Tackling E-Waste in India’s Electric Vehicle Transition

By – Neha Chauhan

India’s Steady Embrace of Electric Vehicles

India, surging ahead as a major global economy and one of the world’s most populous nations, grapples with a critical challenge: the environmental toll of expanding its road transport infrastructure. While these infrastructures are essential for driving development, their rapid growth has triggered alarming emissions of CO2, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). India’s road transport system alone contributes a substantial 12% to the country’s CO2 emissions. Forecasts also point to a potential doubling of energy consumption and CO2 emissions from road transport by 2050, a consequence of the escalating demands for mobility and goods transportation.

In response to this environmental conundrum, electric vehicles (EVs) emerge as a promising solution to mitigate emissions and uplift air quality. India’s burgeoning EV market owes much of its growth to robust government initiatives that are propelling this electric revolution forward. Schemes like the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME), incentivising purchases and building essential infrastructure, alongside Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) programs aimed at spurring manufacturing sectors, emphasise India’s steadfast commitment to electrifying its transportation ecosystem.

Beyond the pressing environmental concerns, the surge in EV adoption finds substantial support in the escalating costs of traditional fuels. With fuel prices consistently rising over the past decade, consumers are increasingly drawn towards EVs. The attractiveness lies in the promise of lower operational costs inherent in EVs compared to conventional vehicles. Electricity, being more cost-effective than gasoline or diesel, coupled with EVs having fewer moving parts, presents a compelling argument for the transition to electric vehicles. 

As India navigates its trajectory toward sustainable transportation, the growing electric vehicle industry, supported by the government and economic incentives, emerges as a promising catalyst for significant change. India stands out as one of the world’s fastest-growing EV markets, witnessing a rapid surge in EV ownership, counting millions of adopters. Impressively, over half of India’s three-wheeler registrations in 2022 were electric vehicles, showcasing a remarkable shift towards EV adoption. The global electric three-wheeler sales landscape in 2022 was overwhelmingly dominated by China and India, accounting for nearly 99% of the market. Furthermore, the first quarter of 2023 witnessed a twofold increase in electric car sales in India compared to the corresponding period in 2022. Projections suggest that while electric car sales will represent a modest 2-3% of total car sales in 2023, this segment is on a steady upward trajectory, indicating promising growth in the Indian EV market.

E-Waste Challenges in India Amidst the EV Surge

The surge in EVs introduces a new dimension to this complex environmental challenge: the potential proliferation of e-waste through the batteries that power these vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries, the most dominant used batteries in EVs, are expected to witness soaring demand with the increasing adoption of electric vehicles. This heightened usage raises concerns about the disposal of spent or end-of-life lithium-based batteries and cells, which contain various hazardous materials beyond just lithium. There’s a growing concern that improper disposal of these batteries could significantly contribute to India’s mounting e-waste problem, compounding environmental concerns alongside the EV revolution.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, emerges from electronics reaching the end of their lifespan or becoming obsolete due to rapid technological advancements. India, already grappling with a substantial e-waste problem, is the world’s third-largest waste generator, according to the United Nations’ Global E-Waste Monitor 2020. Despite generating an estimated 16.01 lakh tonnes of e-waste in 2021-22, the country managed to collect and process only about 5.27 lakh tonnes, highlighting a significant gap in management and disposal.

Handling e-waste poses considerable environmental and health risks, especially in regions lacking formal infrastructure for its management. In India, over 90% of e-waste is in the informal sector, where methods often lack scientific precision, leading to severe environmental degradation and health hazards. 

Way Forward

The surge in EV adoption brings forth a parallel challenge: the rapid growth of e-waste, predominantly attributed to the batteries that power these vehicles. To effectively navigate these challenges, there’s a critical need to refocus on advancing battery recycling technologies and educating the public about proper disposal methods for electronic devices. Strides in innovation, particularly the development of advanced batteries that rely less on critical minerals, coupled with robust initiatives for battery recycling, stand as pivotal measures to strengthen our response to these pressing issues.

India responded to the urgency of managing electronic waste by notifying the Battery Waste Management Rules in 2022. These rules aim to facilitate the recycling or refurbishment of various battery types, including those used in EVs, with an ambitious target to increase the recycled content of EV batteries to 20% by 2030.

Published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, these regulations endorse the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Under EPR, battery producers, including importers, are responsible for collecting, recycling, or refurbishing waste batteries, strictly prohibiting landfill disposal or incineration. This mandate encourages technological advancements in recycling and opens pathways for investment, nurturing the growth of a robust recycling industry.

In the realm of designing and developing new electronic and EV products, the private industry needs to prioritise end-of-life management. Collaborating between regulatory policies and private sector initiatives promises an effective approach to addressing India’s rapidly growing e-waste challenge. This convergence signifies the potential for a sustainable solution to India’s mounting e-waste crisis. By embracing responsible end-of-life management practices, fostering technological innovation, and cultivating a collective commitment to environmental stewardship, India can forge a path toward a greener, more sustainable future.