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Issue 23
, 2010
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Sustainable E-waste Management

By: Satish Sinha, Source: Toxics Link Website, Date: , 2010

The twentieth century marked the beginning of use of equipments like radio, television and a ground breaking discovery - the first computer. Innovation and development in the field of science and technology and an open global market resulted in availability of a range of products at affordable prices, changing the very lifestyle of societies. New electronic appliances have infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, providing society with more comfort, health and security, with easy and faster information acquisition and exchange.

The sheer amount of electronic equipment reaching end-of-life poses a growing challenge. Increased consumption on account of rapid obsolescence and wide choices have been responsible for generation of huge quantities of waste termed as E-waste, both post consumption and in the production processes. E-waste mainly comprises waste from electrical and electronic gadgets such as computers, mobile phones, television, photocopiers DVD players, washing machines, refrigerators and other household consumer durables, many of which contain toxic materials.

India, in the last couple of decades, has also been vastly influenced by consumerism. Many of the trends in consumption and production are unsustainable and pose serious concerns about environmental and human health. Optimal use of natural resources, cleaner products, minimisation of waste and toxicity and a lifecycle approach are some of the issues that need to be addressed while ensuring economic growth and enhancing the quality of life.

Economic growth and Digital revolution:
The Indian economy has witnessed a significant growth over the last two decades. The Information Technology (IT) sector has contributed significantly to this overall economic growth and has been responsible for a major shift in the consumption patterns of the Indian middle class, especially for consumer durables and household goods.

The digital revolution, which commenced in 1980, continues to the present day and has transformed the way we live, work and communicate. There are a whole range of products, which have become affordable and infiltrated homes and offices. There is also a change also in the way these are utilized by consumers, as it is now easier and more convenient to replace than to repair these products. Figures, as illustrated in table 1, indicate the constant growth in sales volumes of some consumer electronics goods in India.

Table 1: Sales figure for consumer electronics in India

table 1

The increasing affordability and availability of these products means a gradual penetration into smaller towns which are now recording impressive sales of consumer electronics. The desktop PC and laptop/notebook sales have shown impressive growth in the smaller cities and towns (Rest of India in Fig 1 & 2) in the last five years, accounting to 68% and 75% of the total sales volume in 2008-09, compared to 45% and 25% in 2003-04. India, with around 500 million mobile users, is now the second largest market in the world after China, and in 2008-09 rural India outpaced urban India in mobile growth rate. According to data available with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, 48 million rural consumers took a new mobile connection in the first six months of calendar 2009 compared with just 32 million in the cities, thus taking the mobile penetration in rural India to around 17%.

figure 1, figure 2

These figures do suggest that the penetration of consumer electronics like computers and mobile has deepened in the country but there is still very large untapped market potential for these products. With the absolute penetration of these equipments still being very low, the coming years will see further increase in sales as new markets are explored and accessed.

Mounting quantities of E-waste:
The unprecedented growth of the consumer electronics market is revolutionary, as it has brought knowledge and information at every one’s doorstep. The electronics manufacturing industry, one of the largest and fastest growing in the world is also one of the most innovative, constantly creating and utilizing new technologies and thereby inbuilt product obsolescence. The result is that an ever increasing quantity of electronics and electrical appliances being discarded, as it is often cheaper to buy new than to repair or to upgrade a broken or obsolete product. This has given rise to a new environmental challenge: Waste from electrical and electronic equipment or "e-waste."

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams today and is growing almost three times the rate of municipal waste, globally. As per current estimates, the global e-waste market is forecasted to reach 53 million tonnes by 2012 from 42 million tonnes in 2008; thus growing at a CAGR of 6 percent. India with population of over 1 billion, a growing economy and increasing consumption is estimated to be generating approximately 4,00,000 tonnes of waste annually (computers, mobile phone and television only) and is expected to grow at a much higher rate of 10-15%. The main sources of electrical and electronic waste generation in India are government institutions and business houses, accounting for around 70% of the total waste, while contribution of individual household is relatively small. But with the growth of middle class in the country and increasing disposable income, e-waste generation from households is also set to increase. This huge generation of highly toxic waste poses serious concerns as India is still struggling to find sustainable solution to this complex issue.

figure 3

The illegal waste being dumped from developed countries further aggravates the E-waste situation in the country. India happens to be at the receiving end of the international waste and reports suggest that large volumes of this toxic waste are brought in illegally into the country. These are primarily being dumped into India for profit due to availability of cheap labour and weak environmental laws. Some of the Export Promotion Zones are also proving to be lucrative destination/ centers for such waste trade.

This illegally dumped waste from developed nations adds to the already mounting waste pile from domestic sources. The country does not possess appropriate technology, infrastructure or a supporting legal framework to manage this waste, thus making it highly unsustainable and unsafe.

