10/07/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Urban Mining: Attero Poised to Disrupt e-Waste Recycling

How does a laptop heading for the trash end up spawning one of The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in India? Rohan Gupta, co-founder of Attero, turned his search for what to do with his old laptop into a company that is trying to radically change how electronic waste is managed globally.

Attero is disrupting the electronic waste recycling industry with a new technology that maximizes the efficiency of metal extraction, responsibly and sustainably, by using compact, low cost mini-refineries for easy local installation. Attero -- which performs secure data destruction on phones and computers, refurbishes where possible, and otherwise extracts and recycles the metals for reuse -- has the potential to alter the e-waste recycling landscape in the US and global markets.

With the rapid expansion in the use and discarding of e-waste, disposal is quickly becoming a massive worldwide challenge. A group of innovative entrepreneurs in an emerging market is developing a solution that the major smelters in Europe, Asia and Canada have not offered.

According to Justin Lemmon, an advisory board member who is heading up Attero's US expansion of its precious metals mini-refinery technology, one of the company's plants fits into a 100,000 square foot warehouse and costs $2 million. This contrasts with today's European plants based on high volume -- originally designed for automobile manufacturing and large metals -- that cost several hundred million dollars and cover over 75 acres. Picture Attero mini-refineries embedded in commercial areas convenient to businesses and e-waste collectors throughout the U.S. and other countries worldwide; no longer will e-waste need to be shipped abroad for disposal as it is today.

Collecting 1,000,000 pounds of phones and computers monthly in India, from businesses as well as last-mile collectors of waste (referring to the remotest regions in emerging markets), Attero refurbishes when possible and turns the rest into 99.99 percent pure forms of over 10 metals such as gold, silver, copper, and palladium. This is referred to as "urban mining" since these precious materials -- gleaned from urban waste -- are sold to back to companies that make new phones and computers.

From a sustainability perspective, according to the UN Environment Programme 2013 study, urban mining uses on average 91 percent less energy than traditional mining. And according to Lemmon, "urban mining is not invasive to land and water tables. We need to do a better job managing the life cycle of the materials once they come out of the ground. Attero's process enables the same electronics products to be recycled over and over again." Supporting the importance of recycling mined ores, Goldman Sachs's recent report, "Evolution of the super cycle: What's changed and what may" cited the growing trends of environmental awareness and resource nationalization that will challenge the traditional mining industry. Yet another signal of the retrenchment from mining is Anglo American's recent withdrawal from the Pebble Mine project (potentially the largest undeveloped gold deposit) after investing $541 million over six years.

Not only does Attero present a recycling alternative with compact local plants, but also its operations and technology are environmentally and socially responsible. This is particularly significant in emerging markets where -- according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an investor in Attero -- e-waste recyclers traditionally use primitive and hazardous techniques including open burning and acid treatments that are harmful to the environment and to the women and children whom they employ. These recyclers also extract metal inefficiently and dump leftovers improperly.

Attero has ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certifications, but as Attero co-founder Rajat Verma said, "From the beginning, in order to qualify for investment funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) -- an investment institution that is the private sector arm of the World Bank -- our company had to meet the highest environmental and social standards. We are pleased to meet the World Bank's expectations to pay more than the minimum wage, not to employ children, and to engage women entrepreneurs."

"Attero has devised a low cost approach to extracting precious metal from electronic waste (e-waste) without compromising on extraction efficiency or environmental and health standards," said Subrata Barman, Senior Operations Officer, IFC Advisory Services, South Asia, in an email to me. "Attero can bring a paradigm shift in the e-waste recycling business by setting up such distributed facilities across the world, with each plant requiring investment as low as USD 2 million. IFC imposes its high standards on Social and Environmental Sustainability and Attero's facility in Roorkee, India (which it looks to replicate in other parts of the world) reflects that."

Mike Enberg agrees. He is the eStewards Enterprise Director at the Basel Action Network, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes globally responsible e-waste recycling. "Attero appears to have terrific and unique technology that allows for gleaning of precious metals, while also needing less space and less capital investment. They may be primed to offer disruptive technology,"

Venture capital firms NEA-IndoUS Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Granite Hill Opportunity Ventures are betting on the success of Attero's global expansion, beginning with the U.S., the largest electronic waste market. Attero shows how companies can profit by solving global problems.