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Published on: Jan. 29, 2023, 7:46 p.m.
Attero Recycling: Ready for the big stage
  • A shredder at work at an Attero Recycling facility

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

The exterior impression of Attero Recycling’s hub at Raipur Industrial Area near Roorkee, Uttarakhand, could well be deceptive. For, it probably fails to express the ambitions driving the company today. From the main road, you could just get a glimpse of the administrative block. But once you cross the main gate, you realise that its modest-scale expanse goes much beyond the two-storied glasshouse. The administrative block may just be occupying 10-15 per cent of the three-acre plot (being further expanded), the major portion of which is dedicated to the recycling plants at the back of the administrative block. 

As you walk through huge e-waste storage sections and the actual processing floor comprising heavy machinery, you will get a glimpse of different aspects of the process. To any first-time visitor, the plant can subtly explain the significance of extracting vital metals from the discarded and dismantled electronic goods -- both for environment protection, as well as giving a boost to the fast-emerging circular economy era. The Roorkee unit of Attero Recycling (the company’s headquarters is in Noida) is considered to be one of the largest e-waste recycling units in the country and is the mainstay of the 12-year-old firm.

The recycling section of the plant meanwhile has a new component – a section for lithium battery recycling, which was added in 2019. Having built a modest level of scale in e-waste recycling, the company is now keen to harness the opportunities expected to unfold in the lithium battery recycling space in the coming decades across the globe. 

In the administrative block, as you engage Nitin Gupta (the man behind Attero), in a long conversation, you can’t miss out a controlled yet a distinctive note of excitement in his comments. It seems to be coming from a person, who has no doubts now that his past painstaking efforts will be rewarded, may be even in a form of a windfall. “We will close this year with a topline run-rate in the vicinity of Rs500 crore,” affirms the CEO of the firm.

“In the next five years, we are expecting exponential revenue growth, which could be a couple of billion dollars”. And, for such an exponential growth, Gupta has a long list of potential catalysts, including changing regulatory environment and addition of decisive international dimension to Attero’s operations. From a purely sectoral standpoint, even observers believe that businesses like e-waste management and lithium battery recycling are well set to touch the roof globally and this could accrue advantages galore for the typical first movers.

Mainstay vertical

Since inception till to date, e-waste recycling has been the mainstay of Attero (the name had derived from a Latin word that means waste). Nitin Gupta (45) and his brother Rohan Gupta (43), the two co-founders (the latter is COO) and pillars of the company with engineering education background, had stumbled upon the idea of starting a venture in e-waste recycling, after Rohan could not figure out what to do with an end-of-the-life laptop in 2006. A little research made them realise that recycling of electronic goods is slated to become a major business in the decades ahead and that led to starting from a small base in Roorkee around 2008.

  • Nitin: expecting exponential growth

But, it has typically been a case of waiting patiently for a substantial duration for the Gupta brothers, who originally hail from Dehra Dun. Samir Inamdar, MD & CEO, Forum Synergies (a PE firm which had invested at an early stage in Attero in 2014), says the brief journey of Attero has seen some troubled spells in the past, in building growth momentum.

But, in the same breath, he asserts that the scenario has significantly changed now. “Today, it is looking promising,” says he. “In the last three years, the company has doubled on critical growth parameters”. Forum Synergies had earlier invested in Ampere, a two-wheeler electric vehicle OEM and, according to Inamdar, it has a modest level equity stake in Attero too. 

Nitin, an IIT-Delhi and London Business School alumni, maintains that the absence of strict regulations have been the major stumbling block for new age e-waste management firms in the past. “In 2013, the government had announced the extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules, wherein the manufacturers were supposed to play a critical role in the safe and scientific disposal of the appliances made by them, when those products reach end of life cycle. But compliance at that time was voluntary and it did not induce any seriousness. However, later, more binding norms were introduced and that has triggered the take off process for this business,” Nitin points out. 

