E-wastes or electronic waste includes ” all items of electrical and electronic equipment, including their components, which have been discarded with no intention of further re-use.”. It also goes by the name of “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment ” (WEEE) in the legislations of the European Union (EU).
“E-waste” or electronic waste has become a major problem in India. Disposal of e-waste is an emerging global environmental and public health issue, as this waste has become the most rapidly growing segment of the formal municipal waste stream in the world. In India most of the waste electronic items are stored at households as people do not know how to discard them.
This article discusses the scenario of e-waste management in India, the associated challenges and outlines steps for safe disposal of these wastes.
It is one of the fastest growing form of wastes in the world and is estimated to grow at a rate of around 3-4% each year. The continuous growth of these wastes coupled with poor and inadequate management strategies has led to the rise of a lot of problems which pose a grave threat to not only the health of mankind but to the environment at large.
The main reason for the rapid growth of these wastes is hyper-consumption of electronic gadgets and equipments by the people. Globalization has made it possible for us to avail a wide range of electronic items, which guarantees comfort and makes our life easy. Affordability and comfort are the two main drivers of the faster rate of technology upgradation that we are witnessing today. This in turn forces us to consume as well as discard obsolete devices and gadgets at a faster rate leading to increased generation of e-wastes. Ironically the 21st century which is the age of interconnectivity of devices or IoT (Internet of Things) is also turning out to be the age of e-waste.
According to a report by the United Nations published in the year 2017, a total of around 44.7 million metric tonnes (MMt) of e-wastes was generated, by different countries of the world in the year 2016, out of which only about 20% has been properly recycled. Out of this 44.7 MMt of e-wastes generated, India alone accounts for around 2MMt.
According to a projection estimate made by ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce of India), India’s e-waste generation capacity would reach 5.2 MMt per annum by the year 2020.
E-wastes may include diverse forms of components out of which some may be hazardous and others non-hazardous. Components made of iron and steel comprise about 50% of these wastes while the rest consists of plastics (around 21%), non-ferrous metals (around 13%) and other constituents. Thus on the one hand the components may include precious metals like gold, silver, palladium etc. and on the other hand it may also include toxic elements like lead, mercury, arsenic etc. which are extremely harmful to the environment.
India is ranked amongst the top e-waste generators of the world, which includes developed economies like USA, Japan, Germany etc. India also has a very poor recycling capacity of less than 2% of the huge amount of e-wastes it produces annually.
Impact of E-Wastes on Health and Environment
The complex combinations of different substances that the e-wastes constitutes are extremely harmful to the health of human beings and to environmental health. For example mercury and its compounds, present in switches and flat screen monitors, are medically proved to be neuro-toxic (damages the brain and nervous system) as well as geno-toxic (may cause gene mutation and may prove hazardous for the fetus).
These toxic substances may leach into the surrounding soil, water and air, if proper precautions are not taken during their disposition. This in turn may seriously affect the health and livelihood of the populace residing nearby and in particular, the waste picking community living around the landfills and waste dumps. There are approximately 4 million waste pickers in India and their livelihoods depend on scavenging recyclable materials from the dumps. Since these workers often perform their occupation without wearing any kind of protective gear (because they cannot afford them), they are extremely susceptible to the health hazards posed by the toxic substances contained in the wastes. What is even worse is that, these people mostly belong to the informal or the unorganized sector of the economy of the country, so they do not receive the benefits of the labour laws, which the workers belonging to the organized sector enjoys.
Present Methods of Handling E-Wastes in India
A study by ASSOCHAM and KPMG (a multinational professional services network) has revealed that discarded computer equipments constitutes about 70% of the total e-wastes generated in India, with the remaining 30% comprising of telecommunication equipment phones, electrical equipments and household e-waste.
As far as dealing with these e-wastes is concerned, mainly four methods are followed: dumping in landfills (which are pits dug into the ground, where the wastes are dumped), incineration (which involves combustion of the wastes), reusing and recycling. Each of these methods have their own unique disadvantages, as for example in landfills, there is the problem of seepage of harmful chemicals (leaching) into the surrounding ecosystem thereby causing pollution. In case of incineration, there is the danger of harmful elements like lead, cadmium etc. into the atmosphere causing severe air pollution. although reusing and recycling are the two preferred alternatives for the disposal of the wastes but they also have their own limitation, as for example reusing of discarded equipments, i.e. second hand equipments very often suffers from shorter lifespans and recycling mostly involves practices like dismantling, shredding, burning etc. which are mostly done by the unorganized sector and has very little or no regulatory mechanisms. So, this involves a lot of health hazards for the workers. Also, in case of hazardous wastes many developed countries in the name of recycling simply export (i.e. shift) their wastes to the developing countries like India, Bangladesh etc. According to a report published by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in the year 2015, China, India, Malaysia and Pakistan are the top export destinations of hazardous wastes, in Asia.
Issues with E-Waste Management in India
The fact that India’s recycling capacity of the e-wastes is less than 2% of what is generated, shows the poor state of the e-waste management infrastructure in India.
The issues of the e-waste management scenario in India are manifold. Firstly, off course, there is no robust mechanism of proper collection of these wastes. Secondly since recycling and management of e-wastes is dominated mostly by the informal sector, therefore many additional problems arises like non-compliance to e-waste management regulations, health risks of the workers, child labour (which is strictly forbidden under Article 24 of Constitution of India) .
