How e-waste crisis continues to plague informal sector

Over 90% of electronic waste management is done by informal sector workers, most of whom are unaware of their rights  

By Vikrant Wankhede
Published: Tuesday 30 June 2020

Structured management of electronic waste (e-waste) in India is nascent and is mandated under the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016. Some of the salient features of the rules include e-waste classification, extended producer responsibility (EPR), collection targets (EPR) and restrictions on import of e-waste containing hazardous materials.

E-waste is categorised into 21 types under two broad categories: Information technology and communication equipment and consumer electrical and electronics. These include their components, consumables, parts and spares.

In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste was generated worldwide. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor (2017), the Asian continent generated 18.2 Mt of e-waste, the largest in the world.

In 2016, India generated two MT, and was one the top five countries in e-waste production. A report by NEC Technologies India Pvt Ltd and Associated Chambers of Commerce of India stated that of the two Mt generated by India, 1.58 MT (79 per cent) was unorganised, whereas only 0.42 MT (21 per cent) was organised.

It was further estimated that e-waste generation in India by 2018 would be three MT. This means, by now in 2020, we may simply have crossed the three MT mark and more than any other agency, higher quantities of e-waste is being handled by informal workers in the country.

These figures may be conservative; according to Central Pollution Control Board data from February 2020, around 1,500 producers were provided EPR, and there are only 34 registered Producer Responsibility Organisations. It won’t be incorrect to say that over 90 per cent of the e-waste handled is done by informal sector workers.

It is estimated that over a million people in India are involved in manual recycling operations. Since workers are not registered, it is impossible for the agencies to track the issues of employment such as workers’ rights, remunerations, safety measures and so on.

This is aggregated by the fact that labourers are from the vulnerable sections of the society, lack any form of bargaining power and are not aware of their rights. This has an obvious effect on the environment since none of the procedures are followed by workers or local dealers.

Simply put, some major effects of e-waste on environment include groundwater pollution, acidification of soil and contamination of ground water, and air pollution due to burning of plastic and other remnants. Some of the major health effects include serious illnesses such as lung cancer, respiratory problems, bronchitis, brain damages, etc, due to inhalation of toxic fumes, exposure to heavy metals and alike.

Among other issues that plague e-waste management in India, the most pertinent is that over 90 per cent of the management and handling takes place in the informal / unorganised sector. This is to the extent that all rules (2016) seem like a waste of effort and resources towards streamlining management of e-waste vis-à-vis EPR collection targets and / or take back systems.

It is only natural to come up with a strategy to engage with informal sector workers. Since the rules are completely oblivious to unorganised sector, streamlining the informal sector will not only go a long way in better e-waste management practices, but also aid in environmental protection, improve the health and working conditions of labourers and provide better work opportunities to over a million people. This will make management environmentally sustainable and easy to monitor.

The need of the hour is to generate employment, which can be done through identifying and promoting cooperatives and expanding the scope of the 2016 E-Waste (Management) Rules to these cooperatives or the informal sector workers. Last, it could also be fruitful to explore direct linkages with informal workers on the prerogative of producer companies.   

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