What a waste!

Published: October 15, 2014 - 15:53

With the e-waste burden mounting, India still has no clue as to how to deal with this toxic dump

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

When it comes to e-waste, India is the world’s trash bin.  We are not just accumulating mountains of used ICs, cathode ray tubes, mobile phones and other electronic components, but also disposing of them in the most unsafe manner, exposing the country to grave health and environment disorders. Electronic waste contains not just heavy metals like lead and mercury, it also has other toxic chemicals and compounds like polyvinyl chloride, quantities of arsenic, beryllium et al. Many of these are carcinogenic.

Around 50,000 metric tonnes of e-waste are illegally imported into the country each year. The bulk of it comes in the garb of being brought in for refurbishing and re-use. We are among those countries of the Third World which serve as the dumping ground for almost 80 per cent of the e-waste generated in First World countries like the US.  This is over and above the 350,000 to 400,000 metric tonnes of e-waste which are generated annually in this country of almost 1.25 billion people.

In 2005, the figure stood at 1.27 lakh metric tonnes. Delhi alone generates 10,000 metric tonnes of e-waste every year while in Bengaluru, where most of the information technology firms have their sprawling offices and back-end support centres, the figure is as high as 20,000 metric tonnes. Both Delhi and Bengaluru account for almost 10 per cent of the e-waste generated in the country. Worse, according to UNEP, the figure may go up by 500 times in the next 15 years. This statistic doesn’t seem too ambitious if one figures out the way technology is evolving and forcing people to upgrade and discard the old. Increased affordability and the government’s desire to modernise and make the countryside equipped with the latest technology too will add to the burden. This presents a catastrophic scenario for a country where recycling is yet to kick off and the government policy on disposal and safe recycling of e-waste exists only on paper.

Like most other sectors, the bulk of the e-waste recycling in the country is mostly in the hands of the unorganised sector which is neither trained nor equipped to handle the toxic substances that make up the tiny Integrated Circuits or the fancy screens of our new-generation computers and cellphones. Visit any garbage dump in the neighbourhood and you will find young children and adults segregating what could be valuable in their reckoning from the filth. Most of it then lands up in smelting units where it is processed to extract the precious metals. This process, which is largely done without any proper guidance or precautions, mostly with bare hands and no masks, exposes the poor workers to grave health risks. In Delhi alone, the informal sector processes a whopping 20,000 metric tonnes of e-waste annually, a figure which is multiplying each year. A portion of this hazardous waste ends up in the many dumps, posing a serious risk to soil and ground water.   

Moreover, the rules framed by the government to tackle the menace are proving grossly inadequate. Recently, a report by Toxic Links, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, investigated how many electronic production units in the country are making nonsense of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a clause in the e-waste management rules of 2011. The report found there were less than 100 collection centres to take back products after they are past their ‘end of life’ stage.  The report examined 50 companies and found out that most of them had different standards for India in comparison to how they were regulating themselves in First World countries. In the four categories that they were assessed for: sufficiency of information on website on disposing ‘end of life’ products, ease of accessibility to information, take back system, number of collection points and information on take back policy with customer care or the helpline provided — 16 fared very poorly, another 15 were in the “not so good” category where some of them had take back policies and information but none of them had
collection points.  

Interestingly, even the state machinery is highly uneducated when it comes to dealing with the problem of electronic waste. A series of RTI requests by Toxic Links to various pollution control boards of states found that seven out of 28 states and six UTs have made inventories of e-waste generating units and four states have partially done it. It was also revealed that 19 states have no infrastructure to deal with e-waste.

However, there are some interesting initiatives coming up from young entrepreneurs. Take, for example, the Roorkee-based Attero which is following an ‘end-to-end’ recycling approach.

The new initiative has already grossed funding totalling more than US$16.5 million. The company is collecting and processing around 1,000 metric tonnes of e-waste from 500 cities all over the country. Interestingly, it deals with both formal sector giants like Wipro, Infosys et al and the local scrapwallahs, whom it pays more than the market price. With state-of-the-art technology to process e-waste, the firm has managed to gross revenues to the tune of $15 million. A market research report suggests that the Indian waste management market is expected to touch the $13 billion mark by 2015, with the e-waste management market alone growing at 10 per cent annually.

Meanwhile, Attero’s model has made even the big players in the sector sit up and take notice. We may soon see more international players making a beeline for their share of the pie. However, it is unlikely that this alone will be able to stymie the many dangers. What is perhaps needed is a more pro-active role by the government.

With the e-waste burden mounting, India still has no clue as to how to deal with this toxic dump
Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

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