Electronic waste equal environmental hazard as plastic; here’s what India should be doing

Only 20% was recycled through appropriate channels. If we talk about India—the fifth-largest producer of e-waste in the world—around 1.8 million mt of e-waste was generated in the country in 2016.

As campaigns to check plastic make the news, little thought is given to electronic waste, which is an equal environmental hazard. With over 100 crore mobile phones in India, it’s no wonder it is among the top five countries in the world when it comes to e-waste generation. What’s the road ahead?


As per Global E-waste Monitor 2017, a report released in December 2017, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonne (mt) of e-waste in 2016. Of this, only 20% was recycled through appropriate channels. If we talk about India—the fifth-largest producer of e-waste in the world—around 1.8 million mt of e-waste was generated in the country in 2016.

In Asia, India occupies the second spot after China when it comes to e-waste generation. As per a joint study titled Electronic Waste Management in India, conducted by Assocham and cKinetics on World Environment Day in 2016, India’s e-waste from old computers will jump 500% in 2020 from what it was in 2007.

The piling up of e-waste in the country is not without reason. India has more than 100 crore mobile phones in circulation—of this, nearly 25% ends up as e-waste annually. Add to this the fact that roughly 90% of the e-waste generated is ineffectively recycled by the informal sector, and the picture turns more grim.

At a recent e-waste sensitisation workshop, organised by International Finance Corporation (an international firm that offers investment and advisory services for private-sector development in developing countries) to facilitate a discussion on the current e-waste scenario in India, it was evident that the challenge is both about collecting, as well as recycling e-waste.

The multi-stakeholder event—which included product manufacturers, waste collectors and aggregators, and producer responsibility organisations (which provide end-to-end e-waste management solutions to electronic goods manufacturers)—was held in January this year in the national capital and threw up some startling figures: Delhi-NCR is likely to generate about 1.5 lakh mt of e-waste per annum by 2020 from 85,000 mt in 2017.

The figures highlight how Delhi-NCR is fast turning into the world’s e-waste dumping yard, with the national capital alone getting 85% of e-waste generated in the developed world (shipments from developed countries are brought in through both certified and illegal routes). Also, as per the Assocham Council on Climate Change & Environment, e-waste in the Delhi-NCR region is growing at a CAGR of about 25%.

So what are we doing wrong? “The biggest bottleneck is recycling. We are not able to effectively recycle, as there are only a handful of legitimate recycling units in the country,” says Pranshu Singhal, founder, Karo Sambhav, a Gurugram-based e-waste producer responsibility organisation (PRO), which helps companies such as Apple, Dell, Lenovo, etc, responsibly manage e-waste.

This ineffective recycling is, in turn, leading to environmental hazards. “The rapid rate at which the electronics market is growing and the toxic nature of these products make e-waste a real concern across the world,” says Rama Mohana R Turaga, who teaches environmental sustainability and public policy at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. “In the short run, we need to set up systems that ensure environmentally-safe processing of e-waste,” he says.

Recycling woes

The grave concern around e-waste arises because it consists of toxic metals, which, when recycled in a hazardous manner, contribute to soil, water and air pollution. “Our estimate is that the e-waste (generated in India) is well over four million mt per annum and only about 50,000 mt is processed by authorised recyclers,” says P Parthasarathy, managing director, E-Parisaraa, one of the first e-waste recycling units to be set up in India in Bengaluru in 2005.

A point reiterated by others. “Of the total e-waste generated in India, approximately 5% is recycled by formal recyclers, while 10% is rendered useless and goes to landfills. The remaining 85% is handled by the informal or unorganised sector,” says Sanjay Mehta, president, Metal Recycling Association of India, Mumbai.

Workers at a processing unit of E-Parisaraa in Bengaluru. E-Parisaraa was one of the first e-waste recycling units to be set up in India in 2005.

As per a 2017 Parliament report, the 10 states that are the largest e-waste generators in India are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab (in that order). These states contribute 70% of the total e-waste generated in the country (the top 10 e-waste generating cities are Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune, Surat and Nagpur).

To track this e-waste, the Union environment ministry in 2016 amended the E-Waste Management Rules, putting the onus of recycling e-waste on producers, with strict penalty for defaulters. The rules also set targets and requirements for the collection of e-waste and its handover to recyclers by producers. The 2016 rules replaced the dull 2011 rules, broadening the ambit by bringing even CFLs and other mercury-containing lamps and equipment under e-waste.

There were also provisions for bringing producers under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), wherein the responsibility of the producer of a product is extended beyond conventional sales to its post-consumer, or end-of-life (EOL), stage as well. “This means that the producer is responsible for the collection of used products or packaging material and ensure its safe recycling or disposal,” says Vishal Kumar, programme manager, Saahas Zero Waste, a Bengaluru-based e-waste management start-up.

In March 2018, however, the Centre further amended the rules, relaxing the EPR norms and reducing e-waste collection targets for producers (the industry is required to collect a pre-determined percentage of goods it sells every year). “The earlier rules had set stringent targets for producers to collect and recycle their EOL products, starting from 30% (of products sold) in the first two years and increasing to 70% by the seventh year.

But as per the new proposed rules, the industry is liable to collect only 10% of e-waste (of their overall sales) during 2017-18, with an increase of 10% every passing year,” says Singhal of Karo Sambhav. The 70% collection target by 2023, however, has been retained. The regulations also indicate the lifespan of different products—such as five years for mobile phones and 10 years for washing machines.

The producers are an unhappy lot. “Many consumer products are untraceable and there are no binding rules at the consumer end to return the products after use. Plus, there is a lack of adequate collection and recycling infrastructure,” says Anwar Shirpurwala, executive director, Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (MAIT), the apex body representing the interest of the IT hardware industry in India.


