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Issue 33
, 2011
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City is an e-waste bin

Snehal Rebello
Source: Hindustan Times, Mumbai, May 30, 2011, Date: , 2011

It’s summer vacation for Mohammad Ismail. But instead of playing with friends, the 14-year-old sits in the midst of computer circuit boards, unscrewing dozens of mobile phone chargers at his father’s scrap shop in Kurla. A few metres away, another scrap shop has workers busy dismantling computers and ripping apart keyboards. This is Teen Number Khadi (Hill Number 3) near the Jari Mari Industrial Estate, one of the city’s many graveyards for your discarded computers and other electronic items — termed as e-waste — that find their way here from your neighbourhood kabadiwala.

Though it may seem like a fairly straightforward recycling job done by 2,000-odd workers, it is not. What the illegal scrap dealers does not make you privy to are the sulphuric acid baths used to clean components made of toxic metals such as mercury or copper, blowlamps used to burn lead solders to remove chips from circuit boards or open burning to recover copper from the wires.

All these activities lead to grave environmental and health problems.

With a personal computer in every home, individuals owning more than one mobile phone and increasing number of electronic gadgets flooding the market, environmentalists are worried that the absence of safe handling of e-waste by the unorganised sector in the city will pose a grave environmental hazard.

E-waste giant

This concern assumes significance in light of a 2010 survey conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board, which found that Mumbai generates the maximum electronic waste among other cities in the country.

Of the 20,000 tonnes of e-waste generated in the state, 11,000 tonnes belongs to the city. India produces 50,000 tonnes of e-waste annually — the number is expected to increase to 800,000 by 2012.

“E-waste management is a serious problem because all these recycling processes involve releasing highly poisonous fumes and gases that are extremely harmful, not just for the health of those involved in this business, but also for the environment,” said Rajkumar Sharma, convener, Cleansweep Forum. “E-waste that is of no use to the scrap dealers is dumped along with common waste, polluting soil and water.”

A 2007 report by the Delhi-based non-profit environmental organisation,  Toxics Link, on the city’s e-waste stated that handling practices suffer from crude methods for dismantling and storage, minimal capital input and zero health and environmental safeguards.

“There is need for a formal recycling facility, legal stipulation as well investment by the government,” said Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxics Link. “It’s 2011 but there is no single model yet in India on training the informal sector or good housekeeping models that can be documented and replicated.”

No scientific handling

However, efforts to scientifically tackle e-waste in the city have begun. In the next four months, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) will start work on one of the two selected sites in Bhiwandi or Taloja to set up the first e-waste facility.

“Most likely, the plant will be set up at Bhiwandi because it is located on the main road and so transportation costs of e-waste will reduce. So right now, we are working on the various feasibility aspects,” said MR Shah, principal advisor, solid waste management, MMRDA.

Through public-private partnership, the facility to be spread over four hectares, would help recover most parts of the electronic items, only 2% hazardous waste will reach the landfill.

At present, while households sell their electronic and electrical equipment to the nearby junk dealers, corporates auction their old products that then reach the unorganised sector.

The planning authority plans to rope in companies to send their waste to designated centres once they become functional. Also, various centres will be set up to collect household electronic waste that will be dropped to the facility by the appointed agency.

The facility will be completed in two years and would be able to handle e-waste capacity to the tune of 15,000 tonnes per annum. Once the facility is established, the MMRDA, Mahasrashtra Pollution Control Board and the operator will jointly frame regulations.

The facility will be built as a modular system where equipment will be separated followed by segregation of every minute part. There will be a facility for extracting precious metal such as gold, silver and chromium, which today is exported to Delhi.

In all, 20 companies — from India and abroad — have shown interest in the project. Of these, five did not meet the criteria. “We are now working on various technical and financial specifications of the plant for these companies following which bidding process will begin,” said Shah.