What led to the creation of Attero?
Attero started as an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling company with the idea of scientifically recycling all e-waste in India — from collecting it properly to recycling and extracting all metals and putting them back in the circular economy value chain. The company was founded in 2008 to rethink, redesign, restore and reuse materials from electronics and lithium-ion batteries. Today, we are the largest e-waste recycling company in India. We recycle all kinds of goods that work on electricity and electronics, like end-of-life television sets, refrigerators, laptops, computers, and others. We extract pure gold, silver, tin, copper, and aluminium from these machines by using recycling technologies developed in India and patented globally. We have roughly nine-plus global patents on e-waste recycling technologies. The patents are in India, the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia, and the metals that we extract are sold back in the circular economy in India.
How big is the e-waste problem in India? How much of it is recycled by Attero?
Most electronic commodities have a short lifespan and are discarded after use and contribute around 2.5 million tonnes of e-waste every year. Estimates say that by 2030, e-waste generation could shoot up to 74.7 million tonnes, posing the risk of exposure to toxic metals for humans and nature, in general.
Today, close to two million tonnes of e-waste are disposed of in the country. Attero is handling 5% of this. A majority of the e-waste in India is still being recycled in the informal sector by mom-and-pop shops on the street.
Tell us about your current network and capacity.
The company offers 360-degree nationwide pick-up, collection, tracking of e-assets, reverse logistics management, e-asset recovery, data security, refurbishment, e-waste recycling, and disposal. Attero is also the only company in India to recycle lithium-ion batteries by extracting 98% of cobalt and lithium carbonate of pharmaceutical grade and giving it back to the supply chain in addition to other metals and compounds, reducing the dependence on imports.
Three years ago, we started looking at lithium-ion battery recycling. It is the dominant battery technology today. There are three critical reasons for this: it has the highest energy density compared to other battery technologies, the fastest charging time, and the slowest discharging time. But more important is the fact that close to $100 billion has been invested in the lithium-ion ecosystem over the past two years and many more investments are happening every year. So that’s the technology that will remain at least for this decade, if not longer.
As these batteries become more ubiquitous in nature, disposal of the end-of-life batteries must be proper otherwise they will become an environmental hazard. Second, and more important, almost 50% of the cost of an EV is the cost of the battery, and out of that, at least 30% is the cost of raw materials that make it, including cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite and others. Each of these metals has significant environmental, social and governance issues. For example, almost 70% of the cobalt is mined in DR Congo, where the work is driven by child labour and warlords. With the current known sources of work and usage, the world will run out of cobalt by 2030.
In another example, 60% of the world’s lithium is mined in the lithium triangle, which spans Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. It is the world’s driest region, as traditional lithium mining is a water-guzzling process. To extract one tonne of lithium, more than 5,00,000 gallons of water are needed. The case is the same for graphite, nickel and the rest. When we looked at this market, we realised that if we can develop the right technology to recycle all kinds of lithium-ion batteries in an environment-friendly manner, not only are we solving the e-waste that gets created, but we are also making a significant change in the battery material supply chain.
What impact has your company made so far?
I’ll quantify the impact in three different buckets: capacity of waste handled, circular economy impact in terms of metals supplied, and the number of livelihoods created. This year, our capacity for electronic waste has been around 1,44,000 tonnes. We are aiming at doubling it to 3,00,000 tonnes by the end of the year. From the lithium-ion battery perspective, our current capacity is close to around 1,000 tonnes per annum, which will expand to 11,000 tonnes per annum — an 11-fold increase — by September this year.
On the circular economy front, I have two anecdotal examples. India is a net importer of tin ingots. By recycling electronic waste and extracting pure tin within this quarter or by the end of next quarter, we will make India the net exporter of tin ingots. This is the kind of impact Attero has had on self-reliance and the circular economy. The second aspect of this impact is lithium-ion batteries recycling. Given our expansion plans, we will end up supplying almost 17% of the world’s global demand for cobalt and 10% of its demand for graphite just by recycling lithium-ion batteries. From the livelihood perspective, the number of people employed directly by Attero is close to 200, and 2,000 if you include the indirect employment and informal sector associates.
Can you provide some insights regarding the potential of the circular economy in India?
The idea of the circular economy is simple. The less you mine from the earth, the better off you are from the environmental perspective. Now, to do that in the short term, there is more pain, as the cost will rise, but in the longer term, the cost will reduce. In some sectors, like lead, this break-even has been reached. You’ll be surprised to know that at least 70% of the lead that is used in lead-acid batteries in India today comes from recycled lead. This is a huge number. So, the circular economy is already happening in that space. A lot of aluminium and copper that is discarded in this country, almost all of it, gets recycled and used again in the circular economy, whether it is in wiring that is in homes or buildings or in utensils. Now we need to ensure that the circular economy starts to function with regard to other materials as well and becomes more formalised. The three critical challenges for the circular economy are quality, pricing, and scale.
We are extracting 98% of battery-grade cobalt, graphite, nickel, manganese dioxide, lithium carbonate. Globally, everybody else is below 70%. We are one step ahead
What are the key focus areas for the company?
Attero is essentially a technology company with a strong focus on technologies for sustainability. We are a strong R&D company, and that’s the reason we have 30-plus global patents. We are the only recycling company in the world to get carbon credits from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has agreed that the amount of energy required to extract one gramme of cop-per using Attero’s recycling processes is significantly less compared to the amount of energy spent to extract the same amount of copper from either a virgin mine or any other secondary source of the metal. We are extracting 98% of battery-grade cobalt, graphite, nickel, manganese dioxide, lithium carbonate. Globally, everybody else is below 70%. Whenever any new product comes to the market, we are one step ahead in developing methods to recycle it.
This year, we will start an end-consumer campaign to be run largely on social media. Probably, communication on outdoor media or direct media like radio will also happen. We have already started the pilot. In April, we will roll out the campaign all over the country.
What needs to be done by regulators, companies, civic bodies, and other stakeholders to deliver on the SDGs?
The question for all of us today is are we doing enough? We must put our best foot forward and be as aggressive as possible from the viewpoint of the government, manufacturer, recycler, consumer, and everybody else in the ecosystem. It will make a difference when a brand offers a consumer disposal of an old appliance in a scientific manner, having it recycled, lowering the carbon footprint and getting closer to the SDGs. The brand positioning will become important. We are already working on such a campaign.