The United Nations has warned of an e-waste ‘tsunami' if more is not done to combat the world's fastest-growing waste stream, which reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018.
"Allow it to happen." That's the Hindi name for a start-up that's on a mission to clean up India's massive electronic waste mountain, Karo Sambhav.
Every year, 3.2 million metric tonnes of old smartphones, laptops, monitors, and other electronic devices are produced in the country. Much of it is recycled, but in often filthy and dangerous conditions, with little oversight.
Karo Sambhav aims to bring together manufacturers, distributors, and recyclers to coordinate their efforts in the fight against e-waste, resulting in a more sustainable and circular economy. Microsoft, which has set a goal of producing "zero waste" by 2030, is supplying the technology.
The United Nations has warned of an e-waste "tsunami" if more isn't done to address the world's fastest-growing waste stream, which reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018. According to the World Economic Forum's New Circular Vision for Electronics, it's time for a "global reboot" to speed up the solutions – and opportunities – buried beneath this toxic mountain.
The e-waste problem in India is complicated. The country's burgeoning, the tech-savvy economy has given birth to one of the world's largest electronics markets, as well as a plethora of used and unwanted products. Small workshops, however, abound in a city like New Delhi, recycling everything from cables to motherboards.
The government has taken action as well: new e-waste management regulations were implemented in 2012, requiring electronics manufacturers to recycle their products.
These forces should be in sync when viewed as a whole. Even so, only 2% of the country's electronics are recycled, and where they are, workers are often exposed to acid baths while extracting precious metals from e-waste.
Something isn't working, and Karo Sambhav founder Pranshu Singhal thinks he's figured out what it is and how to fix it.
"The entire ecosystem has to collaborate," he tells Microsoft Stories India, “from collection channels to dismantling and recycling companies to organizations that use secondary materials for new product creation." "Only then will we be able to solve the problem at scale, because we won't be able to solve it on our own."
Trust and Technology
Singhal understood that his team would have to earn the trust of the major scrap merchants – known as "aggregators" – in cities such as New Delhi. Karo Sambhav's staff gradually established relationships in these neighborhoods. They required more than goodwill, however.
The teams started electronically documenting and tracking the aggregators' e-waste shipments. Members of the team now use an app to upload photos and other information, barcoding each item in transit. Microsoft's Azure cloud platform then hosts the data. Azure Cognitive Services' image recognition ensures that what's on the bill matches what's on the truck at all times.
As a result, Karo Sambhav has grown quickly, now partnering with hundreds of businesses, government agencies, 5,000 informal sector aggregators, and 800 repair shops. It collected and recycled around 12,000 metric tonnes of e-waste in 2018.
Life has also changed for collectors and recyclers. Suhaib Malik, an aggregator, tells Microsoft, "Business has improved a lot." He adds, "We don't even have to break down the keyboards anymore." "We just hand them over in their current state." Smaller waste pickers are also provided help with tax registrations and paperwork, which is crucial to Singhal's vision of a better movement.
A new world vision
The remedies Karo Sambhav is leading the way in India in demonstrating some of the ways the world can address the massive e-waste problem on a global scale.
Improved product monitoring, as well as take-back programs, may aid in the creation of a more efficient recycling chain – both for the environment and for those involved in the process.
Technology may also be able to assist in the cleanup of its own mess. The Forum and e-waste experts point to cloud and internet of things (IoT) innovations as examples of how the electronics industry could be "dematerialized." We are expected to own fewer things in the future and instead lease technology as a service, providing manufacturers with higher incentives to repurpose and reuse.
Besides this, only about 20% of e-waste is currently being properly processed around the world. Companies, recyclers, and customers must all learn from Karo Sambhav and work together better – and faster – if the $62.5 billion annual value of e-waste is to be fully exploited.
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