During the 27th meeting of the Conference of the Parties held in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022, India reiterated its pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. It submitted its Long-Term Low Emissions Growth Strategy, which indicated the low carbon transition pathways to follow in key economic sectors. Included in this strategy were pushes to increase electric vehicle penetration, transition away from fossil fuels, and develop new technologies and infrastructure to enable this transition. The manufacturing of these will require large quantities of critical minerals and metals, which are also referred to as critical raw materials (CRMs). However, the supplies of some CRMs are likely to be disrupted due to non-availability or risks of unaffordable price spikes. Various factors affect the supply risks of CRMs, including the global concentration of extraction and processing activities, import reliance, governance regimes in resource-abundant countries, lack of substitutes, and low rates of end-of-life recycling.

Securing the supply chains of CRMs will be imperative for India to meet its AatmaNirbhar Bharat goals and climate mitigation commitments. India currently relies on CRM supplies from other countries in their primary or manufactured forms despite India’s mineral geology often being compared with major mining jurisdictions like Western Australia, South Africa and South America. Still, much of the country’s geological potential is yet to be explored. While India can work on incentivising exploration and other policy changes to boost the mining of critical minerals domestically, other avenues must be found to secure these supply chains. Trade agreements and the acquisition of foreign mineral assets, for example, are viable strategies also employed by other major economies. There also exists an untapped wealth of recovering CRMs from electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) waste (e-waste), referred to as “urban mines”.

E-waste contains many reusable materials, including base metals, precious metals, and rare earth elements. With hundreds of millions of electronic devices sold in India annually, there will be a large scope for critical minerals’ recovery from discarded EEE in the coming few years. India is currently the third-biggest contributor to e-waste, with 3.3 million tonnes produced in 2019, compared to 53.6 million tonnes globally. The global figure is estimated to increase to 74 million tonnes by 2030. However, only 17.4% of the e-waste generated in 2019 was collected and recycled.

Promoting the recycling of e-waste would provide an opportunity to stabilise the market with assured domestic supplies of CRMs, and conserve energy and the environment by reducing requirements from mines. Recycled metals can be 2 to 10 times more energy-efficient than metals smelted from virgin ore. China, for example, has succeeded in producing more cobalt by recycling than by mining. There are, however, several techno-economic viability concerns about this process. Extracting CRMs from e-waste requires complex technologies, some of which may dirty the environment. These materials would then need to be processed to fit the requirements of the relevant manufacturing supply chains. With technological advancements and legislative pushes, recycled copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10% globally by 2040.

However, recycling rates in India are currently low, with some lead, copper and nickel success. Much of the e-waste management in India is done by the informal sector, including collection, segregation, dismantling, and recycling. India must further encourage the sustainable collection of e-waste and the recovery of materials from its urban mines. The Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2003, ministry of environment, forests & climate change (MoEF&CC), vide the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, gave a hazardous tag to e-waste. Additionally, the rules stipulated that anyone looking to recycle or process e-waste must register with the Central Pollution Control Board, and certain types of e-waste may not be imported.

The MoEF&CC later introduced the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in 2011, requiring electronics makers to take financial and physical responsibility for managing their products’ disposal at their end-of-life. In 2016, the EPR rules were broadened to introduce a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) to help collect and recycle e-waste and brought buy-back, deposit refund and exchange schemes under the EPR. Under the revised rules, industries must collect 60% of the generation of e-waste from end-of-life products in 2022-23 and 70% from 2023 onward. There are some success stories in India, such as recycling li-ion batteries and extracting gold and silver from e-waste. However, despite the legislative drive, much of the 1443 kilotonnes/annum recycling capacity of the 474 authorised recyclers in India remains under-utilised.

The Draft National Resource Efficiency Policy 2019 may pave the way for India to become more serious about increasing its e-waste recycling. It envisions ensuring the security of material supply and reducing import dependency on essential materials through circular economy approaches. Integrating the informal recycling sector with formal industries may improve the current overall recycling efficiency of 20-30%. Establishing material recovery targets, implementing global good practice recycling standards, and monitoring the life cycle of electronics will further help boost India’s CRM needs. A recent CSEP working paper titled Critical Minerals for India: Assessing their Criticality and Projecting their Needs for Green Technologies shows that India has import reliance on various CRMs, including nickel, cobalt, rare earth elements and lithium. The availability of recycled CRMs through processing urban mines will add to the security and resilience of India’s supply chains and enable the country to meet climate action goals and environmental conservation.

The article has been authored by Rajesh Chadha, senior fellow and and Ganesh Sivamani, research associate, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *