Cleaning up India’s mountains of e-waste

Grassroots startup Karo Sambhav ramps up its quest for responsible recycling

Men standing in a pile of e-waste

The alleys of Mustafabad are dotted with hole-in-the-wall workshops that are crammed full of discarded PCs and tech gear from another era. Bits and pieces of electronic waste are piled high, precariously balanced atop each other as if they were Jenga blocks. A visit to this shanty town and others like it in north-east New Delhi is like wandering into a scene from Wall-E, albeit with humans.

Now an ambitious startup is working hard to clean it up by taking on the seemingly impossible task of formalizing India’s murky e-waste economy.

Karo Sambhav means “make it possible” in Hindi. It sees itself as “a movement” to get multiple players—manufacturers, distributors, recyclers—to act sustainably and create a circular economy with the help of new digital solutions.

“The whole ecosystem, right from collection channels to dismantling and recycling companies to organizations that utilize secondary materials for new product creation, has to collaborate,” says founder Pranshu Singhal. “Only then we can solve the problem at scale, because it is not possible to tackle this problem alone.”

India, with its rising middle class and zooming technology penetration, is one of the largest electronics markets in the world. And it’s also one of the world’s most prolific e-waste generators—ranking third with 3.2 million metric tons annually according to Global E-waste Monitor. It has a poor track record of disposing of used and unwanted electronics with only two percent being recycled.

Roughly 7,200 tons of e-waste lands in India’s capital city from across the country and abroad every day. Most of it ends up in hundreds of small undocumented shops where bands of low-paid men and women dismantle junked desktops, laptops, monitors, smart phones, and all sorts of old gadgets by hand. Salvaged circuit boards and pulled out cables are sold on to crude recycling operations where workers with little or no protective gear use acid baths to extract valuable metals.

The scale of the challenge is massive and resistance to the push for sustainability has been high. Within India’s informal economy, scrap collection has been a generational livelihood carried out in much the same way for years. It is a dirty, inefficient, unregulated, and often unsafe trade.

When Karo Sambhav first started to spread the concept of responsible recycling some scrap merchants–known as aggregators–simply shut their doors. Being able to build confidence was crucial so a few of the organization’s field staff moved into homes in neighborhoods where aggregators lived—like Seelampur in New Delhi or Kurla in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. Eventually relationships were formed.

Suhaib Malik is a third-generation aggregator, one of the hundreds based in Mustafabad. His father and grandfather traded in scrap iron for decades. The 26-year-old ventured into the unknown, but promising, e-waste sector in 2018 when he heard how others were making a lot more money by switching.

Now he is expanding his operation further by doing business sustainably with Karo Sambhav. Working conditions in his shop and his financial bottomline have improved.

“We don’t even have to break down the keyboards anymore,” he says. “We just hand them over as is.” This exempts his workers from hours of harmful labor dealing with toxic waste. Now, every couple of weeks a truck drives in to weigh the electronics and pack them neatly into barcoded gunnysacks to be taken to certified responsible recyclers.

Steady demand from this new customer means “business has improved a lot,” notes Malik, whose shop has defunct CPUs and keyboards stacked outside like a Nam June Paik installation. He sources e-waste from about 100 smaller dealers in New Delhi, as well as eastern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal some 1,000 miles away. In 2018 he only had four sources.

He feels proud that after three generations of being in the scrap business, his family’s enterprise is finally tax-compliant and properly organized as a business.

open doors of a warehouse revealing piles of sacks filled with e-waste
Karo Sambhav’s e-waste collection center near old Mustafabad in New Delhi, India (Photo: Amit Verma for Microsoft)
a sack full of old laptops
E-waste is collected in bar-coded gunny sacks to transport them to responsible recyclers. (Photo: Amit Verma for Microsoft)

Mumbai-based Taj Mohammad picked apart scrap in his teens and set up a business a decade ago. He recalls being suspicious when initially contacted by Karo Sambhav.

“At first you always fear that there could be fraud. Will they take the material and not pay in time?” he recalls. “Slowly, as we began selling small amounts of scrap to them, a trust developed.”

