As e-waste management becomes mandatory, a nascent industry in reverse logistics looks forward to big growth.
Recently, Chennai-based homemaker Priya Rao exchanged her 10-year-old fancy food processor for an ordinary but more powerful mixer grinder. She got Rs 1,000 off on it – she had paid almost Rs 9,000 for the old one. It was one of the many space-occupying lesions in her house she couldn't part with or didn't know how to dispose of – her irreparable coffee bean grinder from a company no longer in the market; a soda-maker purchased 15 years ago … the list went on and on.
A familiar situation? It must be, for many of you. But on the flip side, these old and unused goods are poised to become an important component of a currently fledgling business in India – reverse logistics (RL). RL is the movement of goods back from the consumer to the manufacturer. With the Government making e-waste retrieval and collection systems mandatory from May 1 this year, putting the onus on manufacturers, those in the RL business hope to see a more organised flow back.
Reverse Logistics Company (RLC), Attero Recycling and Future Supply Chain are some of the companies in the organised RL sector. The first two have big operations in consumer durables, the latter mostly in apparel and furniture.
New – and used
GreenDust is an online and brick-and-mortar RL venture which sells returned products and factory seconds languishing in manufacturers' warehouses. Hitendra Chaturvedi, Managing Director of Reverse Logistics Company (RLC), which owns the brand, says the return rate of products in India is 5 per cent. (In the West, it's 8-10 per cent as return policies are more lenient.) These could range from mildly flawed (scratches, stains) to severely damaged products returned at any stage of the supply chain, or those consumers have exchanged for newer ones.
“Original equipment manufacturers,” says Chaturvedi, “are fantastic at making new products but suck at returns. About 70-75 per cent of the time, processing returns is costlier than making new products – there are costs attached to transport, warehousing, people, service, call centre, inventory carrying and a capital cost as well. Companies don't realise a return could be used for profit and to competitive advantage.”
Prices on GreenDust vary with category – factory second, refurbished, obsolete/surplus. Products come with warranties, and often, substantial discounts on MRPs. Browsing, one comes across a mobile phone that's marked 72 per cent down because it's obsolete, a laptop that is Rs 10,000 cheaper than the MRP (factory second), and a refrigerator that's 37 per cent cheaper (refurbished), among others. Sometimes extended warranties too are offered. There are about 50 GreenDust outlets in Tier 2 and 3 cities such as Agra, Mathura, Lucknow, Jaipur and Bhiwandi that sell such products, and RLC is scaling up as it intends to start a buyback programme for consumers and corporates who will be given credit towards buying a GreenDust product. RLC has collection centres and repair facilities.
Attero Recycling, founded in 2007, processes brown goods, CFL lamps and IT products from which it removes and disposes of hazardous elements such as mercury and extracts precious ones such as gold, silver, copper, palladium and rare earths which it sells in the market. (Incidentally, this will be the way to ‘mine' metal in the future, says co-founder Nitin Gupta. To illustrate, he says that at the rate at which copper is being mined today, the world will run out of it in just 66 years.)
Used products such as computers, servers and phones are repaired and donated to NGOs, resold to the employees of institutions that have discarded them, or sold at a discount to colleges and schools. Atterobay.com enables people to sell off their mobile phones to Attero Recycling and even offers to pick them up from homes.
Reverse logistics in India today is a highly unorganised sector, says RLC's Chaturvedi. Some big manufacturers, he says, currently deal with as many as 400 scrap dealers. It could be an enormous liability, he adds. Under the new rules, a manufacturer will be held responsible if an ignorant or uncaring scrap dealer does a shoddy job and causes a health/environmental hazard.
Wealth in waste
RLC's client, Ravi Aggarwal, Managing Director of the Delhi-based Fabiano which markets kitchen appliances, says, “About 1,000 sq. ft. of our office in a prime location was being occupied by these things.” They couldn't easily bring themselves to sell them off as scrap, either. “We're saving a lot of costs by letting someone else manage it but more than that, we're getting rid of a big headache,” he says. Fabiano has since increased asset recovery by two times. And the cash locked in the returned asset is used for business growth.
Anshuman Singh, Managing Director and CEO, Future Supply Chain, says they are able to recover a “huge value” by having an RL operation. The Future group carries out RL processes in apparel, furniture and electronics, over five RL centres. The first two categories account for the bulk of them.
“In apparel, we're able to salvage about 90 per cent of the value but we pass on discounts of 30-40 per cent to the customer,” he says. The refurbished clothes are sold in Pantaloons' factory outlets and Lootmart. In furniture, the discounts aren't so high.
It's a complicated business – an RL network involves at least 12 more steps than forward logistics. Attero's Gupta says last-mile delivery is a struggle for many marketers, especially in e-commerce – and having to go and pick up rejects from customers, with the product condition being revealed only at the very last minute, are just a sampling of the difficulties the RL businesses will face.
The e-waste management market in India, says Gupta, is around half a billion dollars and growing at 25 per cent. Of Attero's revenues, 90 per cent comes from recycling and 10 per cent from selling refurbished goods. Green Dust's Chaturvedi hopes to make Rs 500 crore three years from now – his current turnover is Rs 100 crore.
Pay to recycle
In the West, and in Japan, consumers pay a small recycling fees – it is included in the cost of the products or could be charged at disposal time. In India, manufacturers are still grappling with the implications of the e-waste management rules, says Giraj Sharma, an independent brand consultant who advises several companies. The first effect, he says, is very likely a 3-4 per cent price hike to offset the costs of formalising the e-waste management. The country's size poses a challenge to manufacturers collecting and channelising the returned products.
“As a race, Indians do not want to let go of anything till the very end. And some products last years – there are homes with those old Allwyn refrigerators that have been going on and on for 20 years or more,” says Sharma. He points out that when exchange offers are on, there is a mind-boggling demand for the returned products which are re-sold at shanties in semi-urban and rural centres. The demand for them, as some exchange offers have shown, is higher than that for the new products, he says.
Not many marketers in India, including those multinational companies which have to abide by strict legislation abroad, have yet worked out a system to manage their waste. It's early days still as the law is applicable to products sold from May 1 onwards. Even if one is not talking about hardy 20-year-old refrigerators, an LCD TV that lasts four or five years gives manufacturers some breathing space.