At the next edition of a music festival that spreads the word on sustainable living, Rajiv Rathod has a suggestion. He wants to announce the existence of a sixth element that he has discovered during the course of his work. It’s called garbage or trash or waste — yes, the very same stuff that you tie up in a plastic bag (recyclable or otherwise, depending mostly on convenience) and leave outside your door every morning. Because from there on, it’s not your problem.
This is refuse that we see — and perceive — around us on a daily basis, one that is now considered to be a problem. And consequently, we seek solutions to dispose it off in a way that reduces its impact on the environment. However, what goes unnoticed is the electronic waste or e-waste that is generated by us on a daily basis — a defunct charger, an old cellphone or perhaps that spare television that will be junked as soon as one realises the space that it is taking up. And just like that, it is left next to the dustbin or offered to the kabaadiwala by the kilo. Here too, there is little idea of what happens to it, as is the case with the rest of the trash.
The folks at Waste To Light that Rathod is a part of contemplated these facts. If they simply sourced the unwanted electronic devices and sold it in bulk to e-waste processors, they would generate much-needed funds. And with that money, they could continue their work of lighting up houses in remote regions in the Northeast of India, which is essentially what The Batti Project does these days.
The founders of The Batti Project, Rathod and Merwyn Coutinho, are essentially travellers. Since 2008, their idea is to be on the move, rather than work a job in the city and wait till they save enough money to hit the road. On one foray in 2010, the two set out on a trek to reach a rest house in the forest of Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh and met a forest watchman en route. Out of the blue, three men stepped out of the woods and their new friend had a story to tell the duo that had them gripped.
“They said they stayed in a village inside the jungle, which was a five to six-day walk from where we were. They would come out only to buy salt and sugar. I could hardly believe it! We just had to go see and experience how they lived,” Rathod says.
In December that year, they decided to come back and visit the village, Gandhigram, and spent considerable time there. What started off as a quick chat turned out to be a relationship which lasts till date.
“Mervyn now has a hundred homes in Arunachal,” Rathod smiles.
When they were invited to spend the following Christmas in 2011, the two decided to take something for their hosts. They arrived at the common consensus of taking light, for these were remote hamlets in a world of their own, with little access to these amenities. Electricity had just never reached them, and hence, had never been a part of their life. Some 100-odd solar-powered bulbs were carried and were installed during their 40-day stay.
On their way out, other villages approached them and requested them for light. And in a few weeks, Coutinho, who had stayed back to travel further received the same request from 15 other communities. So, they decided to put out a post through social media, conveying their intent to light up homes alongside a bank account number for donations. With no eyes on social media back in the day, it took bank deposits for them to realise that they had received enough money to light up 25 homes.
“That’s when we felt the pressure — people had donated money, so now we had to source equipment. Then we had to learn to put it together and figure how we would carry it all the way to the villages,” Rathod says.
It triggered a time of research and experiments — right from sourcing the right kit to installing it, since there would be no electrician on hand. On the administration side, infrastructure had to be set up in order to register the non-profit organisation, Further and Beyond, which give them a legal identity and access to funding.
At the end of it though, there was another trip awaiting them with all its thrills and uncertainties, which was why they had started out in the first place. Now though, there was a purpose to it which went beyond their thirst for exploration.
In addition to raising funds through social media, the team also started Ride to Light — a cycling expedition held on 26 January since 2016. Cyclists who sign up for the 10-day tour have to raise funds for The Batti Project, in addition to the participation fees. While the ride takes them through some of the most pristine environs of Arunachal Pradesh and gives them the perfect experience of the outdoors, it also allows them to interact with the locals and experience their culture.
The idea came about when they met a school friend, who was cycling from Hyderabad to Bangalore to raise funds for charity. But Waste to Light struck them quite by chance.
It all unfolded after a long rickshaw ride through the manic streets of Bengaluru in January 2015. The traffic was enough for Rathod to narrate the entire concept of The Batti Project over the phone to someone. He had little idea that he had another listener in the rickshaw driver, who was all ears despite the chaos around him. At the end of the ride, the rickshaw driver said that he wanted to help, but there was not a chance that he could spare even Rs 20 on the day. Rathod realised that their current functioning included only a certain section of society.
“Before we split, he offered to give me a free ride to the station whenever I wanted to go. It was his way of contributing towards our cause,” Rathod says.
“I started questioning a lot of things after that. It came across that only the people who had money could be a part of this project. It became a sort of transaction and it just wasn’t right because the auto guy also wanted to help but he couldn’t,” he adds.
That is when the concept of e-waste struck him as a possible solution to expand the scope of The Batti Project. Sourcing and selling e-waste seemed to be a good way to get things started.
“Everybody has a charger or a wire to give. When you take this in huge volumes, you get a lot of money. So, if we collect say 2,000 tons of waste, we could generate between Rs 1-2 crore which could light up around 10,000 homes and impact 40,000 people,” he says.
“So with this system, waste is being collected and managed, we have a regular revenue supply, we clean the environment and even light up homes — it’s a win-win situation for all,” Rathod says.
