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E-waste woes

Source: Financial Chronicle, Date: , 2012

Lack of proper disposal mechanisms has resulted in e-waste becoming one of the fastest growing hazardous waste streams in developing nations today.

The technology revolution today has rendered a huge percentage of the world’s population helpless without an electronic gadget. In an age where mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment gizmos, appliances and other devices are must-haves, rapid innovations define society. New models are being churned out faster than it takes to dispose older gadgets. This has resulted in high growth rates of electronic waste not just in the developed world, even in emerging giants such as China and India. However, lack of proper disposal mechanisms in developing nations has resulted in e-waste becoming one of the fastest growing hazardous waste streams today.

Electronic waste is primarily produced at the end of two cycles. The first is during the production process of an electronic item, for instance, during the time of the manufacturing of a refrigerator. The second is when the product has reached the end of its life cycle and the consumer is ready to dispose it off. Both these cycles put India’s e-waste generation at almost a million tonnes, growing at 20 per cent annually.

Almost half of all the unused and end-of-life electronic products lie waste in landfills, junkyards and warehouses. Speaking only on mobile phones, by 2015, one expects to see over 200 million mobile phones being junked. With these increasing numbers, there is an urgent need to find proper disposal and recycling techniques so that environmental pollution and health hazards can be reduced.

In India, predictably, Mumbai ranks first in generating e-waste followed by Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmadabad, Hyderabad, Pune, Surat and Nagpur.

Along with the high generation of e-waste domestically, China and India also receive illegal imports of e-waste from developed countries. These trends will increase the volume of e-waste generated in India and China in the future, which, GBI Research estimates, will reach a total volume of 11.9 million tonnes by 2020.

E-waste recycling in India is dominated by the unorganised sector as most of the e-waste is recycled in unorganised units. This leads to e-waste finding its way to the unsafe and unauthorised dumping yards where they are dismantled manually and unscientifically. Some of the processes involve soaking of circuit boards in acid, followed by manual scrapping to extract metals with the residue thrown into open drains. There is a need for the recognition of the formal and organised sector for proper end-to-end recycling. Besides, lack of awareness and the huge size of the unorganised recycling sector, issues like lack of stringent government policies on e-waste as well as support from both government and the society continue to weigh down the recycler.

In 2008, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the body that oversees the assessment and control of pollution in India, published guidelines for the control and management of electronic waste in the country. The 2008 law, brought in for manufacturers of electronic items, stated that they had to compulsorily turn in or give away or return their electronic waste to authorised recycling entities. The state pollution control boards, which work under the overall supervision of the CPCB, were made responsible for proper licensing, overseeing, documentation and statistical analysis to ensure that electronic waste is properly handled so that environmental damage is minimised. But, like most other well-intended laws in the country, this was not effective because no thought was given on how to practically execute it.

Several pockets in India continue to exist where electronic and other hazardous waste is processed without due course, often severely corrupting the local environment and degrading the local soil quality to a level that disallows agricultural plantation.

The government did notice! It came out with another set of rules – electronic waste management and handling rules last year. It made the producer (the original equipment manufacturer as well the importer of products) responsible for environmentally sound disposal of products produced by them when the products reach the end of their life, and not just at the time of manufacturing. It made the consumer and the bulk consumers (small, medium and large businesses) responsible for ensuring that they dispose of e-waste to authorised recyclers or authorised collection centres. While the new law is certainly a step in the right direction, it does have its own limitations in terms of how effectively it can be implemented.

Globally e-waste recycling and reuse services market is driven by limited shelf-life of electronic products, existence of rare earth metals, growing health and environmental concerns, and high rate of obsolescence. The global e-waste services market has grown from $8,682 million in 2010 to $9,828.0 million in 2012. It is expected that by the year 2017, 12,263.8 thousand tonnes e-waste generated from household appliances will be recycled and reused, as against 3,611 thousand tonnes recycled and reused in 2010. Collective efforts from the government, organised recyclers, corporates and consumers have helped the developed world tackle the growing mess of e-waste.

Needless to say, organisations in India should also work with e-waste management firms to work towards a sustainable solution for e-waste.

Some companies in India have started implementing effective e-waste management programmes. With resources, budget and strong incentives existing within such organisations to ensure proper e-waste management, these companies are the harbinger of coming change in e-waste in developing countries.

Finally, technology plays a very important role in every individual’s life today and the same also wants to live in a healthy environment. It will never be possible for entrepreneurs to completely eradicate the problem of e-waste if they do not receive the support of the common man in this regard. It is about time that we not just leave such a grave issue in the hands of the government but also join in together as individuals and businesses to get it right this time.