Earth Day 2019: Managing E-waste needs participation from governments and citizens

Formal e-waste recycling is essential for a circular economy and will ensure the country is prepared to manage the forthcoming IoT age

In the last few years, India has emerged as the next, key vanguard for tech giants across the globe. With catalytic government initiatives and the democratisation of the internet as well as hardware, companies have scurried to capitalise on the evolving market. While these paradigm shifts have ushered a new, modern era for the country, it has also exacerbated a silent crisis burgeoning in India’s underbelly.

A dark side to all of this which demands immediate attention and one that often goes unnoticed and also could end up doing irreparable damage to the country’s ecosystem and environment: Electronic waste aka e-waste. As we celebrate Earth Day this year, and as our appetite for electronics makes us the second largest mobile phone market in the world, it is high time we gave a thought as to how we are going to dispose of the electronic waste generated.

As India soared to be at the forefront of the technology industry, the amount of electronic waste it generates has been consequently growing at an alarming rate. In a UN report, India is among the top five countries producing about 2 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste annually. It’s rising by a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 30 percent and is expected to reach 5.2 million tonnes next year. On top of that, an undisclosed amount of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) is illegally imported to India from other countries.

A man walks past electronic waste at a junk shop in Mumbai. Reuters

A man walks past electronic waste at a junk shop in Mumbai. Reuters

With technology developments, however, e-waste is an inevitable entity. Especially when compared to China (7.2 mn tonnes) and the United States of America (6.3 mn tonnes), it’s apparent India’s e-waste woes are in their nascent stages. India’s bigger worries, therefore, are not in the fact that it is today yielding more e-waste than ever. No, it’s the crippled system which, by no means, is yet ready to handle the spurt.

How much of its e-waste does India recycle today?

Out of that 2 million tonnes, studies revealed a mere 1.5 percent is formally recycled. Around 82 percent of this e-waste is pertaining to personal devices which we discard. The rest either ends up on landfills or is traded for scraps. In addition, even that 1.5 percent isn’t an entirely a rosy tale. More than 90 percent of that is handled by the informal sector — local “kabadiwallas” and “raddiwallas” — who are neither equipped with the right recycling tools nor familiar with the greater consequences their actions are spawning.

According to an ASSOCHAM-KPMG report (from 2016), the break up of e-waste was as follows: computer equipment makes up 70 percent; mobile phones make up 12 percent; electrical equipment another 8 percent; medical equipment amounts to 7 percent and the rest is household e-waste.

Why e-waste recycling matters?

When processed improperly, e-waste can wreak havoc on both the people and their surrounding atmosphere’s health. Recycling electronics with inappropriate techniques such as simply burning or acid washing releases toxic pollutants like dioxins and furans from polyvinyl chloride, lead, beryllium, cadmium which are known to cause fatal diseases.

These chemicals contribute to India’s worsening air pollution as well. What’s more, their extraction contaminates the soil plaguing the land’s flora. In some cases, leftovers are dumped into rivers which leads to the formation of toxic foam and permanently harms the water bodies and the lives they support.

Does India have any laws for strictly implementing e-waste disposal?

The government, fortunately, has begun to gradually address the e-waste concerns. India’s e-waste laws were first brought into effect way back in 2012 when the gravity of the situation wasn’t as severe as it is presently. The pollution board realised this and has since then revised the legislation to accommodate the rapidly forming piles of electronics waste.

The laws hold the producer responsible for the safe disposal of the electronic goods they have sold and manufactured. Later, the concept of Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) was introduced that allowed the original producer to delegate this responsibility to another professional organisation.

Moreover, every electronics company needs to meet a minimum annual target. For 2017-2018, it was set to 10 percent and it progressively increases by another 10 percent until 2023. Post-2023, the collection goal will be fixed at 70 percent. An amendment was made in 2018 too with the purpose of ensuring the e-waste is channelised through authorised dismantlers and recyclers.

Scrap dealer in Mumbai sitting atop ewaste. Image: Reuters

Scrap dealer in Mumbai sitting atop ewaste. Image: Reuters

What does it mean to be a PRO?

“Basically, the big companies have appointed a PRO like us to take on this responsibility of collecting e-waste and sending it to a recycler and making sure that the paperwork and proof are there. We, as a company, give them a complete end-to-end solution. We make sure there’s a pickup certificate from the site where waste was picked up, where it was transported, other receipts, the works. Then we give it to the recycler who in turn gives the certification,” said Pranshul Singhal who is the founder of Karo Sambhav, a PRO that has 80 clients in the country such as Apple, Dell and more.

But being a PRO or even a formal recycler in the country is nothing short of a herculean task. The unauthorised network of waste pickers and aggregators throws in the most significant wrench. The market is dominated by cheap labour and methods plaguing organisations like Karo Sambhav’s ability to stay afloat.

“The main challenge we face is the collection of e-waste material because the informal recycler pays more amount of money than the formal recycler due to the fact that recycling it through informal practice is cheaper and hazardous to our environment,” commented Harshit Gupta, chief operations officer, Namo E-Waste, another PRO service which unlike Karo Sambhav, also takes care of the final recycling.

Formal recycling does not come easy either

Even though startups like Namo E-Waste and Karo Sambhav are trying to leverage the existing waste picker network instead of putting them out of business, it remains a rather onerous undertaking.

At times, producers themselves are fairly inactive and don’t invest in marketing or outreach campaigns enough to meet the goals. “There is no finance to an extent because of producer participation which enables better collection, better awareness and better recycling infrastructure,” added Karo Sambhav’s Singh.

It’s a painfully long chain of events too. From door-to-door waste collection or organisation to the plant, there is a multitude of events that need to go right. More often than not, recyclers struggle to keep tabs and the waste ends up in the wrong hands. To counter these hurdles, Karo Sambhav, for instance, tracks each and every exchange through a tech platform and mobile app.

The third bottleneck hampering formal organisations to thrive is the sheer absence of awareness. Since it’s a relatively new topic, no one still quite knows and understands e-waste. In the majority of cases, people hand over their dead electronics to that local scrap dealer who knocked their door. They earn a few hundred bucks and remain oblivious to whether that collector is responsibly recycling the product.

The government, though, has kicked off a slew of awareness programs throughout the country along with a dedicated website. That website also lists authorised collection centres people can visit in their locality. Plus, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is said to have developed affordable, environment-friendly recycling technologies. Although it’s not known when and how they will come into effect.

We have reached out to Sandip Chatterjee, director, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and will update the story when he responds.

Namo eWaste uses proper equipment to help dismantle electronic scrap. Image: Namo eWaste

Namo eWaste uses proper equipment to help dismantle electronic scrap. Image: Namo eWaste

The lesser-known benefits of e-waste recycling

Furthermore, the World Economic Forum in its A New Circular Vision for Electronics report noted that recycled metals are two to ten times more energy efficient than the ones from virgin ore. Similarly, mining them from discarded electronics induces 80 percent fewer emissions of carbon dioxide. So adopting better solutions will not only put an end to the unsafe practices, it will take us a step closer to a more energy efficient future.

There’s an acute lack of transparency and data as well. In a paper titled Electronic Waste and India, Dr Chatterjee also mentions, “Actual data on generation or import of e-waste is not currently available in India.”

“Another challenge is that there is no transparency, what are others doing, what are our competitors doing,” stated Karo Sambhav’s Singh. It’s safe to say, thus, that the e-waste crisis is significantly more monumental than it appears to be. The availability of official statistics also shapes better policies instead of assumptions.

One step at a time

Irrespective of these obstacles, though, companies like Karo Sambhav are hopeful and are satisfied with the government’s policies. It is the producers and citizens that need a bit of a push.

“From a government policy perspective, I think the policies are fairly robust. The framework is fairly decent. What is missing is enforcement. Better the enforcement, better the results will be. Also, as the cycle starts, we will see there will be a lot of things that will come up to understand how do we further evolve the policy but as a starting point, the policy framework is good,” highlighted Singh.

Namo E-waste’s Gupta agrees too. In an email interaction, he told tech2, “The policies made by our government are somehow fine, but the main challenge is the implementation of these policies. The producers here are not implementing these policies the same way they are followed by the same companies abroad.”

Thankfully, the government is not being slouchy. A few days ago, a bunch of phone makers including Samsung and Apple’s $700 million worth of shipments were confiscated at customs. Why? The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found discrepancies in their e-waste management. Incidentally, those companies were issued notices on 4 April and called the whole incident an “overreaction”.

Speaking of smartphones, India’s refurbished market, unlike the rest of the world, witnessed a 14 percent growth according to Counterpoint Research. E-commerce platforms like Amazon have been actively promoting their refurbished programs with a healthy marketplace. Flipkart, not long ago, unveiled a dedicated store and app called 2Gud for selling second-hand electronics.

What are the tech brands doing?

Nearly every phone maker also has a recycling program in India. Xiaomi, for instance, has partnered with Karo Sambhav and even offers complimentary house pickups. In return, customers are treated with a Rs 100 discount coupon for Xiaomi’s online store. Some of them, such as OnePlus, also have a buyback program where you can trade in your old phone to buy a new one at a reduced price.

Daisy, Apple’s recycling robot, will now disassemble used iPhones returned to Best Buy in the US and KPN in the Netherlands. Image: Apple

Daisy, Apple’s recycling robot, will now disassemble used iPhones returned to Best Buy in the US and KPN in the Netherlands. Image: Apple

Apple has been arguably the most forward brand in e-waste management and its recycling efforts even include an automated robot titled Daisy which is capable of disassembling about 200 phones an hour. The company’s new MacBook Air and Mac Mini computers’ enclosures are, in fact, made out 100 percent recycled aluminium.

As far as awareness is concerned, India could draw inspiration from Germany which surpassed its 2020 targets a decade ago and has reduced the amount of garbage entering landfills to nil. Germany requires manufacturers houses to have separate bins for e-waste and its schools teach why the safe disposal of electronics matters.

Formal e-waste recycling is essential for a circular economy and will ensure the country is prepared to manage the forthcoming IoT age. And while progress is being made in fits and starts, there’s still a lot of work that needs be done.

The government has shown initiative but one swallow doesn’t a summer make. The producers and users have to be more involved. For if they don’t, the e-waste behemoth will choke the country’s vital natural resources and stymie its future.

The author is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad. He tweets from @phonesoldier

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