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Issue 37
, 2012
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Entrepreneurs quick to tap the potential of recycling e-waste

Satish Sinha
Source: Meta State, Financial Chronicle, Date: , 2012

43 facilities come up in past two years with total capacity for processing 1 lakh tones

Electronic waste or e-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world today, contributing to almost 5 per cent of the total municipal solid waste generated worldwide. Annually, India generates almost 800,000 tonnes of e-waste and is expected to grow at an average rate of 10-15 per cent, according to estimates. At present, almost 90 per cent of this waste is recycled in the informal backyard set-up with no regard for environmental safeguards. E-waste primarily consists of wastes from electrical and electronic gadgets such as personal computers, mobile phones, televisions, photocopiers, DVD players, washing machines, refrigerators and other household consumer durables, many of which contain toxic materials.

E-waste is a highly complex and challenging stream to handle, mainly due to the large variety of products included in its purview. Some of these products can contain over 1,000 different substances, ranging from some highly precious and rare metals such as gold, silver, copper, palladium, to a host of highly-toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, brom-inated flame retardants (BFR), which are known to have an adverse long-term impact on human health.

Products in the e-waste stream can be categorised under two specific parameters — hazardous content and recyclability (the value of recyclable materials).

Entrepreneurs were quick to understand the business potential of recycling products with a positive cash incentive and promptly started setting up facilities. In the past two years, there has been a sudden jump in the total number of recycling facilities (43) established in the country with a total installed capacity for processing one lakh tonnes of waste. Many facilities are in the pipeline awaiting clearance from the regulators.

In the informal e-waste recycling sector, there is a large number of operators many of whom have been in operation for over 15 years.

Growth in volume of e-waste generation, coupled with creation of a level playing field through adoption of a legal framework, is expected to generate additional as well as new business opportunities in e-waste trade and recycling.

The growth in the formal recycling sector and sustenance of most operators indicate that this is a viable business opportunity. The infrastructure cost for setting up a recycling facility in a formal set-up can vary widely — it ranges from smaller investments to organise infrastructure for collecting and dismantling, to larger investments for metal refining plants involving high-end technology for the recovery of precious and rare metals. Use of high-end technology for material recovery is highly desirable ensuring approximately 95-97 per cent recovery of precious metals compared with the informal sector operations wherein the recovery is at best 60 per cent.

The challenge for the formal recycling sector has been sourcing of raw material and ensuring a steady material flow for their plant operation. The informal sector enjoys an edge over its formal counterpart due to low overhead costs.

This relative advantage of the informal sector is expected to change soon if provisions of e-waste rules are effectively implemented, permitting only the authorised recyclers to access waste.

The promulgation and implementation of the new e-waste management and handling rules 2012 has been a result of prolonged and sustained campaigns initiated by civil society groups and is expected to change the landscape of e-waste management in the country.

This rule attempts to deal with the issue of e-waste, both upstream and downstream (at the beginning and at the end of the electronic life cycle) and embodies two highly-progressive concepts of extended producers responsibility (EPR) wherein the producer is made responsible for the post consumption stage of the product’s life cycle (downstream) and restriction on use of hazardous substances (RoHS), which essentially restricts the use of toxic chemicals in the production process (upstream). EPR mandates a producer to take back the product ensuring its environmentally safe management, thus incorporating a life cycle approach, influencing the decision for choice of material and product designing and finally its end-of-life management.

The e-waste rule enunciates responsibilities for every stakeholder in the chain — from manufacturer, bulk generator of waste, recycler, regulator, to individual consumer. While the rule is progressive in nature and has evolved after an extensive consultative process, it appears to suffer from implementation blues like any other carefully-crafted set of rules in the country. This is where there is an urgent and critical need to address some of the gaps to ensure its effectiveness.

Awareness of the rules and responsibilities of every stakeholder can play a major role in changing perceptions and practices and requires to be taken up by manufacturers of products and state pollution control boards on the highest priority. Non-existence of a robust and extensive collection network that facilitates waste flows through a clean channel is a serious gap and can be addressed by assigning targets to the manufacturers/producers for collection and recycling as a part of the EPR mandate.

Introduction and implementation of e-waste rule is a step in the right direction and requires concerted and dedicated efforts from all the stakeholders to ensure its effectiveness and success. The role of the regulator is perhaps most significant in ensuring effective implementation of the rule, its responsibility for building a simple, but transparent, system for reporting and monitoring progress with minimum bureaucratic interference.