You are here

E-Waste in India: a grey story

 Guest contributor, Arjun Mehta, Manager at Sims Recycling Solutions India, reflects on the critical need of the hour in developing a sustainable model for e-waste management & recovery.

With improving purchasing power, availability of technology and the sheer need for advancement, India is seeing a radical growth in the consumption of electronics. The pace at which technology is evolving is rendering electronic devices obsolete way before their theoretical end of life, adding to our country’s ever-growing junk pile of end-of-life electronics. 

It’s not just the producer’s responsibility to recycle their electronics, but also the consumer’s to give them away; to give dead electronics a new beginning.

How big a problem is e-waste in India? We generate almost a million tons each year. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) stated that India generated 0.8 million tons (mt) of e-waste in 2012, a staggering jump from 0.15 mt in 2005. Various studies have pegged the 2018 levels to be over 2 mt, narrating a rather grey story of the scenario in India. Globally, the volume of e-waste is predicted to grow 33% in five years to reach 65.4 mt, according to the UNEP.

You may wonder where a million tons of something goes. Around 80% reaches landfills or incinerators or is left lying around. Out of the remaining e-waste, about 80% reaches the unorganised sector and the rest is recycled by authorized recycling channels. Informal recyclers pit their strength in logistical reach and regional proficiency, to collecting material communities as well as industry. After all, waste management is largely a logistical business in a country like India. Amongst the regulated recyclers, most of the players are focus on larger volumes in the corporate space, although some larger ones have started to implement collection schemes from end consumers via bulk collection, take-back programs and trade-in schemes. 

This takes us to the most important question – who are our recyclers?

There are three key kinds of recyclers around. The informal kabbariwala salvages reusable or recyclable electronic materials from their door-to-door collection channels. Although waste picking serves as a safety net to rural workers – including under-aged labour forced in to making a living – occupational health hazards and the lack of safety in the processes have left them exposed to toxic fumes and discharges owing to improper handling of potentially hazardous material.

Informal recycling units generally use primitive processes on the typical e-waste flows that include CRT monitors, variants of Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), mobile & computer plastics as well as electric wires & cables. Open air burning, acid baths and chemical treatments are cheap – but unsafe and environmentally degrading – methods of extracting copper and other easily-retrievable metals. These unsafe operations, improper disposal of residual components, cheap labour, landfilling and low capital costs allow scrap dealers are able to offer a better price for the consumers’ waste and win the market. Further, these robust widespread collection channels and localised production lines minimise the logistical and operational overheads allowing the myriad of kabbariwalas to tap in to the massive used-electronics market across India for a pittance. But, it is the consumer who has to eventually pay the premium for pollution.

Following the legislation around properly disposing e-waste off (E-Waste Management & Handling Rules, 2012) and rising e-waste volumes, there has been a surge in the ‘formal’ recyclers – those authorised by the Pollution Control Boards. Around 200 businesses are reported to have joined the authorised recycling bandwagon. There is a widespread expectation that these formal sector recyclers would be able to manage e-waste in an environmentally sound manner by using best available technologies leading to better environmental management and enhanced resource recovery.

However, how do we know if this ‘formal’ recycler is actually authorised? That brings us to third kind: the pseudo-formal recyclers. Although these claim to be formally authorised, the weak enforcement of the law and failure in audits by the clients have allowed such players to complement informal recycling activities.

Developing the formal recycling business

It is quite important to recycle old electronics in a sustainable way owing to the latent value in reusable components and raw materials. With new-finds of mineral deposits not keeping up with resource depletion, one may expect recycling to be the only source for resource in the decades to come. With superior technology, more effective dismantling and segregation techniques and efficient resource extraction, formal recyclers have proved to be the answer to solving India’s e-waste problem and resource recovery challenge. With expertise from large global corporations entering the recycling market and backing from significant investors, the technological shift the industry has seen has over the past few years been significant. Most sustainable recyclers don’t shy away from processing glass, low-quality plastics and hazardous material such as used toners and lead-acid batteries that have lower economic value, but can potentially harm the environment is not treated properly, thereby nurturing their environmental fotprint over the informal sector that indulges in landfilling the material that doesn’t earn them their buck.

Further, the need for data sanitation and information security of sensitive records has never been more pronounced. We’ve seen a notable growth in data wiping, degaussing and secure destruction services of data bearing assets, especially in sensitive industries, such as our burgeoning IT sector, insurance and financial industry and even military where data fraud and thefts are reportedly on the rise. Recyclers have also started focusing on providing value added services such as legislative consulting, after-sales support and detailed reporting. Certified recyclers have started realising the importance of auditing downstream vendors and ensuring quality management systems are executed successfully.

With the hope of sustainability becoming more than a buzzword, numerous corporate CSR activities are now designed around the theme of recycling, while improving the reach of formal recycling in communities such as neighbourhoods and schools has become the business-as-usual service offering. After all, the formal recycler is in competition with the informal sector which is deeply rooted in that very community. Larger recyclers are themselves vying to cooperate with the informal sector with the hopes of improving their operational standards in return of benefitting from their stronger collection channels. Some recyclers that have the organisational capacity have also initiated futuristic take-back schemes and secondary market for recycled electronics through web portals such as Sims Recycling Solutions’ for instance that spreads the awareness among the bottom end of the pyramid to swell the environmental footprint to where it’s most needed.

To say corporates, communities and the consumer are the only active stakeholders in the recycling value chain is insufficient. Lobby groups, organisations and trade associations need to have their voice heard by the regulatory authorities in developing the e-waste rules in to enforceable law. With MAIT’s Recyclers Forum gathering steam, ASSOCHAM and ELCINA’s push on the take-up of industrial e-waste disposal and Toxics Link’s community outreach on electronic and hazardous waste, to name a few, are doing well in bridging the gap between the nascent regulations and these stakeholders.

The need of the hour

Recycling per se is considered as a secondary enterprise. But, with improved awareness around proper recycling, a wider collection channel and a stronger enforcement of existing laws, it is but time before India becomes a strong global market for sustainable e-waste recycling. The need of the hour is clearly a sustainable and innovative solution to capture the opportunity in the valuable e-waste recycling business across India.


Guest contributor Arjun Mehta is the Marketing Manager at the authorised e-waste recycler, Sims Recycling Solutions (India), and has been at the forefront of electronics recycling and recovery services.

Image Credits: Greenpeace India, Basel Action Network, John Matlock
Author: Sustainability Outlook