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E-waste in India: Time to bell the cat!


ANIRUDH RAHEJA explores how lack of proper enforcement in E-waste management and recycling may lead to far reaching consequences. Government bodies, corporate and consumers need to join hands to tackle this growing menace
ANIRUDH RAHEJA | Issue Dated: June 23, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : E-waste | Smartphones | Tablet | Recycling | LED | LCD | ITER |

After a spectacular class XII results, Abhay is all set to join his choice of college next week. And he’s busy shopping for branded clothes and the latest techcessories like smartphone, tablet that will match his über cool personality. Satisfied with his purchases, he goes home and trashes his old mobile. His simple act of discarding his old mobile is a part of the 350,000 tonnes of electronic waste released by India every year (Centre for Science & Environment data). Just like Abhay, millions of us discard electronics without giving a second thought that how this electronic waste or E-waste is going to be recycled.

For the uninitiated, E-waste is basically all gadgets like computer and mobile phone and their accessories; electronics like TV, refrigerator, microwave, AC and all other household appliances that have reached their end-of-life period, are no longer fit for their original intended use and are destined for recycling or disposal. But the rudimentary methods of E-waste disposal in India are fast becoming a big cause for concern to which the government and corporate sector have just woken up. "The government has recognised the perils of E-waste and has left no stone unturned in implementing the waste management rules,” says Rohan Gupta, COO, Attero Recycling.

With technology changing at a supersonic speed, companies are reacting by launching newer models of their products practically every year, or even earlier in some cases. So from the time when the revered TV was placed in the centre stage of our drawing rooms watched by an entire generation without even a thought of replacement; today people switch their TV sets from plasma to LCD to LED to 3D Smart TV, all in the course of a few years. Ditto is the case with mobile phones. The obsolescence rate of electronic goods is so high that by the time one is able to adjust to a particular model, the company fine tunes the product and flourishes the market with an upgraded model, thereby luring the unsuspected consumer! And in this game of one-upmanship against the competition and with profit maximisation being the only goal, these companies often turn a blind eye to the rising problems of E-waste. However, according to Hitendra Chaturvedi, Founder & CEO, GreenDust, “In India consumer awareness has started but it will take time to reach out to general public due to our demographics, vast population and economic health of majority of people.”

Out of the total 40-50 million tonnes of E-waste generated throughout the world, India’s contribution might not be really big but it is gradually picking up steam. This is because Indian populace is traditionally conservative and don’t like dump old things fast. As a result nearly 70% of the E-waste comes from government offices and corporates. While addressing a seminar on “Management and Handling of E-waste” organised by the Institute of Technical Education and Research (ITER), L. K. Tiwari Member-Secretary of Orissa State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) said, “E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, and a survey conducted in 2007 found that over 3,00,000 tonnes of E-waste was generated in India, which is expected to touch 8,00,000 tonnes in 2013.” 

As per a UN report, India will post a staggering 500% growth in generating E-waste by 2020, closely followed by China at 400%. By the year 2020, India’s E-waste generation will touch 1.72 million metric tonnes. In 2010, E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules were passed under the Environment (Protection) Act, but lack of implementation and enforcement has made a mockery of the Act. So the need of the hour is to ensure the proper implementation of the introduced rules and regulations. “While the new law is certainly a step in the right direction, it is important to keep a vigil to ensure that these laws are properly implemented or enforced. We expect government support in ensuring that only credible companies are allowed to recycle the E-waste so that it is processed in an environmentally friendly manner," Gupta asserts. A report from GBI research predicts that global revenues from E-waste recovery market may shoot up to $14 billion in half a decade from now, amidst rising concerns of the governments for safe disposal and even increase recycling across diversified geographies. The recovery market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 10.8% in the ongoing decade till 2020.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Forest, out of the 65 cities that are heavily generating E-waste in India, Mumbai leads the pack with 60% E-waste, followed by Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata. It is encouraging that in India, about 70% of the E-waste generated is recycled for further use, but the underlying issue is that 95% of this recycling is being done in an unorganised manner, without any adherence to rules and regulations, thereby putting human life to risk as well. “India’s E-waste sector is still very unorganised and fragmented,” says Chaturvedi.

It is evident that technological advancements have pushed up the standard of living in urban Indian, but at the same time, in the absence of any proper law, it is also creating health issues for those involved in the recycling of E-waste. A normal home computer contains toxic substances like cadmium, mercury and Beryllium et al. The workers (majorly children in age group of 6-14 years) entrusted with the recycling job are prone to serious health problems and ailments. The average age of their survival is 35-40 years. Another cause for worry is that with stringent laws in their home countries, the developed nations across the world are taking advantage of the legal loopholes, weak environmental laws and availability of cheap labour India and are dumping their toxic E-waste in India. And as of now, we don’t posses technology, legal framework or even infrastructure to tackle these problems.

There have been initiatives by some corporates, who have taken serious note of this issue. Corporate giants like Nokia and Apple have started encouraging their customers to bring back their old electronic gadgets and get them recycled. Even Indian companies like Attero Recycling and GreenDust have been actively promoting recycling of toxic waste under their “take back” model. Attero has recently joined hands with International Finance Corporation (IFC) for their “Clean India” initiative, under which they will be directly in touch with rag pickers and scrap dealers to collect and boost their plans to safely dispose of the electronic waste.

Be that as it may, it is ultimately in the hands of the government to ensure creation of stringent laws for E-waste management and its enforcement. Consumers and corporates too need to show empathy towards this growing concern and cooperate with the government bodies in enhancing their efforts toward safeguarding the environment for coming generations.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017