Thirdly there are very little or no incentives to encourage people employ formal avenues for e-waste recycling and also even in the formal recycling methods there is an additional burden of taxation, as Government has imposed a GST of 12% on electronic recyclers, which has proved to be a deterrent and disincentivizes formal recycling procedure.
Fourthly there is very little investment in the developing a large-scale infrastructure for recovery and recycling of the wastes. Lastly, there is lack of awareness amongst the citizens about the disposal procedures for e-wastes. Thus, these wastes, from the domestic households in particular do not undergo proper segregation and end up mixed with the other wastes both during their collection and disposal.
There is also a looming concern about gradual accumulation of a new category of wastes for the management which India is yet to have a legislation. These wastes are the Photovoltaic wastes or solar e-wastes. India has become a leading market for solar cells in the world, because of the present government’s commitment to install 100GW of solar power by 2022. The solar cell modules are made of polymers, metallic compounds, alloys, which are potentially hazardous to human health and environment.
Legal Regulations in Place for Managing E- Wastes
As far as management of e-wastes are concerned, there are legislations in place both at the national levels as well as international levels. At the international level there is the Basel Convention on the Control of the Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, which entered into force in the year 1992. This convention “regulates the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes” and also make it an obligation for the signatory nations, of this agreement, to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed off in an environmentally sustainable manner. India is a signatory of this convention and has ratified it on the same year, in which it came into force.
At the national level the principal regulations regarding e-waste management, are the E-waste (management) rules. These rules were first enacted in the year 2011 under the umbrella legislation Environmental Protection Act 1986. These rules were first enacted in the year 2011, under the name, the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, which came into force in the year 2012. In the year 2016 a new series of regulations came into force, which went by the name E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016, which came into force from 1st October 2016. These rules were further amended very recently in the year 2018. The E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016 and its amendment in 2018 brings not only the producers but also the dealers, refurbishers, Producer Responsibility organizations (PRO) (which is a professional organization financed and authorized by the producer organization to take the responsibility of “collection and channelization” of e-wastes generated by the products of the producer organization) under the ambit of Extended Producer Responsibility (a concept in which the manufacturers are liable for the safe disposal of the electronic goods). These rules also adopt a collection-based approach which includes collection centres, collection points, take back system etc. for collection of the wastes. A Deposit Refund Scheme has also been introduced, to ensure an economic benefit for the customers of the electronic products, upon returning the products at the end of their life cycle.
The EPR has various advantages
Challenges in the Implementation of E-Waste Management Rules in India
Amongst the various challenges that are there regarding the implementation of the e-waste management rules the primary ones are the loopholes in the implementation system and the unauthorized, illegal import of waste materials from abroad.
Firstly, there is no monitoring mechanism to ensure that these wastes go only to authorized recyclers/dismantlers. As a result of this loophole more and more wastes are reaching unauthorized and informal sectors, where recycling/dismantling is done in environmentally unsustainable manners, which in turn proves hazardous to both human health and environment
Secondly, despite having a legislation, which bans the import of e-waste in India (Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Trans-boundary) Rules, 2016) huge amounts of e-wastes are being illegally imported to India. According to a report published by UNEP, countries like China, Pakistan Malaysia India, are main export destinations of all kinds of hazardous wastes including e-wastes originating in developed countries. This loophole exist because the nodal agency of the implementation of this rule, i.e. the Central Board of Excise and Customs, lacks the resources and manpower to distinguish between second-hand and refurbished products (which is however allowed for import) from e-wastes shipments.
Conclusion and Way Forward
The growth of the IT sector has, on the one hand played an important role towards India emerging as one of the fastest growing economies of the world but on the other hand it has led to increased consumption of electronic equipments generating a huge amount of e-wastes in the country. The increased material comforts provided by various technological advancements coupled with increasing generation of e-wastes, was a scenario that even Mahatma Gandhi visualised and warned long back. One of his comments in this regard can be quoted here:
“A technological society has two choices. First, it can wait until catastrophic failures expose system deficiencies, distortions and self-deceptions. Secondly, a culture can provide social checks and balances to correct for systemic distortion prior to catastrophic failures.”
It is therefore important to develop a comprehensive and robust mechanism to dispose of these wastes before they become unmanageable. An effective e-waste management strategy may include:
- Providing market information regarding the prices of e-wastes which will allow the informal sector collectors to sell the e-wastes collected from the consumers at fair market prices to government as well as private recyclers and dismantlers.
- Providing incentives to formal recycling and dismantling organizations through point-based credit systems which they may use to balance their energy bills.
- Up skilling the informal sector workers for safe handling of the e-wastes. In this regard different government agencies and initiatives, like the National Skill Development Mission, Pollution Control Boards of States and Centre can be used.
- Awareness programmes regarding the environmental hazards of e-wastes and educational programmes regarding safe disposal practices should be launched at the central and state levels. This may be wholly funded by the centre or may be funded in Public Private Partnership (PPP) Mode. Recently the central government has launched various such initiatives like “Awareness Programmes on Environmental Hazards of Electronic Waste”, Swachh Digital Bharat etc.
Some private manufacturers have also started own e-waste management campaigns for their products like for example “Planet ki Rakhwale” campaign of Nokia for taking back end-use mobile phones manufactured by them for the purpose of recycling etc. Recently India’s first e-waste clinic was launched, in Bhopal via a Memorandum of Understanding between CPCB and Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC).