Pollution

Dealing with the discarded: E-Waste management in India

India is the third-largest producer of e-waste after China and the United States. More than 95% of this waste is handled by informal sector

 
India is the third-largest producer of e-waste after China and the United States. More than 95% of this waste is handled by informal sector. Photo: Surya Sen

An individual on an average checks his / her phone 58 times in 16 waking hours.

This simple statistic points to the fact that technology plays a dominant role in our lives.  But the increase in its use, coupled with extremist consumerist patterns, has not come without shedding some ill-effects on the environment. Data suggests that two out of five Indians replace their smartphones every year.

This begs the question: Where does all the e-waste go?

The unprecedented generation of e-waste is a cause of concern. The International Telecommunication Union defines e-waste as all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use.

This waste is classified into six categories: Cooling and freezing equipment like refrigerators, freezer other equipment such as televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks and tablets.

It also comprises fluorescent lamps and other large and small equipment like washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, vacuum cleaners and microwaves.

Ventilation equipment, small IT and telecommunication equipment like positioning systems (GPS), pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers and telephones are also included in the broad definition of e-waste.

India has become the largest producer of e-waste after China and the United States. More than 95 per cent of this waste is handled by the informal sector, which only adds to the problem. According to a Central Pollution Control Board report, in financial year 2019-2020, India generated 1,014,961.2 tonnes of e-waste for 21 types of EEE.

Another problem lies with the nature of the material. The e-waste stream contains diverse materials — most prominently hazardous substances such as lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), mercury, polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and valuable substances such as iron, steel, copper, aluminum and plastics.

These require special treatment and cannot be dumped in landfill sites.

E-waste releases harmful chemicals, such as lead, on burning, which adversely impacts human blood, kidney and the peripheral nervous system. When it is thrown in landfills, the chemicals seep in the ground water affecting both land and sea animals. Decomposing e-waste is an expensive process and only a few developed countries can afford to do so.

Enormous generation of e-waste is not a new issue, but it has resurfaced in the discourse of climate change. According to a survey, 78 per cent respondents agreed with the statement: “COVID-19 caused unnecessary short-term investment in technology, which leave us at risk with data being stored on a wide range of devices.”

As many as 92 per cent of enterprises agreed with the statement:  “We must take a serious view on ensuring all devices used to equip the workforce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are appropriately stored and disposed of.”

The way ahead

We need to efficiently use our electronic devices by regularly maintaining them. By getting devices serviced timely, we can extend the average life of these electronic devices.

There is a need to break consumerist patterns. We need to revaluate our choices and use one multi-purpose device. One can also extend the life of electronics by buying a case, keeping the device clean and avoiding overcharging.

Another unique solution to the problem can be offered by tech giants through conditional selling. All tech companies should mandate their customers to buy new technology only after exchanging old electronic products for the new ones.

Hardware stores and companies should offer incentives such as exchange offers and discounts to customers who give away their old electronic devices. Tech companies and sellers should collaborate with e-waste disposing companies for their proper disposal.

They should also adopt smart ways to recycle their old products to produce new ones by outsourcing contracts to e-waste disposal companies.

These activities can be sanctioned by government laws where in thy can provide companies tax benefits for recycling of e-waste.

There are various legislations to regulate the disposal and management of e-waste in India, but their implementation is lax. These legislations include Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Amendment Rules, 2003, Guidelines for Environmentally Sound Management of E-waste, 2008 and E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011.

The states have notified a set of hazardous waste laws and built waste disposal facilities in the last 10 years. However, a Comptroller and Auditor General of India report found that over 75 per cent of state bodies were not implementing these laws.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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