In 2018, a study by ASSOCHAM-NEC reported that India was among the top five global producers of electronic waste along with the United States, China, Japan and Germany. As one of the fastest-growing electronics producers in the world, India releases around two million tonnes of e-waste annually. Only five per cent of it gets recycled, with the study citing poor infrastructure, legislation and framework as the reasons behind this.
More than 95 per cent of India’s e-waste is handed over to informal workers, instead of being recycled. The Government of India has formulated the E-waste Management Rules in 2016, which aims to direct e-waste to government-authorised dismantlers and recyclers. Very few know how to find these dealers.
It was precisely this situation that prompted Dr Shalini Sharma, Saraswati Devi and V Shiwaani to start Sanshodhan e-waste Exchange, an enterprise that provides last-mile connectivity to authorised e-waste collectors.
How it began
The idea for Sanshodhan was conceived in January 2017, recalls Shalini. During a routine house cleaning, she found that she had accumulated too many obsolete electronic items. When she decided to dispose of them, she saw that finding authorised scrap-dealers for the task proved to be quite a challenge. It was undoubtedly a problem that millions of Indians faced. There seemed to be a need for a more organised waste management infrastructure that could help everyone.
“I faced the problem of waste disposal of electronic products. In developed countries, a lot of initiatives are supported by the government compared to here in India. I thought of creating a self-sustained model for e-waste management that would help everyone,” says Shalini, who is also an environmental management and policy expert with around 16 years of field experience. Among the co-founders, Saraswati is an economist while Shiwaani is a social development expert.
The founders registered the enterprise in November 2017, and it was formally launched by the Department of IT and Department of Industries of Telangana at T-Hub on February 7, 2018, shortly before the team developed their minimum viable product. As a burgeoning startup hub, and being one of India’s biggest e-waste generating cities, Hyderabad proved to be an apt choice for Sanshodhan. The founders also credit the Telangana state government’s support to the startup ecosystem and sustainability initiatives as another reason for choosing the city.
Before the implementation of the E-waste Management Rules 2016, the management of e-waste was the domain of informal workers. Shalini notes that there were e-waste recyclers and dismantlers, but since few people knew about them, they usually gave it to door-to-door waste collectors who bought them to extract the metal. The extraction process involved the use of hazardous chemicals. The open burning of plastic e-waste also released toxic, carcinogenic fumes into the air and several chemicals were even dumped into open water bodies.
For Sanshodhan, however, the intention was to integrate these workers into the formal sector. “For ages, they have been extracting metals from electronic waste, so the 2016 policy was bound to affect their livelihood. The policy doesn’t have any provision for the informal sector. But they still do it because it is their livelihood, and we want to give them a solution. The aim is to help them out,” explains Shalini.
Since most citizens were still used to disposing of their e-waste through the informal sector, the team needed to understand how their services would be viable and sustainable. It became the focus of their pilots, which were conducted from February 2018 until May 2019.
“We had questions about whether people would like it or not. Another question was whether they would use it or not. If they would use it, then why? If they wouldn’t, then why not? We were also concerned with issues of transparency in the e-waste management sector. We also considered the simplicity of the app, the quality of services and the technology and best practices,” says Shalini.
In May 2018, Sanshodhan was incubated at T-Hub’s Lab 32 program. Describing their experience at T-Hub, Shalini notes, “The knowledge-sharing that happened during Lab 32 last year helped us organise our thoughts and build our development plan. T-Hub also introduced us to mentors who could help us. The people who were associated with us at Lab 32 were very supportive.”
Growth and success
User-friendliness has been a key priority for Sanshodhan. Its website currently displays seven user categories: Manufacturers, State Governments, Industry Clusters, Bulk Consumers, SMBS/Retailers/Refurbishers, Residential Societies/Individuals and Others. Once you have chosen your category, you will be directed to an e-form to enter what type of waste you want to dispose of, your contact details, when you want the e-waste collectors to visit you and then submit your form.
Sanshodhan also provides e-waste inventorisation services to manufacturers of electronic and electrical products and helps them with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) compliance and similar mandates. Further, they help companies implement large-scale awareness campaigns. Likewise, the startup helps state government departments and state pollution control boards with e-waste inventorisation and developing tech-based systems for efficient recycling. They also help consumers of electronic and electrical products with responsible recycling and meeting annual sustainability targets and even offer advisory services to help set up recycling units.
Sanshodhan has received acclaim both at home and abroad. In India, it won the Swacch Bharat Grand Challenge held by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Also, the startup is working with the Government of Telangana to implement the e-waste Management Rules 2016. It will also be working in the Government of India’s smart cities project.
The startup’s success abroad has been even more commendable. In 2018, it vetted its innovation with various prestigious international organisations, including the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the European Electronics Recyclers Association (EERA) in Vienna. EERA, even encouraged them to talk to the Austrian government to share their solution.
Their efforts were also well received by UNIDO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and in June 2018, the startup was published by the global network of Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production (RECPnet), convened by UNIDO and UNEP. In February 2019, Sanshodhan was also recognised by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a ‘Highly Commended’ startup in its Circulars 2019’s Dell Award for Circular Economy People’s Choice. Sanshodhan E-Waste Exchange was also recognised as a Global Top 10 Startup and was presented with the Better Together Award by GIZ and the Ministry of Environment in Germany.
With e-waste posing a major global threat to the environment today, sustainability startups like Sanshodhan are doing crucial work. It is worth considering what more they could achieve with greater support from governments and other private bodies.
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