India’s e-waste Challenge

e-waste is one of the fastest-growing solid waste streams in the world. Improper disposal and mismanagement of e-waste can cause severe environmental and health implications. India, as the third-largest e-waste producer in the world, has a greater responsibility towards combating this “tsunami of e-waste” (quote: UN).

e-waste is a term used for electronic products that are no longer wanted or obsolete and have reached the end of their useful life. It encompasses all items ranging from computers, home appliances, mobile phones, and their peripherals. Factors such as planned obsolescence, shorter replacement intervals, limited options, higher repair costs, and lack of reuse interests have all contributed to making e-waste one of the fastest-growing solid waste streams.

The Global E-Waste Monitor Report 2020, revealed that 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was produced worldwide in 2019, amounting to a generation rate of 7.8 kg per capita. In India alone, 3.2 million metric tonnes of waste was generated during the 2019-2020 period with most of it coming from households and small businesses.

According to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) report, only 17.4% of the total e-waste generated was collected, documented, and recycled in 2019, while the remaining 82.6% was illegally handled and a large portion was dumped in low and middle-income countries.

Over half of the world’s population relies on active dumpsites for waste disposal, predominantly in low-income countries (UNEP, 2015). This is mainly due to the high cost of meeting environmental and social standards for recycling this waste. Countries that lack the capacity for sound management of their waste are among the destinations of transboundary waste exports. It is estimated that a significant proportion of this waste, approximately 80% is shipped to Asian countries, including India. Despite the existence of regulations like the Basel Convention, several Asian countries still import e-waste due to slow regulatory processes and weak legislative enforcement. This imported e-waste is often processed in the “informal” recycling sector, as these countries lack the necessary infrastructure.

The informal sector primarily dominates waste management in India. Low-cost, labour-intensive practices without regard for health and environmental impact characterise it. They offer door-to-door collection, with minimal monetary incentives to encourage people to dispose of waste. Furthermore, the lack of awareness about formal recovery centres contributes to the informal sector’s dominance in the country.

The informal waste collectors, also known as “kabadiwalas”, are a significant part of the informal sector. They comprise only 1% of the population but play a crucial role in collecting various end-of-life items, including newspapers, cardboard, scrap metal pieces, plastic bottles, tires, and e-waste. The informal e-waste collectors are popular for their door-to-door collection service, low operating costs, and manual value recovery operations. However, due to the lack of awareness regarding uncontrolled e-waste recycling and the formal recycling centres, about 95% of e-waste collected by these kabadiwalas ends up in the informal e-waste recycling units. The workers at these informal e-waste recycling units extract valuable metals using methods like open incineration and acid leaching which leads to the release of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Exposure to POPs can cause potential health problems such as birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Therefore, better organization and standardization in informal sector is vital for social, environmental and economic efficiencies.

As per the ASSOCHAM report, the Indian government must work in sync with the industry to establish standard operating procedures as well as an organized phased approach to minimize e-waste. The government should take a proactive role in mentoring to establish better coordination between the unorganized recycling sectors. Following this, the Government of India has set up policies and regulations based on the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) authorization. This mandates electronic product manufacturers to get certified and assume responsibility for managing electronic products after their end-of-life.  However, a limited understanding of how to implement the policy has made it just a compliance exercise. Thus in 2016, the rules of EPR were broadened to introduce a “Producer Responsibility Organisation” (PRO) that helps electronic owners/producers meet their EPR targets through various processing technologies, collect and recycle e-waste, and implement end-of-life management strategies. While PRO is a great solution to address the inertia of the EPR policy, it only functions through the services of authorized recyclers which constitute less than 10% in the country. Hence, there is a gap in regulation and implementation of policies, which necessitates better and sustainable strategies.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India is expected to generate 5.2 million metric tons of e-waste by 2025. However, policy implementation challenges in a large country like India necessiate private and public organizations to take responsibility by establishing reliable waste management systems and recycling facilities that prevent waste from contaminating natural resources or ending up in landfills. Towards this end, utilization of modern technology can greatly help. Technologies like blockchain can be leveraged to ensure traceability and data security in e-waste management. For instance, Plastic Bank in Canada developed a blockchain platform that allows end-to-end supply chain traceability from initial collection of waste to sale of recycled product. Also, blended finance platforms, like SDG funds, can encourage financial institutions and investors to invest, providing opportunities for the unorganized sector to integrate with the organized sector as a single value chain. Over time, this can help the unorganized sector transition into more organized units. Sustainability-linked loans, such as the Deposit Refund System (DRS), which is a part of the EPR policy, provide incentives for customers to dispose of products responsibly after their end-of-life to the same outlet. By adopting such strategies, India can improve the management of e-waste.

Managing electronic waste is an immediate concern for India. The problem is escalating rapidly without much concrete measures in place. It’s time for both formal and informal sectors to come together and collaborate to collect, process, and dispose of e-waste. Making resources available for research and development to establish innovative and alternate solution also plays a key role.

Sirinikitha B | Executive – Communications

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