A market observer says the organised e-waste recycling is still at a nascent stage. “Our country always had a well-evolved secondary market for e-waste recycling, which is far from scientific. There are distinctive clusters in the country where wastes of all kinds are treated in the informal units. It’s a $3 billion dollar (Rs24,000 crore) business opportunity, out of which the informal sector corners an annual business of Rs4,000-5,000 crore. While the business going to organised players is Rs1,000-1,500 crore,” explains Ankur Bisen, senior partner, Technopak Advisors (also author of Wasted: The messy story of sanitation in India, A manifesto for change), while adding that the business of organised players is clearly on the rise. 

Attero is part of this small organised pie (expanding at a fast pace) marked by the presence of a handful of private players, mostly startups. “We are leaders in e-waste recycling business on every single metrics that define this business. Our capacity for e-way waste treatment is 1,44,000 tonnes, which we are expanding further. It is double of the competition. The current capacity utilisation is 60 per cent and it will be increased to about 90 per cent in the next 12 months,” says he, while adding that the company is partnering with all leading electronic majors for the collection of waste from over 100 cities in the country. Today, e-waste recycling accounts for over 80 per cent of the business of the company in terms of contribution to the topline.

Lithium leaning

But despite the clear dominance of the e-waste treatment vertical, Nitin today is aspiring for a different identity. “If you look at all dimensions of our business, we have subtly graduated to become a deep dive technology company with focus on sustainability,” he says succinctly.

  • Rohan: big opportunity in battery

    Rohan: big opportunity in battery

And here the addition of lithium ion battery recycling vertical to its operational portfolio is quite critical. With the drive to embrace electric vehicle (EV) era now being playing out in all corners of the globe, it is no secret to anybody that demand for lithium ion batteries is touching through the roof. And, in India as elsewhere in the world, a clutch of technology driven players have begun taking position in the market. In the case of India, Attero has now made a decisive move in this domain.

“Lithium batteries were coming back to us via e-waste through mobile, laptops, etc. We dug deep and we realised it is the best technology in the world today because of higher energy density, fastest charging time and slowest discharging time. More importantly, more than $100 billion has been invested in the lithium mining ecosystem in the recent years,” says he.

“On the automobile side, there are two clear international trends – leading OEMs like GM, Ford, Volkswagen, etc, have either stopped producing ICE engine or have made significant investment in EVs, which are run on lithium. Quickly, the lithium battery production capacity has jumped up to 400 GW in the world,” he adds, while highlighting the positive trends in favour of the business. The company is operating a lithium-ion battery recycling capacity of 4,500 mt (located at Roorkee plant) and it is this domain that it has planned to expand rapidly in the coming years. 

But more than capacity creation, Nitin cites in-house technological know-how development as the major asset which will spearhead company’s future growth. “We have 34 granted patents across the world for technologies for electronic waste and lithium ion battery recycling – nine for e-waste and 25 for lithium ion battery. And we have applied for more than 200. We are the only company in the world, which gets carbon credit on the basis of per tonne waste recycling,” Nitin proudly informs.

The patented technologies the company has developed are mostly directed to extract the maximum value from the waste. “We use our patented technology to extract pure battery grade cobalt, graphite, nickel, lithium, etc. Our extraction capability is up to 98 per cent, which is far higher than what others could do,” he claims. 

Market observers vouch for the fact that the company is known for path-breaking technological processes. “The resilience and commitment shown by the promoters of the company seems to have put the company in a comfortable position today. They have remained focussed to this venture and subtly developed new solutions, which could help them in making qualitative intervention,” Bisen opines.

Inamdar also emphasises that even as it has been a start-up, Attero’s focus on advanced R&D has been a marked differentiator. “In 2017, when it had become clear that lithium ion recycling would be a major business and Attero would adopt it as an additional vertical, the management had quickly created a team of dedicated researchers,” Inamdar recalls. 

Inflection point 

The company has raised Rs119 crore from its investors and, according to Nitin, Attero, with its frugal approach, has made most of this investment in building the base platform that comprises capacity across two verticals. The notable investors in the company include venture capital and PE firms like DFJ, Kalaari Capital and New Quest, apart from Forum Synergies. 

