Unorganised e-waste disposal: alarming situation

e-waste

A joint study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and Japanese firm NEC Technologies revealed that India produced over two million tonnes of e-waste in 2016 and only 5% of that humongous amount was recycled. E-waste is expected to touch three million tonnes per annum in 2018, with a total value of over $60 billion. The highly unorganised e-waste management and disposal sector poses a serious environmental threat.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have projected India as the fastest growing major economy in the world with a current GDP growth rate of 7.3%. Nearly 95% of the e-waste of this growing economy is managed by the unorganised sector, majorly the scrap dealers. If the e-waste is not disposed of safely and as per established environmental standards, we could see drastic environmental damage and health hazards in the coming decade. 

The government must therefore regulate e-waste management, recycling and dismantling plants and ensure that they follow technologically advanced methods. Additionally, the workforce engaged in the informal sector needs to be streamlined.

E-waste comes from anything that runs on either battery or power supply, ranging from mobile phones and laptops to household appliances to industrial machinery. Personal electronic equipment, especially mobile phones, laptops and desktop computers, contribute nearly 80% of the current e-waste produced in the country.

There are over a billion mobile phone users in India in 2018. Considering that these phones become outdated quickly and millions of people upgrade their phones every year, the amount of e-waste from mobile phones alone is staggering. Globally, nearly 50 million tonnes of e-waste is tossed into landfills globally and hardly 10-18% of it enters the recycling chain. India has even more disappointing statistics. The implementation of a proper recycling chain and establishment of e-waste processing units is the only way out. 

The burgeoning e-waste poses a great threat to the environment and people alike, and relying on the current unorganised e-waste management, disposal and dismantling is to dig a deeper grave for ourselves. Hazardous materials like lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls, and the toxic fumes generated from burning of the e-waste pollute the air and severely damage the health of people who come in contact with them. The gradual accumulation of these materials in the soil and water also contributes to the deterioration of public health and the environment.

The situation is worse for the people employed in the informal sector who deal with the toxic e-waste daily. The number of people working in the informal sector is staggeringly high. In fact, the Assocham-NEC study shows it includes some 4-5 lakh children. Finding alternative employment streams and creating a rehabilitation mechanism for them is essential. The combined efforts of electronics producers and e-waste management companies is necessary to safeguard humans and the environment.

On the one hand, while the widespread technological revolution is necessary for our national development, we cannot allow the hazardous effects of e-waste to destroy our health and the environment. The array of health ailments that unsafe disposal and dismantling of hazardous e-waste cause include reproductive issues, damaged immune system, damaged nervous system, lungs and kidney damage, skin diseases, endocrine disruptions, birth deformities and dreadfully chronic diseases like cancer.  

Regulatory environment

The E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, and the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016, enacted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change have paved the road to e-waste management and safety regulations in the country. Despite the government’s efforts, the path of regulated e-waste management is still long and people still lack guidance to follow the correct roadmap. Currently, the rate of e-waste generation in India is five times the processing capacity. All these statistics mean that we must work in Public-Private Partnership mode to manage the e-waste in the country. 

The new laws have increased producers’ responsibility in managing the e-waste and to create a deposit-refund system (DRS) for consumers to receive the used products. E-waste is also a good source of raw materials that can be used in electronic products. It is time to adopt a Circular Economy model with closed loop of production, consumption and reuse.

Also, producers should step forward and collaborate with e-waste management firms to ensure proper recycling and dismantling of e-waste under a safe and scientifically sound environment. The governing authorities of CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) and NGT (National Green Tribunal) should be strengthened to ensure compliance.

The unorganised sector, mainly the recyclers and dismantlers working in an unprotected environment without any safety measures, needs immediate attention. Also, the population that finds employment in this unorganised sector must be given appropriate alternative sources of income. It is time for producers of electronic goods to take responsibility, for the government to remodel the e-waste management policy, and for the nation to rehabilitate and facilitate the e-waste management sector. 

(The writer is CEO, Deshwal Waste Management Pvt Ltd)

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