Hazards and Concerns:
The problems associated with electronic waste are now being recognized. E-waste is highly complex to handle due to its composition. A computer contains highly toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), PVC and phosphorus compounds. A television or a mobile phone is also loaded with many toxics chemicals. Most of these materials are known to have serious human health concerns and requires to be handled with extreme care in order to avoid any adverse impacts. This warrants the need for appropriate technology for handling and disposal of these chemicals. Though some of these materials are used in small quantities in each computer, the aggregate volumes being recycled are significant and will have serious impacts on environment and human health if not handled with due safeguards. Many developed countries practice very stringent norms for recycling these products to avoid these adversities..

While India generates this huge volume of waste, almost 90% of the available E-waste continues to be recycled in the informal sector, in the by-lanes of cities and towns. Many of the processes are rudimentary in nature and can be classified as dangerous and toxic. Some of the processes involve burning or direct heating, use of acid baths, mercury amalgamation and other chemical processes to recover materials. These result in the release of toxic materials into the environment through emissions or effluents. The recycling centers are also slowly and gradually shifting as we witness growth of many such centers in smaller towns, thus raising concerns of dispersed contamination. Some of the more toxic and dangerous practices are gradually and increasingly moving to smaller towns to avoid scrutiny by the regulators.

Most workers engaged in these recycling operations are the urban poor and unaware of the hazards associated with it. Traditionally the urban poor have engaged with the trade of waste and recycling, one of the most polluting and unsafe livelihood opportunities for survival. While traders, who only engage in trading such waste make around 10 to 15% profit, the worker earns a meager 150 to 200 rupees per day and is exposed to the hazards of the processes.

E-waste also contains precious metals and many rare materials, which are highly valuable,. The recycling operation especially the process of material recovery being rudimentary, results in very low recovery of materials and non-recovery of many rare elements. This loss is significant, making the whole process highly inefficient.

Some of the impacts of the current informal sector recycling are

  • Release of toxins into environment
  • Loss of natural resources due to low recovery of materials
  • Health impact to workers
  • Loss of revenue to state
  • Disproportionate sharing of profits

The inadequate capacity for recycling this huge quantity of toxic waste, resulting in loss of natural resource and release of toxins into environment, is the real challenge for sustainable production and consumption in the country today. These can be only mitigated through a Life-cycle Approach. Lifecycle thinking is essential and goes much beyond the traditional focus on production and manufacturing processes.

Upstream innovation and solutions:
Application of a Lifecycle approach to environmental management is recognized as the most effective tool for sustainable products. A product can be evaluated for each of the stages of its life and can be optimized for eco efficiency. The Lifecycle approach and design for environment would permit bridging the technological divide between production and recycling. Looking at the complete lifecycle helps in reducing waste at every stage of the product, reducing toxics load on the environment and enhancing its recycling potential.

The electronic industry needs to incorporate the principles of Design for Environment (DfE) in attempting to address the optimization of mass of the product, energy usage and recycling potential. The essential requirement for the disposal to be conceived in tandem at product design stage would ensure its higher recycling potential. This also helps bridge the technology gap between manufacturing and disposal, improving the recycling potential of the product and hence optimizing resource utilization. DfE also addresses the issue of the mass of the products and producers constantly strive to reduce the size while enhancing product efficiency. Good examples of such concepts in design are the new generation laptops, radios and mobile phones which result in reducing the total material consumed in the production process also minimization of waste generation at the end of life of the product.

Material substitution or use of less toxic materials in the manufacturing process also brings down the environmental footprint of the product. The European regulation -ROHS (Restriction On use of Hazardous Substances)- is one regulatory instrument which has been an important driver in reducing toxics in electronic products. This regulation aims at gradually reducing the use of Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Hexavalent chromium, PBB and PBDE. It is important to learn from the European experience and incorporate the principles of ROHS to the Indian context with the objective of reducing the use of toxic substances in electronic products. Material substitution with less toxic substances helps in reducing environmental load while improving recycling potential, thus also reducing the recycling costs.

Downstream solutions:
Down stream solution would essentially attempt to address technological issues of recycling, a frame work of responsibility of stakeholders and setting up of a reverse supply chain process.

Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR):
Extended Producers Responsibility is the most apt, accepted and recognized framework for finding solutions to the complex issue of product disposal and pollution prevention. It implies that the responsibility of the producer extends beyond the post consumer stage of the product. The producer through a series of actions will aim to set up a reverse logistical process for the products and ensure its environmentally safe recycling and disposal. Many countries have adopted this framework in their policy and regulation to manage E-waste. It will be prudent and appropriate to incorporate EPR framework for any regulation on E-waste in India. Both individual and collective responsibility of the producers is viable and workable.

Responsibility of the producer to the end-of-life management brings in more commitment and responsibility on part of producers for cleaner materials and production processes.

Reverse Supply Chain:
In the Indian context setting up of a robust and viable reverse supply chain for the E-waste stream is currently the biggest challenge. The existing informal sector with very low investment in infrastructure and ability for deep penetration provides a skeletal reverse supply chain process in India. The sheer expanse and size of the country demands and justifies a well-organized and regulated system to ensure that the material flows to the best technology centers for disposal. Closing the loop for the reverse supply chain and also shortening its length is of critical importance.

It is also critical for linkages to be formed between the formal and informal sector in developing the reverse supply chain process. The strength of the informal sector with its capacity of deep penetration must be upgraded, managed and effectively utilized to build a sound system. Previous experiences do suggest that competition between the informal and formal sectors have been responsible for weakening the system leading to diversion of materials in two separate channels. Thus it is essential to have an inclusive system, which will not only encourage sound recycling technology in the formal recycling facilities but will also take advantage of the existing strengths of the informal recycling sector.

Formal recycling facilities would only be viable if material supply is assured through an established system of reverse supply chain. EPR would ensure material availability for recycling through manufacturers’ vast networks.

Recycling Infrastructure:
E-waste is gradually being viewed as an important resource due to the presence of some precious and rare metals. Many entrepreneurs view this as a lucrative business opportunity and have set up facilities with differential capacities to handle this waste. As per current information in last four years more than ten recycling facilities in the organized sector have emerged in the country, engaged in dismantling and segregation of this complex waste. These recycling facilities have been authorized by the respective Pollution Control Boards to undertake specific processes based on their capacities. Availability of adequate number of sound recycling infrastructure units across the country will be critically important for safe management of E-waste. The country, currently, has only one integrated facility with an annual capacity of around 30000 tones of waste. Most units are only engaging in pre-processing of this waste and then exporting some of the valuable E-waste abroad for material recovery.

These recycling facilities are in various stages of infancy and need to grow, evolve and establish best practices and standards in order to achieve sustainable E-waste management. The existing recycling facilities also suffer from a serious lack of credibility making them less attractive destination in channelising waste from the multi-national corporations. They are currently handling only a small fraction of the total waste generated in the country as they compete with the informal sector in accessing and treatment of waste. The current situation of low material availability in the formal sector is expected to change as these E-waste companies build credible reputation and brand value aided by suitable regulation and enhanced public awareness.

Resource recovery:
The production process of electrical and electronic products consume large volumes of materials some of them precious and many rare. Excessive mining and consumption of some of these elements leads to faster depletion of natural resources, also increasing the environmental burden. Unsustainable production consumption processes could seriously impact the reserves, hence the need to recycle these materials and plough them back into the supply chain process. Improving the recycling potential of these products coupled with technology up-gradation for recycling will enhance the material recovery and also result in conservation of energy.

Refurbishment and Reuse:
Another opportunity and tool for waste minimization in India would be reuse and refurbishment. IT products are rendered surplus and waste as they become obsolete. These products though obsolete and old for a particular consumer base have the potential of being used by another set of consumers. The markets for such products have always existed in India in semi-urban settings. These however, are quickly seeping into rural areas providing a significant market size for these second-hand products. Refurbishment and reuse need to be thought through as a market strategy and implemented with due care so that the conflict with trade of new products is minimized while achieving the goal of sustainability and waste minimization.

Legal Framework:
Currently E-waste in India is covered under the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008. The existing Hazardous Waste Rules was primarily drawn up to address issues of waste generated in industrial processes and is inadequate to cover issues specific to E-waste. The Government, after prolonged deliberation, issued a Guideline for safe management of E-waste in the country. The guideline is a voluntary instrument and largely attempts to address the technological gap. While the guideline was a welcome step, it did not provide the requisite drivers for changing the ground situation. The voluntary nature of the guideline was a limiting factor as it failed to provide a level playing field to brands and trigger significant actions.

Stakeholders’ discussions suggested that a mandatory regulation specific to E-waste would be the most desirable way forward. A core group comprising of Toxics Link, Green Peace, Manufacturers Association Of Information Technology and GTZ took the lead and drew up draft Rules. These Rules broadly encompass the framework of Extended Producer’s Responsibility and Restriction on use of Hazardous Substances. The draft Rules have since been submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests who have committed to finalizing the rules expeditiously.

The IT industry has been an important driver in the growth of Indian economy and will continue to be a very significant player. The Indian economy is expected to be one of the fastest growing economies of the world. The sheer size of the market and large consumer base is expected to boost consumption patterns and result in generation of huge quantities of waste. While this throws up a serious new challenge it also brings in new set of opportunities not only to manage this waste but also for innovation of cleaner and more sustainable products. Waste minimization is a cardinal principle to be researched, experimented and adopted for sustainability. These are possibilities not only for a solution to local problems, but are also applicable to global issues on E-waste. New revenue models in the business of E-waste appear as interesting possibilities in the Indian context and could perhaps be used as one of the many working solutions. The ideal mix of skilled labour from the informal sector coupled with appropriate technology, perhaps can provide solutions for sustainable E-waste practices.

The urgency for a larger policy and an enabling regulation to manage this waste are important instruments, which would provide important drivers for a safe and sustainable E-waste management practice. The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility is the most appropriate framework to be discussed and slowly practiced. However, the challenge lies in the implementation of this framework and the regulatory process. The issues of governance have always been a limiting factor in effective implementation of rules and it would be utmost importance to embed necessary drivers for accountability, transparency and sustainability into any regulation or policies on waste.