The Batti Project had committed folks who arrived at the doorstep of individual households in Bengaluru to pick up e-waste. So far, they have collected about four tons of e-waste and have lit up 280-odd households since starting off in August 2015.
While Rathod is based out of Bengaluru and handles a lot of the administration work alongside the rest of the team, Coutinho has been on the road since 2010. He had sold off all his belongings and ventured out with the idea to sustain himself.
Initially, he toured the country on a bike, but then bought a 1989 Land Cruiser in 2014, which he now calls home. It has been modified so that he can sleep in it and charge basic appliances as well. But most times, he is invited into people’s houses with whom he has developed a good bond now.
Coutinho is their man of the ground, who works with local communities to identify their needs and what could be the possible solutions. However the team believes in an organic growth which means they never approach a village and tell them that they will get them light; rather, it’s the villagers who have come to them and they are in turn mere facilitators.
The team believes that the right time to analyse the impact of light will be seven to eight years down the line. But for now, they don’t want to make the decision for these communities, which are far from the world of consumerism.
“See, people from the city tend to harbour romantic ideas that the untouched must stay untouched. But they forget that it’s not their decision whether remote communities should live undisturbed or interact with the outside world. That right is solely hold by the community in question. And when they come to us for help, we have no right to refuse it. We try to help them make choices that are most sustainable for their future,” Rathod says.
According to a report, 41.8 million tons of e-waste was generated in the world in 2014 of which, only 6.5 million tons was treated. By next year, that number is estimated to be at 49.8 million tons. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests that almost 60 to 90 pre cent of this waste is illegally traded or dumped.
India is the third-highest producer of e-waste in Asia — growing at 30 percent annually — behind China and Japan. Mumbai (1,20,000 metric tons) contributes the highest e-waste, followed by Delhi (NCR) (98,000 metric tons) and Bangalore (92,000 metric tons), according to an ASSOCHAM study. And only 2.5 percent of this gets recycled whereas 95% of it is managed by ‘unorganised sectors and scrap dealers’ in this market. What makes matters worse is that with innovations in technology, rising incomes and demand for gadgets, the e-waste generated in Asia has jumped by 63 percent in five years.
Rathod believes that the current recycling methods used by e-waste processors in India have tremendous potential for improvement and urban mining is the need of the hour.
“The current process involves segregating it into plastic, metal, Printed Circuit Boards, rubber and glass, for instance, hoarding it and them selling it in bulk. No e-waste processor is actually an extractor — this is happening only in countries like Belgium, Japan, South Korea, China and America. Some of these components are made up of rare earth metals, which are scarce and the government must set up a system in order to recycle these metals,” Rathod says.
For instance, according to UNEP-International Resource Panel report, a cellphone can contain over 40 elements, including base metals such as copper and tin, special metals such as cobalt, indium and antimony, and precious and platinum-group metals including silver, gold, palladium, tungsten and yttrium, while fluorescent lamps contain Rare Earth elements and other critical metal resources.
“All of the e-waste is packed off to other countries where these facilities to extract metals exist. Since those are rare elements, each gram that is extracted goes for thousands of dollars. As a government, you can benefit big time. But beyond the money, the fact is that these are rare metals in limited quantity. How long will we dig the earth and extract it from there?” he asks.
“When we talk about ‘Make in India’, this is an integral part of it. It involves a huge capital sum of investment, but if you are a government, you will recover it within a decade. You are selling extracted metals such as copper, gold, silver, platinum and molybdenum after all, which are in great demand. So it makes complete sense for India to make the investment,” he adds.
There are a number of issues that Waste to Light want to address in the long run. For now, they are trying to make the most of the resources at hand.
Each discarded device is picked up from the donor, and taken to their office for assessment — whether it is in working condition or needs to be repaired or if it is dead. A lot of thought is put behind whether a device should be killed at all, and if so, what is the best way to go about recycling it.
“We will never have the capital or time to process it on our own, but the idea is to know that if we had to create an ethical process, what would it be,” Rathod says.
There are other plans in store as well, such as upcycling this e-waste. The idea is to collect the e-waste, say from a corporate, and collaborate with an artist who could convert it into an art installation. It would not only beautify the office space, but also generate funds for The Batti Project and the artist. Then there are other ideas to create products that could be used on a daily basis.
“If you just give away the waste, you will get Rs 300 out of it, but if you manage to design a table, you could make even Rs 3,000. We need to start living with our waste, think of things such as a bus stand that is made of it,” he says.
Another thought is to create an online inventory of spare parts, that can be readied once a device is killed and dismantled. It will not only extend the life of some of these parts, but also reduce the pressure on resources.
“An entire e-commerce website can be created out of components such as hard disks, laptop PCI cards, RAMs and even screen hinges. E-waste processors can dismantle these devices and set up an online inventory based on the name and model number. Service centres will be more than happy to buy their spare parts from here,” he says.
The team at Waste to Light believes in a systematic growth which is effective as compared to working towards just the numbers. As a result, they’ve restricted operations to Bangalore for now and limited their outreach to the Northeast. At the heart of it is a drive to create an awareness on the issue of e-waste and the fact that our responsibility extends beyond depositing that bag of garbage outside the door.