india holds the key to unlock the potential of global e-plastics value chain

India Holds The Key To Unlock The Potential Of Global E-plastics Value Chain

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste on the planet, with an annual increase of 3-4%. It is estimated that the amount of e-waste has increased to 52.2 million tons per year by 2021. A record 62 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was produced in 2022, Up 82% from 2010; On track to rise another 32%, to 82 million tonnes, in 2030.

Currently, only 15% of e-waste is recycled. One of the most important components of e-waste is plastic, which represents almost 20%. Despite several technological advances, their recovery is largely hindered by flame retardants. This article looks at some notable existing and emerging technologies, such as micro-factories used to produce e-waste plastics. In addition, we present their limitations, advantages and further development opportunities.

A recently published survey of US and foreign electronic waste has provided insight into how many operators handle recycled plastic from equipment. It also provided insight into why the domestic electronic processing industry has not yet developed.

In February 2024, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) published a report involving 370 electronic and plastic processors, brokers and other e-waste stakeholders from all around the globe.

With Asian plastic recycling markets still largely accessible to the businesses around the world and US, there is little incentive to invest in e-plastics resolution and capacity," the report said. , commissioned by SERI and graduated from consulting firm 4R Sustainability

After China banned imports of most recovered paper and plastics, the decision forced substantial global investment and a restructuring of the global recycling system. Now far more of those U.S., and other countries - generated recyclables remain in their respective country.

“If a similar disruption were to occur for e-plastics, could the same focus and investment occur to create new processing solutions that would create quality grades of plastic material that would be eligible for export to support electronics manufacturing in Asia?” the report probed.

Such a disruption is underway – indeed, it was the impetus for the report. The 2019 Basel Convention changes that altered how scrap plastic can be traded globally have added new regulations to e-plastics shipments between countries. And given the U.S.’s status as a non-party to the Basel Convention, the new regulations are technically a ban on exporting material from the U.S. to Basel-party countries.

Despite that, material continues to flow overseas because e-scrap firms lack robust alternatives and overall confusion around compliance – are the key drivers towards the approaches of the whole new value chain.

Typical e-plastics management

The report provides a picture of how several e-scrap companies handle e-plastics. About half of respondents said they use more than one preparation method to process e-plastics on-site. Of those, most said they manually dismantle plastics from devices and either bale or shred the plastics. A handful of respondents reported whole-unit shredding without any manual disassembly was their primary processing method.

“Of the U.S.-based electronics recyclers interviewed, the outlook for e-plastics in the U.S. was not positive,” SERI noted. “Most reported struggling to consistently move plastics from electronics. All electronics recyclers interviewed have explored the option of adding additional sortation capabilities for plastics but deemed the investments too risky. A lack of market certainty, potential regulatory changes and the risk of sustained, low virgin resin pricing were all seen as deterrents to integrating plastics separation onsite.”

As for downstream markets for those various sorted and unsorted streams, many respondents reported using multiple outlets. The majority, 70%, said they send e-plastics to plastics recycling companies; 36% said they send the material to another electronics recycling company for further separation; 31% used a broker; 33% sent the material directly to market for remanufacturing, a business practice largely confined to Asia; 32% used an incinerator or cement kiln; and 11% sent the plastics directly to landfill.

No recycler reported landfill or incineration as their exclusive method of managing e-plastics,” the report found. “Energy recovery seems to be preferred over landfill and that may be a reflection of zero landfill policies that are in place.

Additional industry challenges for e-plastics

Beyond Basel, SERI noted a number of factors creating a tough environment for e-plastics processing, as reported by respondent recycling companies. The challenges include:

  • “Highly volatile pricing” for e-plastics, particularly the difference between what Asian downstream will pay and what U.S. or other global buyers will pay.
  • Design choices by OEMs that make e-plastics recovery challenging, such as unclear communication over which resins are included in products, the use of additives that can trigger additional regulations on e-plastics, and the lack of recycled content included in plastic used in new electronics that is a missed opportunity to create a market for recycled e-plastics.
  • A lack of consistent, reputable end markets, largely due to quality specifications required by buyers.
  • Pricing competition between virgin and recycled resin, specifically the low cost of virgin resin that has the effect of lowering demand for recycled resin and therefore stymying greater interest in investing in e-plastics processing technologies in the U.S.

Asia Disrupting the E-Waste

When China shut the door to virtually all scrap plastics at the beginning of 2018, the impact on Chinese recycling companies was profound.

Plastic processors reacted very quickly, moving their operations to Southeast Asian countries. Because of that shift, global companies are facing higher costs to process e-plastics. They have to hire sorting experts, the labor market is different in Southeast Asia compared with China, and shipping costs are a lot higher.

Although China has stopped importing scrap plastic, the country remains the downstream location for the vast majority of recycled plastic pellets that are flowing into Southeast Asia.

Everything they process is still going back to China in the pellet format, because all the compounders are located in China, compounding is the process of mixing a base plastic material with additives.

After the shift from China to Southeast Asia, many buyers will not accept the volume of shredded e-plastic that used to move to China, and the material they do take fetches very low prices.

That’s because of the yield loss when processing: When shredded plastic is put through the first wash and separation process, between 30% and 40% of the plastic can be rejected and will end up being disposed.

India can potentially be a major player in Disrupting the E-Waste

India's imports of e-waste and scrap were estimated at nearly 7 lakh metric tons in 2018. E-waste imports into the country reached a record high of approximately 16 lakh metric tons in 2023.

The United Arab Emirates is the largest exporter of electrical and electronic waste to India, with shipments amounting to 39,800 metric tons in 2022. This was followed by Yemen, which exported some 29,500 metric tons of e-waste to India that year. In 2022, the total volume of electronic waste and scrap imported into India surpassed 240,800 metric tons.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates the e-waste generation at national level based on the countrywide sales data provided by producers and average life of notified electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), as mandated under the E-waste Management Rules, 2016. As per the information available with CPCB, e-waste generated in the country from twenty-one (21) types of EEE notified under the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016 since Financial Year (FY) 2017-18 is given below: