E-waste management: Nokia sets example

Firm addresses extended producer responsibility with take-back scheme for mobile phones; phases out hazardous substances from devices

By Sadia Sohail
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2013

India is one of the few countries in the world to adopt a law for safe handling and disposal of e-waste. The E-Waste Management and Handling Rules, introduced by the Union environment ministry last year, has a clause that is meant to ensure that manufacturers of electronic goods are made responsible for their products once these have outlived their utility—it is called extended producer responsibility (EPR). However, few manufacturers or producers take back their e-waste. Mobile phone manufacturer Nokia is one of the very few companies that seems to have made some serious effort in this direction.

Nokia began its e-waste management campaign in 2008 when e-waste disposal was given little attention.  In the first phase of its campaign, Nokia set up drop boxes across the country to take back used phones, chargers and accessories, irrespective of the brand, at Nokia Care Centres or Priority Dealers. After the necessary infrastructure was set up, Nokia entered into the second phase of the campaign, which involved the public. Nokia’s mass campaign was implemented on January 1, 2009 in four cities of the country: Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Ludhiana. The campaign was advertised on the front pages of all the major newspapers in the pilot cities and around 600 articles relating to it were published in different newspapers across the country.

“The response to the 'Take-back' campaign has been extremely positive since the beginning. The total quantity of mobile phones and accessories collected from this campaign since its launch in 2009 is 160 tonnes. The e-waste collection has grown from three tonnes in 2009 to 65 tonnes in 2012,” says Pranshu Singhal, head of sustainability operations with Nokia.

The discarded phones collected in the Nokia care centres are sent to authorised recyclers. The recyclers dismantle the phones and separate the metal and plastic parts in it which are crushed separately using latest recycling technologies. The crushed parts are then used to make new products. Almost 100 per cent of the materials in a phone are recovered and reused.

Campaign to green minds

After the pilot campaign, Nokia launched its “Planet Ke Rakhwale” take-back and recycling campaign in September, 2009, which extended to 28 cities across India. The campaign was launched at the national level in January, 2010. An intensive media campaign was undertaken on TV, radio and print, featuring the megastar Shahrukh Khan. The campaign aimed to inspire young minds to spread the recycling message. For every handset dropped in the recycle bin, Nokia promised to plant a tree and also offered a surprise gift.
But this campaign received only a lukewarm response in the beginning because unlike other take-back schemes it was not giving the consumers any fiscal incentive in return for their discarded phones. “In India people recycle or give away their unused items only if they get something in return. This shouldn’t be the case; people should understand that an unused phone lying in their home if returned to the manufacturers or recyclers will help in contributing towards resource conservation. If we look at the life cycle of a phone, huge impacts are generated right from the raw material acquisition to the use phase, recycling it can offset around 80 to 90 per cent of the impact generated in the complete life cycle of a phone,” says Singhal. Planting a tree in return for a dumped phone cost Nokia around four times more than what it would have cost them to give some money in return for used phones to customers.  “Nokia has always believed that it is imperative to influence the behaviour of people rather than give fiscal incentives to encourage them towards recycling and resource conservation,” explains Singhal. Nokia was not only planting a tree, but also took charge of looking after it for a minimum period of two years.

Nokia extended its campaigns through a school and college engagement programme in mid-2010. “We use activity-based learning and self-discovery methods, involving games and arts. We have tied-up with local NGOs and build their capacities to run this programme. Students are enrolled to discuss ways of greening lifestyles with their parents and neighbours. The programme which started with only 15 schools in Delhi has reached out to over 10,000 teachers and 150,000 children directly and over 1 million students indirectly,” says Singhal.

The programme has been taken up in the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Orissa, West Bengal, Manipur, Jharkand, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Involving the last mile repair shops

The campaign was followed by a programme to involve small repair shops in e-waste recycling. “In the course of our dealings with multiple stakeholders for management of e-waste, we realized that a very significant number of old mobile phones, after getting transferred through multiple ownerships, end up in small repair stores that have very little knowledge of e-waste,” says Singhal. Nokia then started a programme in 2011 in partnership with Humana People to People India (HPPI), a New Delhi based non-profit, to reach out to such stores, educate them on e-waste and provide them access to responsible recycling. Since then Nokia has enrolled over 6,000 stores in 25 cities and towns.  Each of these stores takes responsibility of engaging with their neighbourhood network of mobile phone stores and channels their e-waste to a responsible recycler via Nokia. “We recycled over 50,000 old mobile phones and accessories in the first year itself through this programme,” informs Singhal.

Adhering to the rules

With its existing take-back and recycling scheme, Nokia is among the few producers that have been complying with the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2012. Apart from fulfilling the mandate for EPR, all Nokia phones and accessories sold worldwide are RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) compliant since 2006. The E-Waste Rules require producers of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) to eliminate the use of hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the manufacturing of new EEE. The Rules enforced in 2012 gave two years' time to the manufacturers to innovate and devise new design for products without the hazardous substances. “Nokia has led the way in removing substances of concern which are not regulated. Since 2006 our devices, chargers and headsets have been free of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and since 2009 we have been phasing out brominated, chlorinated compounds and antimony trioxide. Since the beginning of 2010 all new Nokia devices are free of these substances,” adds Singhal.

What ails EPR in India

“One of the major bottlenecks from the producers' viewpoint is lack of capacity and clarity in the directives given by the regulatory bodies which has made it difficult to implement EPR in India. But more than the obstacles, it is lack of effort from producers which has resulted in limited implementation of EPR. In the absence of accountability, the producers have chosen the easy way out,” says Priti Mahesh, senior programme coordinator from New Delhi-based non profit Toxics Link. The E-waste Rules simply talk about financing and organising a system for environmentally sound management of e-waste without any mechanism to check how this system would be put into practice. Nowhere in the Rules is it mentioned what kind of penalty will be imposed if EPR is not followed, she points out.

Nokia’s EPR activities clearly highlight that until producers assume the financial responsibility for the recycling their products it will be a difficult task to implement. EPR not only puts an onus on the producers for the end of life of their products but also encourages them to design for the environment and, ultimately, enhance their environmental performance. Companies like Nokia with several billion users around the world are in position to effect positive environmental and social change around the world. “Producers need to adopt environment as a part of the core philosophy of the company and EPR will flow from that. But the whole process requires not just external initiatives, but also training and sensitising internal people and ingraining in them the importance and need for environment safeguards and the importance of EPR,” says Mahesh.

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