Waste

International E-waste day: The tsunami is here

The volume of E-waste increased by 21% globally in the last 5 years; it has a doubling rate of 16 years

 
By Anwesha Borthakur
Published: Tuesday 13 October 2020
Electronic waste represents a major environmental challenge in the world today. Photo: Surya Sen

Electronic waste (E-waste) or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) represent a major environmental challenge in the world today. It represents discarded appliances with a battery or a plug.

Rapid advances in technology, economic growth, urbanisation processes, increasing demand for consumer electronic equipment and a downward trend in prices are a few factors responsible for the unparalleled growth of E-waste worldwide during the last two decades.

The demand for electronics, especially in the form of information and telecommunication equipment, has been fueled by the ongoing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Today, we are a part of a new work culture where virtual is the new norm.

As the demand for electronic equipment increases, so does the amount of E-waste generated. The available statistics on E-waste generation is already worrisome.

A recent report by the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor, 2020 estimated that in last five years, the volume of E-waste increased by 21 per cent globally. It has a doubling rate of 16 years. It has already set a record with a massive 53.6 million tonnes (MT) generated in 2019 alone.

The India data is equally disturbing. India, together with China and the United States, accounts for 38 per cent of this volume generated worldwide. E-waste generation in India increased by 43 per cent in just three years, according to a written statement presented in the Lok Sabha (September 23, 2020) by the Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

While the generation of E-waste shows no sign of saturation, its management and policy interventions remain utmost crucial. On the International E-waste day on October 14, 2020 let’s look at the concerns regarding E-waste management.

Associated Complexity

It is irrefutable that E-waste is a complex stream of waste as it contains both hazardous chemicals and valuable metal components. Thus, its management is an intricate process necessitating adequate research and development expertise, public participation and policy interventions.

While there are interesting developments on the research front towards addressing E-waste concerns such as extraction of valuable metals from E-waste or degradation of hazardous compounds through biotechnological or physicochemical processes, most advancement is still confined to a laboratory environment.

Unfortunately, a majority of the progress is yet to travel from the lab to the land.

With our own research experiences on E-waste management in two prominent Indian cities — New Delhi and Bangalore — we observed a significant lack of information and awareness on responsible E-waste management among the populace. For instance, although the urban masses in these Indian cities are mostly cognisant of the detrimental consequences of E-waste, they have no idea about the presence of any recycling center in their respective cities.

People are clueless about their obsolete electronics and therefore, we often have huge volumes of E-waste stored unattended in our houses, offices, educational institutes, etc.

These stored E-waste act as a barrier towards exploring the ‘urban mining’ potential of this waste stream. It is noteworthy that significant portions of precious and valuable metals are present in E-waste which, if extracted, could lower the environmental burden of natural resource-based mining activities.

The concentration of these metals in urban mines could be manifold compared to that of the natural ores, which makes E-waste an interesting alternative to explore.

This becomes more relevant when we aim to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030.

Food for Thought

As the generation of E-waste and associated management concerns intensify, certain issues provide significant food for thought.

The first is the engagement and awareness of the general public. Public as consumers are probably the most important part of any effective E-waste management solution.

They largely decide the success or failure of the E-waste management initiatives and policy interventions. Further, their purchase behaviour of electronic equipment determines the volume of E-waste to be generated in the immediate future.

Here arises a question. How cognisant are our public, not only of E-waste, but also of the environmental implications of their increasing purchase of electronic goods and gadgets?

We must remember that the production of electronic equipment, too, has disastrous environmental consequences through natural resource exploitation in remote African, Asian or Latin American virgin forests.

Unfortunately, the lifespan of electronic equipment, particularly of mobile phones and laptops, are decreasing alarmingly.

An attractive electronics market with new design and innovation as well as a downward pricing trend allure consumers to purchase new electronic products way before the older ones become dysfunctional.

The second concern is the policy design and subsequent execution. The Indian E-waste Rules are largely inspired by the European Union’s (EU) WEEE directive, where the concept of extended producers’ responsibility (EPR) is at the core.

However, I would argue that waste management initiatives should be ‘local specific’. India is an entirely different set up as compared to the EU.

Our socio-economic, cultural and environmental circumstances are substantially different. Within the country, too, these parameters differ as we are a large country with a diverse demography and geography.

Our E-waste management and policy initiatives should be devised rooted on these varying factors. For instance, we must introspect if the concerns allied to the informal sector are dealt with effectively in our E-waste policies. This informal sector is central to a successful E-waste management strategy in India where it has an enormous presence.

International E-waste Day

Considering the concerns associated with the E-waste stream, the WEEE Forum (a not-for-profit association) with the support of its members has been observing the International E-Waste Day in the month of October since 2018.

This year, it is on October 14, with education as the theme. The aim is to sensitise the youth on E-waste. An informed youth population is instrumental in creating a new generation of responsible consumers. Their awareness will also positively influence their families, teachers and the local communities.

Let’s take a pledge to be responsible consumers (both in terms of our purchase and disposal behaviour), educate ourselves on this fast-growing stream of waste and contribute to a sustainable future.

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