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Issue 1
, 2006
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E-waste: Time to act now

Satish Sinha
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2006

A woman using her bare hands to break computer partsThe world’s second most populous nation is aiming to join the famed league of developed nations by the year 2020. The target appears to be in sight, as India is undergoing a phase of accelerated industrial growth and averaging 8 per cent of GDP. The Information Technology (IT) sector is expected to continue as the main peg for India’s future economic growth.

However, the twin-processes have led to a phenomenal increase in the quantum of waste generation with new varieties of trash making its way to the waste stream. Electronic waste (E-waste) is contributing an ever increasing bulk of this. Currently, in India, this category of waste is being handled by its mammoth informal sector without any concern towards its impact on health and environment.

Almost all electronic and electrical appliances, like computers, mobile phones, iPods, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions etc, constitute e-waste after being discarded Because of this recycling of e-waste has emerged as a lucrative business. These products are stripped down to yield valuable metals like platinum, gold and copper

E-waste set to grow many folds!

Information technology and telecom are two of the fastest growing industries. India is expected to achieve a PC penetration of 65 per thousand, against the existing rate of 14 per thousand people, by the year 2008.

India at present has 15 million computers and this figure is expected to grow five-fold to 75 million by the year 2010. This will add large volumes of electronic waste to the waste stream and the environment. According to one estimate, two million PCs are nearing disposal, which include 286, 386 and 486 vintages being rendered obsolete. New upgrades are appearing in the market at small gaps increasing obsolesce rate of the existing models.

India today has 75 million cell phone users. This is expected to touch 200 million by 2007. According to one estimate, approximately 150,000 tons of e-waste is generated in India annually and almost all of it finds its way into the informal sector. The trend is likely to increase manifold in proportion to the growth in the electronics industry.

E-waste pathways

A large bulk of e-waste in India comes from government institutions and private sector. They together account for about 70 per cent of the total e-waste generation and the contribution of individuals to this is only about 15 per cent. Another major source of e-waste is import of used and obselete electronic equipments. Data on this is very fuzzy. But estimates suggest that this is roughly of the same amount that is generated internally. The current coustoms regulation allows import of 10-year-old computers.

Picture showing a man working on electronic wasteOn tracking the containers arriving at various shipyards, it becomes clear that most of them originate in the United States and Europe. The rationale behind this is purely economic as scrapping or recycling them would be very expensive. As per available data, the cost of recycling a computer in US is 20 dollars, while the same could be recycled in India for only 2 dollars, a gross saving of 18 dollars.

Hazards from E-waste

A computer contains toxic materials like lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, BFRs, PVC and phosphorus compounds. Though some of these are used in small quantities, the overall volumes being recycled are so high that the impact is massive.

Most recycling in the informal sector involves minimal use of technology and is carried out in the poorer parts of big cities. The standard recycling drill involves physically breaking-down components, burning PVC wires to retrieve copper, melting of lead and mercury-laden parts. The process of extraction of gold and copper requires the components to be processed through acid. The plastic parts, which contains Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) are also broken down into small pieces and then recycled. This releases toxics fumes into the environment and the residues enter sewers leading to water and soil contamination. Most working in the recycling sector are urban poor with very low literacy and thus they lack awareness about the hazards of e-waste toxics. A sizeable number of women and children are engaged in these activities. Another important aspect is of the wide geographical dispersal of the recycling units.

Existing legal framework in India

There is no law in the country that specifically deals with e-waste. In fact, we are still struggling to fully understand the issue of e-waste in its totality and initiate appropriate measures.

The National Rule on Hazardous Waste Substances though covers generation, storage, transportation and disposal of hazardous waste by large industrial houses. However, the regulation is poorly equipped to handle this.

The import and export of hazardous substances is also dealt with under the same regulation as reflected in Schedule 3. The rule deals with individual components but not with electronics gadgets as waste scrap. Import of such waste is allowed for the purpose of material recovery but only after obtaining prior permission from the concerned authority, in this case the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

The Basel Convention on Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Waste, to which India is a signatory, addresses the issue of import of e-waste. The List A and B of the Convention details such waste and the imports of these are regulated. The Convention also prohibits the import and trans boundary movement of such waste from an OECD to a non-OECD country.

Action points for managing e-waste

There is an urgent need to bring together all stakeholders and engage them to find sustainable solutions to the problem of e-waste. The foremost requirement is of a strong and comprehensive legislation that would address the issue of illegal imports as well as the domestic generation of waste.The broader context of sustainable development,the basic principle of the environmental justice such as ‘precautionary principle’ and ‘polluter pays’ should be overriding concerns while facilitating a legislation.

To promote sustainable production there is a need to focus on reduction and subsequent phaseout of toxic materials and also use of alternate and new materials.

Extended Producers Responsibility is also being seen as the most appropriate framework that seeks to amalgamate all the enlisted principles of environmental justice. This shifts the responsibility of safe disposal on to the producers. It not only looks at downstream solutions but also at upstream technology. It promotes sound environment management technology and also aims at better raw material, cleaner production technology and designing for longevity. The EPR models being implemented in many developed countries need to be suitably altered to suit the localized conditions prevailing in this country.

It is also recommended that the process of legislation should be transparent, participatory and most democratic which will enable all the stakeholders to participate and contribute to the process so that there is more effective compliance and a better solution.