Urban mining can wean India off China reliance

Before it's too late

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Lou Del Bello

Aug 20 2020

6 mins read

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The self reliance conundrum

  • India’s efforts to boost manufacturing are only shifting the goalposts, as most key materials still come from abroad
  • Regulating the informal sector is key to tap into the potential of e-waste recycling

As India tries to untangle itself from China’s dominance, its clean energy future increasingly depends on the ability to make what it needs at home. It’s a precarious balance - close the borders too tight and too quickly, and the renewable energy industry that still relies on cheap imports will be crippled. Lean in and let solar and electric mobility grow even more dependent on foreign supply chains, and India will be at the mercy of the latest diplomatic spat or fickle policy it has no control over.

To break free from this impasse, India is earmarking coastal areas around its main ports to establish solar manufacturing hubs, encouraging local makers by imposing custom duties on cheap imports, and launched a program to encourage the production of batteries and EV components. Storage will be at the core of India’s energy transition, but there is one weak spot to its efforts: some of the minerals essential to this technology are not found in the country.

Even if batteries are manufactured locally, most essential components still come from abroad. The key minerals currently used in battery technologies are lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite, iron, and titanium.

Currently, Chile owns 51 percent of the world’s lithium, followed by Australia and Argentina. India doesn’t have any. India has also no nickel, and though there are some limited graphite reserves, their quality is not up to scratch. Most of the world’s cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but none is currently mined in India. At least, not from the earth. 

But there is another way. Much of the materials used to produce batteries can be recovered from old laptops, phones, discarded fridges, TVs and other electronic waste that currently ends up polluting India’s landfills - a strategy known as urban mining.

Urban mining is key for India to become self-reliant, says Rajat Verma, CEO of the company Lohum Cleantech, which recovers precious minerals from e-waste. “Regardless of whether India can create battery packs or EVs, they don’t work without battery cells, something that countries such as China realised early on,” he says.

If India manages to break free from Chinese dominance when it comes to manufacturing, but remains dependent on its materials, it’s only shifting the goalposts. Currently, Verma says, China controls (directly or indirectly) more than 70 percent the raw material and refinery supply. 

“Those who control the supply chains will always have a significant advantage,” he explains. “Cell manufacturers need access to critical battery materials to produce cells, battery pack manufacturers need access to cells to produce packs and EV companies need access to all of these materials to operate.”

 

Controlling the supply chain

Because the world’s largest reserves are mostly scattered in politically unstable countries, the potential for recycling has become a critical focus for companies and governments.

Initial estimates by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s (CEEW) suggest that manufacturing one GW hour (GWh) of battery capacity through the common lithium-nickel manganese cobalt oxide (abbreviated as NMC) technology would require up to 85 tonnes of lithium and up to 360 tonnes of cobalt, manganese and nickel, although numbers may vary depending on the manufacturing process.

And although there is no verifiable estimate of the amount of e-waste that is recycled at the moment, according to the India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA), the capacity of lithium-ion battery recycling in India could reach 31 GWh by 2030. 

What makes urban mining so tricky in India is that the vast majority of the country’s e-waste is currently recycled by the informal sector - starting with garbage collectors going door to door and unregulated recycling centres where workers manually separate the waste. Bansidhar Bandi, former officer with the Energy & Climate Change Division at the policymaking agency NITI Aayog, says there are over 3,000 centres engaged in informal e-waste recycling in and around India’s cities.

“Informal workers generally collect e-waste from ragpickers, disassemble products for usable parts that have a resale value and chemically treat the remaining material to recover precious metals,” he explains. However, these workers generally lack the technical know-how and skills to extract materials from e-waste efficiently, Bandi says. “They employ crude methods which lead to a low recovery and extraction efficiency.”

Forgotten recycling parks

Visitors who have seen these recycling centers tell me that the problem goes well beyond the lack of efficiency. People often live and work in these areas with no roads and no stable buildings, where a spell of rain is enough to damage homes and waste processing. Child labour is rife, and there is no protective equipment. Dangerous chemicals are burnt or spill into the ground and water causing serious harm to the residents.

If India wants to become self reliant, it can’t ignore the minerals that are the lifeblood of its clean energy industry, and are still provided in large part by China. But while enhancing energy security has previously come with trade-offs such as new coal investments, this time it could come with an array of other advantages. 

For example, researchers at NITI Aayog had been exploring the idea of E-Waste Recycling Parks. This would involve renovating the existing informal recycling clusters, without the need to use up new land to build infrastructure from scratch, and would help residents with amenities and healthier living conditions.

As NITI Aayog can only suggest ideas, the concept is yet to see the light of day. This is in part because implementing bodies, particularly around Delhi where most of these clusters are located, didn’t want to draw too much attention to the problem, according to sources involved in the project. 

But as the trade war with China moves ahead, and Prime Minister Modi’s vision for a self reliant India becomes a matter of urgency, this may be a good time to revisit the plan.


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