Competitive prices and timely payments prompted him to play by the book and increase his sales to Karo Sambhav, which pays him regularly every two weeks compared to other customers who sometimes make him wait for months. Mohammad collected and sold more than 180 tons of old laptops and keyboards to the organization last year, up from 50 tons sold in 2018.

Technology helps weave transparency into each step of Karo Sambhav’s operation. When a team collects a waste shipment from an aggregator, its members upload photographs and details into an app. This information is hosted securely on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.

Barcoding means every item is accounted for in transit, and once back in office, image recognition using Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services helps reconcile details in the aggregator’s bill with what had been loaded on the truck. The logistics trucks are GPS-enabled so the onward journey to recyclers can be tracked. Thanks to being on a secure cloud like Azure, every piece of scrap can be tracked at all times – from pickup through to responsible recycling.

Singhal’s founding of Karo Sambhav is the result of a lifelong passion for environmental protection. He has a master’s degree from Sweden’s International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE). He was also trained by Thomas Lindhqvist who coined the principle of “extended producer responsibility” (EPR), which argues that producers must hold responsibility for what happens with products after consumers are done using them.

Singhal finds it fascinating that humans are the only species that generate waste. “We turn elements into compounds, components, and then products. But converting those products back into their elemental form—how do we create the second part of that product system?” He worked on this problem during his stint with Nokia in Finland, Singapore, and later India.

In 2012 the Indian government introduced new e-waste management rules that oblige companies that release products in the market to also collect those products back for recycling. Five years after that policy change, Singhal felt compelled to launch an outfit that could help producer organizations to go about this expectation transparently.

“Until and unless there was good clean implementation, the policy would die down, and the government would not apply the same principle to other product categories,” he says. Several global tech giants—driven both by a need to meet regulations in their own businesses and a desire to bring change at the grassroots in India—supported him, including Mi India, the country’s largest smartphone and smart TV brand.

Mi India partnered with Karo Sambhav to help its customers get their e-waste picked up from their homes or dropped it off at its stores across the country.

“At Mi India, we believe that our focus should not only be on responsible recycling, but also on awareness generation. Karo Sambhav is creating awareness with schools and bulk consumers of electronic waste through awareness events. They are working very closely with the informal sector and helping them embrace the formal sector and they have succeeded in doing it,” says Prateik Das, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Lead, Mi India.

“But they can’t do it alone. All stakeholders, including the government, brands, customers, dealers, informal sector, recyclers, and producer responsibility organizations (like Karo Sambhav) need to come together and build a self-sustained ecosystem. As per the current rule, the entire liability of collecting and recycling e-waste is on brands only and because of this, the end result is not always so impressive.”

Karo Sambhav is present in 28 states and 3 union territories in the country today, where it has engaged with more than 500 companies and government institutions, 22,700 schools, 5,000 informal sector aggregators, and 800 repair shops.

Operations manager Ashvinee Mawar notes with amusement how the logistical planning for this mammoth operation began on the living room floor of Singhal’s Gurgaon apartment. “The first collection we ever picked up from New Delhi in 2017 was just 400 kilograms. We went at midnight because these markets were too congested during daytime,” he recalls.

Over the next year, Karo Sambhav was able to collect and send about 12,000 metric tons of e-waste for recycling. In locations where it does not have an office yet, the organization has set up collection centers. The smaller waste pickers it works with also get hand holding for goods and services tax (GST) registrations and for making and maintaining bill books.

E-waste was a pilot project for the team, which aims to create similar circular economies for plastic waste too. They are also trying to inspire people to enable recycling as a way of life.

The benefits of engaging closely with the informal network are already apparent. Karo Sambhav’s field staff are invited to weddings in the Malik family, for example. Steady orders and payments have given the small businessman an impetus to expand into other kinds of discarded electronics like chargers, and his enthusiasm has stirred fellow scrap aggregators in Mustafabad to join the movement.

“It is a better way of doing things,” says Malik. “In my opinion, this movement will have a long life.”

Ranjita Ganesan is a journalist and researcher based in Mumbai.