Not surprisingly, the implementation of the rules remains a concern. “The rules are in place. The problem is with the implementation,” says Kumar of Saahas Zero Waste. “Despite laws being framed in 2011 and amended repeatedly, very little has changed on the ground in the last six years. Producers complain that the volumes are too huge to collect and users maintain that there is little awareness on how to dispose of the waste responsibly,” he says.

Lack of awareness is often cited as the reason for the improper disposal of e-waste. “I am not sure whether consumers are aware of the existence of formal e-waste management units. Even if they are aware, depositing old products with formal units usually requires them to go themselves and drop the products, whereas informal waste collectors come home to pick up the waste. So it’s far more convenient for general consumers to sell it to the kabadiwalla,” Turaga of IIM-Ahmedabad argues.

But not everyone believes it’s just a matter of inconvenience or lack of awareness. “The informal sector gives a better price because of its low cost of operation and zero overheads. This leads to a face-off with authorised recyclers,” says Akshay Jain, founder and managing director, Namo E Waste, an e-waste management start-up, which is present in 12 states, and does door-to-door collection of e-waste.

As per BK Soni, chairman and managing director, EcoReco, a Mumbai-based e-waste recycling facility, collection is the biggest challenge that recycling units face, as most organised players are yet to establish last-mile connectivity with the consumer. Plus, they don’t pay as much as the local scrap dealer. “Kabadiwallas pay more, as they don’t incur transport cost… neither do they have to set up large-scale machinery. As a result, the formal sector only gets less than 10% of the e-waste generated,” he says.

Taking responsibility

Even with all the difficulties, there are some producers, such as tech giant Hewlett-Packard (HP), that have exceeded their collection targets under the amended laws. “We have several drop-off locations, where consumers can return the defunct product,” says Upasana Choudhary, sustainability manager, HP. “Almost 20% of our target is met from bulk users, such as organisations, and the rest we source through several partners, including waste aggregators,” she says.

Not every producer is that diligent though. Around 200 companies that manufacture electronic goods got served notices in October 2017 by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for not complying with e-waste procurement norms. “Many producers provide information on their websites on how to dispose their products and claim to have partnered with registered waste-processing units. The ground reality, though, indicates that not much has changed,” says Turaga of IIM-Ahmedabad. “If you call on the numbers provided on the website, you don’t get any reliable information,” he says.

Studies conducted by Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental research and advocacy organisation, bring the laxity of the producers to the spotlight. “Producers have been lax, as there was no action taken against them the last time the rules were framed. Weak enforcement makes them believe they can get away,” says Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator, Toxics Link.

What’s ironical is that the same manufacturer may follow EPR policies in a developed country, but in India, they have a lackadaisical attitude. “There are double standards from large producers, which follow and establish such systems in European and other countries, but shy away from the same in India,” says Mahesh.

Not all is lost however. Since the implementation of the first rules in 2011, there has been a significant rise in the number of registered e-waste processing units. “The number has gone up from 23 to over 150. These include both dismantlers and recyclers,” says Turaga of IIM-Ahmedabad. What’s more, even institutional e-waste generators, such as banks and state government departments, are putting in place processes that require disposing of the waste through registered processors.

Several companies have also developed e-waste management policies as a conscious effort or as part of their CSR initiatives. Take, for instance, Chennai-based Danfoss India. The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning firm has an environmental and occupational health and safety policy that covers waste management, including e-waste management.

“We have a three-year, long-term agreement with a CPCB-authorised recycler for the scientific disposal of e-waste collected by us on a periodic basis. We ensure proper segregation, storage and precious metal recovery prior to disposal as part of our e-waste management programme. We also track the process, with an end-to-end approach, from collection to recycling,” says Ravichandran Purushothaman, president, Danfoss India.

At Chennai-based IT firm CSS, 100% e-waste generated at its centres across India was responsibly disposed of through authorised third parties in 2016. Then there are outfits such as Karo Sambhav and Saahas Zero Waste that run awareness workshops on e-waste disposal across the country and work in partnership with waste collectors and recycling firms for safe disposal of e-waste. “Currently, we collect 10-15 mt of e-waste everyday across 62 cities,” says Singhal of Karo Sambhav.

Waste management

The road ahead, as per experts, is to involve the informal sector. “The proliferation of registered, formal units alone is no solution. The informal sector provides livelihoods to millions and is quite efficient in waste collection. So it is critical that we figure out how to bring the informal sector into the e-waste management system,” Turaga of IIM-Ahmedabad says.

Product manufacturers, meanwhile, want consumers to share the responsibility too. “Targets should not only be set for producers, but also for each stakeholder, including the consumer, for channelising e-waste through recycling. One single stakeholder should not be burdened with the entire responsibility of collection,” says Shirpurwala of MAIT.

The challenge, most believe, lies in creating awareness about the environmental and health hazards of e-waste. “We are still a long way from having a planned lifecycle approach for efficiently managing e-waste. Proper collection, segregation and disposal should become part of every corporate, institution and government’s waste management agenda. It should not remain fragmented in select locations,” says Purushothaman of Danfoss India.

To increase awareness and to bridge the gap between the generation and recycling of e-waste in the country, the Centre, in March 2016, launched a $3-million project to train three lakh unorganised e-waste dealers. Under the project, 125 training centres will come up across the country by the end of 2018 to train dealers over a period of 10 years.

Soni’s EcoReco has tied up with the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) as part of the project and has started training centres in Maharashtra and Delhi. “The NSDC has been given a mandate to train three lakh people from the informal sector in the next 10 years. If that change happens, the collection of e-waste will be streamlined and half the battle will be won,” he says.

Source: Financial Express

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