  • Attero’s recycling unit is considered to be one of the largest e-waste recycling units in the country

And even as Nitin does not disclose the equity structure of the company, he emphasises Attero’s operations being in profitable zone now. And with an efficiently performing platform and host of investors backing it, the company is eyeing for galloping growth scenario which includes turning into a global entity. “In the next five years, we will need to invest $1 billion to scale up in both India and outside. While our e-waste recycling operations would largely be a domestic play, lithium ion battery recycling will be the key domain leading our international operations,” says he. 

The company is driven by a spate of positive factors which, it believes, will drive both businesses, particularly lithium ion battery recycling, at a rapid pace. For instance, when it comes to giving a major push to e-waste recycling, the government has recently expanded the list of electronic goods (raised from 30 to 200), which will need to be recycled under the EPR programme. Furthermore, the compliance regime for OEMs and manufacturers is more stringent now –  if electronic majors do not respond to their compliance obligations, there could well be import restrictions for their raw materials. 

While the reserves of  cobalt  (in Congo), and lithium  (in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia) are slated to be completely exhausted by 2030, the recycling is the undisputed solution the world has broadly agreed upon. Furthermore, the west is looking at a scenario where dependence on China is reduced (it commands mines in Africa and then refine and export them) and new recycling hubs emerge in Europe and the US. More than 90 per cent of graphite for battery production is coming from China, which is also taking care of more than 80 per cent of cobalt and lithium global supplies.

Countries like the US are considering it a huge geo-political risk. It was well reflected in the recent decision of Biden administration, when it made it clear that it will give any subsidy relief to OEMs importing from China. The writing on the wall is clear: the giga factories making lithium batteries after recycling will either have to be in the US or anywhere else but not in China. An equation like this has emboldened the first movers in the space, located anywhere, to dream big and nurture global ambitions. 

Expanding footprint

“We are setting up plants in Telangana, which is likely to get ready by the year end. Internationally, our first plant will be set up in Poland, followed by the US. These plants will be mainly focussing on lithium ion battery recycling,” informs Rohan Gupta (who broadly takes care of all operations, sales,  marketing and strategy), while adding that the company is envisaging a larger opportunity in the battery segment. Poland is emerging as major battery recycling hub in Europe; and, it will be more of a brown-field structure, which Attero has planned to put up. 

  • Wealth out of waste: a range of materials the company has separated from waste

More notably, the company has recently signed an MoU with Telangana government to set up an advanced Li-ion battery recycling plant in the state at an investment of Rs600 crore, which will help Attero to expand its Li-ion battery recycling capacity to 19,500 mt by the end of 2023. The next five years’ capacity target for the battery recycling is a staggering 300,000 tonnes. The European facility is expected to become functional by the third quarter of 2023, while the facility in Ohio, US will come up a little later.

On the e-waste recycling side, the company is eventually looking to set up a plant in all the states and also expand via franchisees route to expand its capacity. According to a research report, the domestic business opportunity in the space is expected to jump to $5 billion in the next ten years from the current level of $3 billion and it certainly will offer immense opportunity to the first movers like Attero. 

Nitin is convinced that massive investments which Attero would not be an issue considering its current report card. “We will meet the future investment requirements through internal accruals and are well positioned to raise more funds via both equity and debt routes.” The market, meanwhile, is abuzz with the theory that, at some stage, men of the game (electronic majors on e-waste recycling side and OEMs for lithium battery) would like to have more control of these operations.

“As it has happened in other spheres, successful startups in e-waste or lithium ion battery recycling would either be bought over by the OEMs or they would receive strategic investments with change of control. It would be in interest of the global manufacturing giants to have more control,” says an industry veteran. Point this proposition to Nitin and he strongly maintains that, while fruitful collaborations are quite possible, Attero in its present form is in the game for the long-haul on its own. The men in command of Attero would probably like to stay in the thick of finding larger solutions as these businesses further evolve.

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