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Issue 34
, 2012
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What happens to the millions of gadgets we discard?

Mishita Mehra & Sunanda Poduwal
Source: The Economic Times, Date: , 2012

Miraj Malik deals with the after life. His days begin with a casual stroll around the dusty lanes of Seelampur - a Delhi suburb - inspecting the latest cold cargo that's been picked up from across the National Capital Region (NCR) and unloaded by hundreds of trucks the previous night.

Malik dabbles in cadavers of computers and sundry gizmos. He runs 18 shops in Seelampur - one of India's biggest "organised" unorganised market for scrapped electronic devices - where they are dismantled, glass and plastic parts are sifted out from metals, which, in turn, are separated to be sold to metal hubs like Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

This, then, is the chaotic and, often, dangerous world of recycling electronic leftovers where the "organised" unorganised set-ups like Seelampur handle around 95% of the millions of refrigerators, computers, mobile phones and television sets discarded everyday.

The Dark Tunnel

The afterlife journey of a dead gizmo is anything but smooth. Given the unorganised nature of India's recycling industry, a device is likely to change four or five hands before it becomes memory. For instance, in the case of a computer, the exterior plastic and metal components are sold to scrap dealers, the glass parts to informal recyclers and the printed circuit board (PCB) or the motherboard will end up in one of the households in the major informal recycling hubs.


PCBs are much valued here for the metal components that range from copper to gold. The components are dipped in an acid solution to extract copper and a little bit of gold - the acid solution, still rich in many metals, is thrown out by the informal scrappers for want of any half-decent refining technology. The wires are burnt to extract aluminium and copper.

That's India's e-waste recycling hallmark: inefficiency. A typical PCB will have 19 metals, and out here the luckiest in the informal sector go home with two or three. Compare that to the formal players. Attero, the most sophisticated recycling facility in India, is capable of extracting 13 of them.

Hellfire's Toxic

The everyday wastage of precious metals gets fogged out of the picture by the process itself. The primitive way in which gadgets are processed sets off huge amounts of toxins, endangering both the worker and the larger environment. For instance, electronics industry association Elcina estimates that 1,350 tonnes of toxins are generated every six months from discarded mobile phones alone. Add to it the 3 million washing machines or 6 million refrigerators.

Recyclers like Seelampur's Malik aver that his workers use masks and gloves while on work, but he is an exception: some one who's trying to make that quantum jump from the informal to formal. He is the first trader in Seelampur to go from being an informal trader to a registered recycler. And that, says Malik, was in itself a journey fraught with dejections. He struggled 18 months for a formal licence; his dismantling and recycling factory will open in Manesar in the NCR in a matter of months.

Well, people like Malik are not making the shift entirely out of free will. There is a larger force at play here.

GoI Wakes Up

After years of feigning ignorance, the Government of India finally woke up last year to the electronic garbage piling around, and notified rules on e-waste management. This will come into effect from May 2012, forcing Malik and his ilk to clean up their act.

The rules, framed along international guidelines, introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility where the main manufacturers will now be primarily responsible for e-waste collection. They are also responsible for ensuring that e-waste is routed to formal recyclers in India. That's easier said than done. The official data itself points to the debris pile up ahead.

For instance, an estimated 8 lakh metric tonnes of e-waste would be generated in 2012, as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Yes, the number of formal recyclers has been increasing at a rapid pace - from a single firm in 2005 to the current 47 - but the total recycling capacity of these authorised facilities is just 2.17 lakh mt per annum. So what will happen to the 5.83 lakh mt is anybody's guess. Worse, even the established facilities are not getting volumes of electronic waste up to their full capacity. For instance, Attero is operating at only 20% of its capacity and the situation is not much different for smaller recyclers.

That points to larger issues. For one, the collection system in the formal sector has to shape up. Two, the government needs to realise that electronic waste is a commodity and the formal sector is no position to match the prices offered by the likes of Seelampur. ?While companies have been giving projections, till now, we are not aware of even a single collection centre set up by manufacturers,? says an environment ministry official.

And for those who tried, it was an empty experience. Panasonic India set up collection centres in 2010, under a voluntary recycling scheme. ?We hardly got any e-waste from the collection boxes,? says company director Arjun Balakrishnan. He feels the deadline of May 2012 seems difficult.

Alok Bharadwaj, president, Manufacturers Association of IT Industry (MAIT), and senior vice-president, Canon India, says that the biggest challenge for the formal collection system is that the informal sector continues to offer better prices for used electronic goods compared to the formal sector.

And then there are the imports, all 50,000 MT of e-waste shipped in every year. An investigation by the NGO Toxics Link showed that in just eight months of 2009 from the Chennai port alone, 32,927 units of used CPUs, monitors, TVs, hard disks, processors, motherboards and printers were imported into India.

Formal Isn't All Good

Ballpark figures point out that even the formal sector is dependent upon hubs like Seelampur and Mondoli. Many formal players are just glorified dismantlers with little or no technologies for recycling. ?Even large recyclers sell their goods to us. We further sell it to the informal recyclers,? says Seelampur's Malik.

The rationale given by these traders is that while the costs of running the machines are high and the metals extracted few, the business model for formal recyclers is not very feasible. S John Robert, vice-president, Earth Science Recycling, agrees to that contention. ?Some of the formal recyclers are selling to the grey market. For them, recycling can't generate revenues in line with the prices and the only way they can make profits is by selling to the unorganised sector,? he says.

So, Are We Doomed?

Well, there's hope yet. The environment ministry feels there is a middle path that could lead to recycling nirvana: integration of the formal and informal. The new rules are designed to facilitate measures for individuals (like Malik) to get themselves registered so that there are greater linkages and the formal sector can rely on the informal sector for collecting electronic waste.

In fact, the World Bank is working on a study in collaboration with NGOs to come up with a model for this type of integration and NGOs like Chintan are helping the informal sector achieve this.

MAIT's Bhardhwaj says: "It will take a couple of years to begin to understand the mechanism of collection of e-waste and then a change will take place." So, at least two more years of hell for our dead gizmos.