You are here

Two years on, electronic waste continues to choke metro cities

 Last week's e-waste management and strategies in New Delhi reflected on mitigation actions taken to date, and the emergence of exciting new opportunities in this sector. While private entrepreneurs continue to experiment with different business models for clean recycling to help un-choke Indian metro cities, overall progress has been slow.

Sanjiv Kumar, Secretary, Environment & Forest, reported on the day that Delhi alone must cope with 50,000 metric tonnes of e-waste each year by 2015. Last year, Toxics Links, a Delhi based NGO, reported 8 lakh tonnes of e-waste is generated in India annually, a figure expected to go up 500 times by 2030.

'Dismal' implementation of e-waste laws

In the 2 years since e-waste legislation came into affect, progress has been labelled 'dismal' by Ravi Agarwal, CEO of Delhi based NGO, Toxics Link. A legal mandate can better drive e-waste markets as 90% of e-waste is processed by the informal sector in cities like Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Surat, Mumbai and Pune. "The true aim of legislation is to shift recycling from informal to a 'clean recycling' chain." says Agarwal. This is has not yet happened.

The partnership between public and private sectors appears to have broken down in execution of e-waste laws and extended producer responsibilities, with a sense of mutual suspicion plaguing both sides. Many producers have not registered with state pollution control boards. Further, corporates have argued about whether they are within the purview of the law; meanwhile, monitoring of laws and enforcement of non-compliance has been particularly weak. At present, only CSR and branding opportunities have compelled some producers and bulk consumers to create a demand for a clean e-waste recycling chain. 

Competition from the informal recycling sector "extremely stiff"

Clean recyclers have said that "competition from the informal recycling sector is extremely stiff". Informal sector can offer more competitive prices due to a lack of overheads and the basic  practices used  - however, these practices are extremely harmful and no mitigation action is taken to safeguard health of workers and the impact on local ecosystems.

Further, the informal sector is very well skilled and operates in all aspects of resource extraction. Specialized centers and multi-step processes exist to extract metals in informal sector. Copper, gold are the most valuable and large number of workers have been trained in resource extraction. 

While unsuited to formal resource extraction,  many formal recyclers see an opportunitiy to cooperate with the informal sector in collections, sorting and dismantling of e-waste. This would make use of the informal sector's competitive natural advntages: a well-functioning, low cost, and widespread model for collections that has huge reach and penetration; and a labour force that is large and extremely well skilled. 

While there are reasons to believe that the informal sector could be embedded into a clean recycling chain for collections,  sorting and some dismantling of e-waste; other clean recyclers say that in practice, working cooperatively with the informal sector is extremely difficult.

Another route for some new clean e-waste start-ups has been to work with NGOs who already have earned the trust of workers. Here, the aim of partnerships has been on increasing awareness around the harmful impacts of mis-managed e-waste processing and providing access-points to stable job opportunities in the formal clean recycling sector.

Data security a sticking point

"The industry is young and experimenting with collections", says Akshat Ghiya, Director and Founder of 10 month old start-up, Karma Recyclers. 

For Karma, managing data security and personal data for both bulk and individual consumers has proved to be a sticking point - a service that is only enabled by the formal clean recycling market. Karma Recycling attaches a value to e-waste, generates certificates, provide certifications for CSR and state pollution control boards, and manages data security for corporates and bulk consumers.

Corporate collections constitutes more than 80% of e-waste, Observers note that, at the very least, it should be easy to mandate, monitor and enforce that all e-waste from bulk consumers is channeled into the clean recycling chain. 

e-markets for e-waste?

Household waste will likely be a bigger contributer given the high rates of obsolesence and consumption of personal electronic devices. Targeting household collections is expensive. Most incumbment metal recyclers and emerging e-waste processors are running less than 50% of capacity for this reason.

An innovative approach to collections kick-started by Karma Recycling has been to offer an e-Portal where everyday people can ‘get cash for old gadgets’. This portal contains details on thousands of electronic devices, and an algorithm gives customers an instant, real-time 're-sale price' for their old gadgets when they enter basic details about the product and the model online. Tie-in with offline retailers has also helped. Karma is planning to launch collection centers in electronic retail shops where customers get instant credit for handing in the old device when buying a new electronics. 

Such moves towards a market-tested model for collection and take-back are likely to enable large electronic manufacturers to meet their extended end-of-life product responsibilities more easily, and facilitate compliance to e-waste laws.


Image Credits: Robert S Donovan, John Matlock

Author: Sustainability Outlook