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Consumers pay the price for the pollution caused by improper disposal of e-waste

India has been urbanizing at a rapid pace and the Indian agglomeration needs competent infrastructure and smart planning to move forward sustainably and meet the demands of the ever growing population. Today, every industry and business vertical is witnessing development but it is not entirely clear whether this growth is being undertaken in a sustainable manner. One key area which has come to the fore in recent years is the efficient and sustainable management of e-waste. 


E-waste in India - the current scenario

E-waste or electronic waste has become a big issue in India. A report by the UN states that ewaste from computers in India is expected to increase by 500% over 2007 levels, while e-waste from mobile phones will rise by 18 times by 2020. Rapid growth in technology, launch of powerful and snazzy gadgets, affordable prices and increasing usage have led to higher electronics obsolescence rates, which in turn has resulted in an increased e-waste generation. 

The recent ASSOCHAM study titled “E-waste in India by 2015” paints a very bleak picture of the e-waste scenario in India. Delhi alone currently generates 30,000 metric tonnes of e-waste annually, and the study says that this figure is expected to jump to 50,000 metric tonnes by 2015. The study also found that Mumbai and Chennai were the top importers of electronic waste, and e-waste from these two cities along with that from Bangalore eventually end up in the Delhi-NCR region for e-waste  processing. An earlier study had found that India generates 1 million metric tonnes of e-waste annually, and at this growth rate, e-waste in India is all set to hit 1.72 million metric tonnes by 2020.

What makes the e-waste situation worse is the fact that a major portion of the e-waste generated in India, i.e. about 95% is  handled by the informal e-waste processing sector. The informal recycling sector primarily consists of independent players like recyclers, dismantlers and scrap dealers, who lack the technological know how to process toxic e-waste in an environmentally safe and responsible manner. They make use of hazardous and crude techniques like acid stripping and open air incineration to process e-waste and extract  metals. These processes besides being inefficient are also highly polluting in nature and lead to release of numerous toxins into the environment. Recycling setups in the informal sector typically consist of a scrap yard where workers dismantle toxic e-waste without any protective gear, which exposes them to several harmful chemicals and heavy metals and puts them at risk of developing serious health conditions. Another major problem with the informal e-waste recycling sector is the prevalence of child labour. According to the new ASSOCHAM study, about 35,000 to 45,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 are currently engaged in activities associated with collection, dismantling and processing of toxic e-waste.Such alarming facts and figures call for immediate action towards developing a sustainable solution  for e-waste management. Attero, a NASA recognized technology innovator, has developed eco-friendly technology for processing e-waste and extracting pure metals and is working to raise public awareness about the hazards associated with e-waste.


Contribution of private players in the e-waste sector

With government notifying the e-waste management rules last year, the role of e-waste recyclers has increased manifold and e-cyclers have readily stepped in to address the issue. Attero is the only company globally with the capability to collect e-waste and extract pure metals from end of life electronics by performing complete end to end recycling at its fully automated recycling facility, in an environmentally safe and responsible manner. E-waste besides containing toxins, also contains over 60 metals, which can be recovered and reused pursuant to recycling. However, the quantity of these metals in electronic component is very low. Attero has developed patent pending technological solution that allows it to recover the small quantities of these pure metals from e-waste in a feasible and eco-friendly manner.

Currently a handful of companies across the globe have the capability to extract precious metals out of e-waste namely- Umicore in Belgium, Norando in Canada, Aurubis in Germany, LS in Korea and DOWA in Japan. However, these metal extraction operations are highly expensive to set up and are also unviable at low operating capacities. More importantly, these facilities are centralized in developed nations. Attero has been able to set up low capex, low capacity e-waste recycling and metal extraction facilities. The model can be replicated in other countries using Attero's technology at a very low cost. Such facilities offer a far more feasible solution for managing e-waste, particularly in emerging economies, where a major chunk of the world's e-waste ends up; as compared to setting up one large expensive facility.

In addition to the recycling technology, sustainable e-waste management is predicated on an effective collection model. 'Clean e-India' Initiative, a unique program backed by the IFC, aims to establish an effective consumer e-waste take back model by working together with all stakeholders involved in the electronics life cycle, right from manufacturers and OEMs to the recycler in the informal sector. Some of the OEMs that have associated themselves with the initiative include Samsung, HCL, Wipro, Acer, Haier, Voltas and Videocon. There is a need for an organised work force within the e-waste sector to ensure hygienic practices and quality working processes as compared to the typical unsafe working conditions characterizing informal waste recycling units processing solid waste, e-waste, steel and scrap metal recycling, ship breaking, etc. To address this issue, under the 'Clean e-India' initiative, training is being provided to workers in the informal sector regarding eco-friendly processing of e-waste.

Regular e-waste awareness programs & collection drives are also organized in schools, residential societies and corporate organizations as part of this project to raise public awareness about ewaste covering 500 cities across India. An online ‘re-commerce’ platform has been launched to encourage recycling and re-use of old electronic gadgets through environment-friendly ways. This provides an excellent solution for consumers seeking ways to responsibly dispose off their old or used gadgets, while realizing some compensation for them. What the law says about E-waste In May 2012, Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India introduced the E Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, which made the producer (the original equipment manufacturer) or the importer of products responsible for collecting and environmentally sound disposal of products produced by them, once the products reached the end of useful life, and not just at the time of manufacturing. It made the bulk consumers responsible for ensuring that they dispose of their e-waste with authorized recyclers or authorized collection centers. Making the producers directly responsible for the generation of e-waste did prove to be a step in the right direction, but the rules need to be made more robust in terms of how effectively the law can be implemented and more importantly monitored. While the government is trying to introduce laws and new measures to curb improper e-waste processing, it's the consumer, manufacturers and corporate organizations who need to come forward and shoulder the responsibility to consciously dispose off their ewaste responsibly and help save the ecosystem.  


Impediments to environmentally responsible e-waste recycling

The biggest hindrance to creating a sustainable ewaste management scenario is the lack of awareness among consumers and lack of understanding of the rules amongst various stakeholders. While it can be said that consumer behaviour is changing towards eco-friendly e-waste disposal, there's still a lot to be achieved in this respect and the process is going to take considerable time. Another major impediment to eco-friendly ewaste management is the fact that local scrap dealers and recyclers who are part of the informal sector pay consumers more for their e-waste as compared to authorized recyclers. However, consumers need to realize that the only reason the local scrap dealer pays more for their e-waste is because they deploy hazardous recycling techniques that don't require investment. More importantly, informal recyclers are unregulated, and prefer to dump toxic e-waste remnants in  landfills and local water bodies instead of safely recycling them, which would again cost them. Consumers need to be made conscious of the fact that ultimately it's the consumers who end up paying the price for the environmental pollution caused by such improper disposal of e-waste. 


Way ahead

E-waste is a major threat and only when everyone comes together will we be able to combat the issue effectively. Citizens need to educate themselves and their neighborhood on e-waste and its hazards and try and reduce unnecessary consumption of electronic gadgets. Instead of disposing old electronic gadgets in landfills or giving it away to local scrap dealers, one should always give it to authorized e-waste management firms to help create a sustainable environment thus paving the way for a better tomorrow.


This guest article was contributed by Rohan Gupta, Chief Operating Officer, Attero and was first pubished in the October 2013 print edition of Sustainability Outlook. Rohan Gupta has extensive experience in setting up and running businesses in India. He was a cofounder and COO at Cinesprite Entertainment and has also worked at blue chip companies like SAP. Rohan has a B.E degree in Chemical Engineering.

Image Credits: Photologue_NP, Greenpeace India
Author: Sustainability Outlook