Loopholes in the rules make it difficult to regulate informal sector dealing in e-waste and bulk consumers of electronic goods
The e-waste rules, which require producers of electronic wares to introduce mechanisms for collecting and recycling their goods, came into force on May 1. Besides introduction of schemes by companies to take back their used goods, the rules also require producers, collectors and recyclers to get registered with the state pollution control boards (SPCBs); they have been given 60 days to get registered and obtain authorisation.
But will these rules ensure safe disposal of electronic waste? Manufacturers, activists and even officials say it may not happen any time soon because most of the e-waste is dismantled and recycled by the informal sector. The E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules of 2011 and the accompanying guidelines have many loopholes that need to be plugged to curb illegal e-waste disposal, they say.
On April 4, over half a dozen manufacturers, during a meeting with government officials, demanded that implementation of the rules be postponed as they needed more time. At the time the rules were notified in 2011, it was mentioned that the rules would come into force on May1, 2012, which gave the industry a year's time to put their systems in place. The government, on its part, says it has done its job by including extended producer responsibility and will now wait and watch how things progress. Extended producer responsibility means that all manufacturers of electronic goods are responsible for ensuring proper disposal of their products or end-of-life-process.
The rules are accompanied by guidelines. These are meant to act as explanatory notes because “electronic waste and its disposal is a new concept and very different from disposing of other types of waste”, says Anand Kumar, senior environmental engineer with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The guidelines are meant to explain the ambiguities in the rules (See 'Manage e-waste the EU way'). The guidelines were published on April 1 and were open to comments till April 27.
Informal sector handles most of e-waste
Lakshmi Raghupathy, adviser to the Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology, says the implementation of the e-waste rules would be a major challenge because of the “complexity of the issues and involvement of many stakeholders in the e-waste value chain”. The stakeholders include a large number of people working in the informal sector (see 'IT's underbelly'). CPCB data projects e-waste generation in the country at over 800,000 tonnes in 2012. Almost 90 per cent of this waste goes to the informal sector and is dismantled and recycled in the shanties of Seelampur in north-east Delhi and in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.
A technical specialist on e-waste and former director with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, Raghupathy emphasises the need to reach people in the informal sector. The rules do not hold bulk consumers accountable, when “almost 70 per cent of the total e-waste generated in the country is from government institutions and business houses while contribution from individual households is relatively small,” say CPCB documents. She adds that the e-waste project in GIZ, a German company she works for, provides assistance to the informal sector in setting up collection centres and door-to-door collection.
Raghupathy says that though the rules and guidelines may be lacking in few aspects, time and experience will help to sort out these problems. "The rules may need some amendments in due course but these should be made only after observing the impediments in the implementation of the rules over a brief time period,” she says.
However, some changes may be required immediately in order to provide clarity to the rules, such as the exemption from e-waste rules granted to small and micro-enterprises under clause 2 (c) as most people engaged in recycling and dismantling will come under this category. What's more, Schedule II has to be aligned of with the international norms—the restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS) directive issued by the EU. The amount of metals in electronic products outlined in the guidelines is not the same as in RoHS.
The omissions in the rules could well be covered in the guidelines and in due course brought into the rules through amendments which would cover refurbishing and repairing sectors engaged in soldering, washing and replacing hazardous substances in electronic goods and ensure accountability of bulk consumers like offices and institutions to prevent them from disposing used electronic goods illegally.
CPCB officials are, meanwhile, relieved that they were able to finalise the guidelines within two months. Kumar states the guidelines were drawn up by CPCB following a meeting earlier this year in February with the manufacturers. “At the meeting, we were told more specifics are required and that is why these guidelines have been drawn up. E-waste rules are the only ones in the country that come with guidelines, making their interpretation easier.”
But what about provisions for punitive action against violators? As of now, the monitoring and regulating authorities can take action against violators only under the Environment Protection Act. Section 15 of the Act provides for simple imprisonment of five to seven years with fine of up to Rs 1 lakh; in case of continued violations an additional fine of up to Rs 5,000 can be imposed each day. Vinod Babu, head of the hazardous waste unit of CPCB says the existing e-waste rules are adequate. “These rules are very good because they are not so rigid and leave scope for experimentation with implementation.” He adds it will take at least six months to one year to see the rules in place.
Kumar says CPCB has held awareness workshops and seminars with various state pollution control boards (SPCBs) over the past one year to explain the implementation of the rules. In the last one year, 74 enterprises from all over India have been registered. Of these only 16 are recyclers the others are either collectors or those dismantling e-waste. Kumar adds that the many producers like Dell and Panasonic have informed the authorities that they have put in place mechanisms required to deal with e-waste. “We cannot say how prepared or not they are as we have not cross-checked their claims.”
Who will monitor and how?
Satish Sinha of non-profit ToxicsLink, based in Delhi, says the monitoring of these rules is going to be a big challenge. “Though the rules and guidelines put the onus of checking, manufacturing, recycling and collecting plants on SPCBs, no specifics are given as to who will do this and how.”
But CPCB says that the rules provide for producers and those collecting and dismantling e-waste to file annual returns and keep records of e-waste generated, collected, recycled and disposed of by them. According to Babu, the producers and manufacturers are required to ensure that their electronic goods are disposed properly. The rules do not mention specific technologies or processes to be used for recycling as “technical innovations are constantly taking place and we do not want to tie down anyone's hands,” says Kumar. The rules mention that recyclers are to ensure that the EPA water and air emission standards are maintained.
But the biggest challenges in India is the socio-economic structure where one person's waste is another persons resource and, therefore, already in place are chains where people are paid for their waste by kabadiwallas and others, says Kumar. “People do not part with their waste for free and that is the challenge that producers and collectors need to address,” he adds.
Philips, Panasonic, Nokia and Whirlpool, meanwhile, have introduced their take-back schemes (available on their websites) where a consumer can return the electronic product at a registered centre; in some cases like that of Samsung, old televisions can be exchanged for an upgraded product.
'Don't sell e-waste'
Delhi has two licensed collectors—Chintan and HRA. Both say the cost of collecting e-waste needs to be either subsidised by the government or by the producers. Bharti Chaturvedi, director of Chintan, says, “The scale and the costs involved are possibly the two biggest apprehensions all stakeholders have at present.” She says that to begin with consumers need to start giving away their electronic goods for free instead of charging money for them. “The financial structures are yet to be formulated and put in place. In all likelihood, it would mean that the consumers pay a higher cost. But that is required because the collection and recycling of e-waste is expensive. This is the cost we have to pay for living in the technological world. We should look at ensuring proper collection of waste as a part of our duty to being green.”
Bharti adds that the incentive for waste pickers to sell the waste to the informal dismantlers and recyclers is the money they get. “They buy electronic goods because they can sell them. If they receive waste for free or at low cost that incentive would be lost and they would want to capitalise on the e-waste market before the big companies or contractors swoop in as has been seen in the case of municipal solid waste management,” says Bharti.
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