these could be in tier II & III towns. For the record, we have set up the first e-waste recycling unit in the Northeast, based in Guwahati. In terms of e-waste generation, I would say it is a tier II town. As a PRO, we are working with various collection centres and would expand that going forward.
The Circular Collective: Any words of wisdom for young sustainability enthusiasts? Something they should keep in mind while venturing into this field.
Achitra: I am pretty new to the sustainability space myself and don’t think I have “words of wisdom”. But one question that could be useful to ask yourself is “ Do I care enough to give 10 years of my life to make any meaningful impact?” Anything short of that is wishful thinking.