Safe recycling of e-waste remains a pipe dream despite government rules
Much hope was pinned on the e-waste management rules when the Union environment ministry introduced them in May last year. The rules placed India on a par with a select few developing countries that have laws in place to safely handle and dispose of the growing volume of electronic waste. But 10 months on, the effort seems to have turned into a damp squib.
So far the ministry has no data on how much e-waste the country generates, let alone any information on how many manufacturers or importers of computers, mobile phones and other electronic items are ensuring proper disposal of their products or recycling of the end-of-life products.
According to Manufacturers’ Association of Information Technology, India generates 400,000 tonnes of e-waste every year. Industry experts have been citing this figure for the past three years (see ‘IT’s underbelly’, Down To Earth, May 16-31, 2010). However, only 19,000 tonnes of this e-waste is recycled. An additional 50,000 tonnes of e-waste is illegally imported into the country. Some 95 per cent of this e-waste is dismantled manually by scrap dealers. The dismantling methods they use are extremely harmful to the environment and human health, state studies by several environmental agencies, including the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). They either immerse printed circuit boards and electronic parts into chemical solutions or burn them to obtain metal extracts. These processes release toxic gases. Certain electronic components contain potential carcinogenic substances such as lead and cadmium.
The rules for the first time put the onus of reducing and recycling these e-wastes on manufacturers and importers of electronic items. They made them legally responsible for making people aware of these hazardous components and inform consumers about proper disposal system so that they do not mix e-waste with domestic waste. The industry was also entrusted with the responsibility of setting up e-waste collection centres and introducing “take back” systems as extended producers responsibility (EPR).
The ministry gave the producers of electrical and electronic equipment a breathing period of one year to enable them to set up collection centres for electronic waste and implement the take-back system.
“But little has been done despite this grace period,” says Ravi Agarwal of Toxics Link, a Delhi-based non-profit. “There have been implementation slippages since the rules came into force.”
Anand Kumar, senior environmental engineer with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), says the kind of enthusiasm the ministry was expecting from the producers following introduction of the rules is missing. Some producers are concerned and have put an e-waste collection system in place. State pollution control boards are making the rest aware about the system through workshops. Kumar says he still receives online enquiries from several companies about the collection system.
Laxmi Raghupathy, a technical specialist on e-waste and former director with MoEF, says the rules entrust the entire responsibility of end-of-life management on the producer through EPR, but the mechanism is not clear. And therein lies the problem.
Some manufacturers have put in place a collection system but it is not fully operational due to lack of take-back targets of e-waste. “Unlike countries in Europe where companies are provided e-waste related targets, there is no such mechanism in the Indian rules. Unless there are clear targets how can the performance of the companies be measured?” asks Rohan Gupta, chief operating officer, Attero, an electronics recycling company in Roorkee.
Raghupathy says informal e-waste collection centres pose the biggest challenge for such formal collection system. They offer better prices for used electronic goods compared to the formal sector. Though the number of formal recyclers has been increasing at a rapid pace—from a single firm in 2005 to 90 now—the total recycling capacity of these authorised facilities is way less than the e-waste generated. Worse, even the established facilities are not getting volumes of electronic waste up to their full capacity. For instance, Attero is operating at only 20 per cent of its capacity. The situation is not much different for smaller recyclers.
There are only 19 authorised e-waste recyclers in Karnataka to cater to the needs of more than 450 electronic goods manufacturing industries. Most of these recyclers are in Bengaluru that generates bulk of the e-waste. Yet the amount of e-waste these recycling companies receive is very little. The recyclers had received only 300 tonnes of e-waste last year, which was much less than the amount generated, say state pollution control board officials.
It seems the ministry has not learnt from the Lead Acid Battery Rules of 2002. The rules mandate recycling of lead acid batteries through EPR of manufacturers alone, but did not involve scrap dealers who divert them to informal smelters.
The industry feels imposing responsibility only on the producers is not the solution to the e-waste problem. For instance, even if bulk consumers, such as software companies, use thousands of electronic equipment, they are not accountable for recycling and disposal of e-waste. All they have to ensure is that the e-waste is taken back by suppliers. Besides, Mahesh Bhalla, executive director of Dell India, says availability of appropriate technology is essential for ensuring the success of the e-waste management rules. “The optimum use of technology can go a long way in ensuring not just environment-friendly products, but also end-to-end processes in the manner in which an organisation conducts its business operations like e-waste recycling,” he adds.
Then there is no system for certifying or declaring the end-of-life of a product, nor any legal format for issuing destruction certificate for an electronic item. Every recycler gives a different certificate of destruction to the client. This helps the second hand market for electronic items flourish, even though it is illegal to refurbish electronic items under the rules.
To get the upper hand over e-waste management, CPCB plans to begin a nation-wide survey along with state pollution control boards. The exercise would help identify the challenges faced by the government as well as private companies in managing e-waste. The survey would also determine the type of waste, its source, destination and aspects related to its treatment and recycling. Its earlier survey, done in 2005, was confined to top 10 cities in the country. This time, it aims to reach smaller cities.
Kumar says the board will start the survey in a month or two. As of now, state pollution control boards are trying to put in place an inventory of manufacturers and suppliers of electronic items and e-waste recycling companies in the country. Only Jammu and Kashmir has completed the inventory. Andhra Pradesh has done it for only three districts. Himachal Pradesh has submitted a draft report, while Maharashtra and Karnataka, two of the states that generate most of the e-waste, are yet to begin the work. Kumar hopes CPCB will be able to compile the data soon and upload it on its website by June.
Any delay in the effort could mean manufacturers and consumers will improperly dump e-wastes, contaminating the environment. According to a UN report, India’s e-waste from old computers alone will jump 500 per cent by 2020, compared to 2007. This warrants attention.