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E- Waste: An Emerging Global Threat

Metals like ‘lead’ affect the central nervous system and can even cause cancer. Exposure to cadmium may cause osteoporosis in women and height loss in men. It can damage kidneys and also result in increased blood pressure. Nerves and liver may also get damaged by chromium. Chromium may also cause stomach ulceration. On one hand, e-waste is endangering human lives and on the other it is a source of various precious metals. Many workers engage themselves in processing e-waste for extracting profitable items like gold, silver, platinum, copper and aluminum. Rudimentary methods used by workers, such as acid washing, open-burning, manual dismantling without any safety precautions are damaging the environment and exposing the nearby inhabitants at risk.

E-Waste Management: A Global Challenge

E-waste management is a challenge not only for India but for other countries as well. For instance, e-waste recycling sites in Ghana are risking the health of schoolgoing children. Samples of dust taken from school compounds located in nearby areas of e-waste recycling sites revealed the presence of high concentration of heavy metals such as cadmium and copper.

In China, workers engaged at e-waste recycling sites were found to have increased level of pollutants in body fluids. A research study reported that the sample of water taken from Lianjiang river near a Chinese recycling village contained large amounts of lead. These lead levels were 2400 times higher than the acceptable levels as per World Health Organization Drinking Water Guidelines. The cases of Ghana, China and many other countries are forewarning us to develop a proper system for e-waste management in our country.

In India too there is a lot of informal recycling and dismantling of e-waste. Deadly dioxins and furans were observed at the recycling sites of Delhi as per a report by Greenpeace in the year 2005. There are a large numbers of informal e-waste recycling sites operating in and around other metropolitans. In fact, there are several studies reporting that the unorganized sector is handling more than 90% of e-waste.

Among Asian countries, India has been identified as the second largest generator of e-waste. Though the country has been considered to be among the major Asian producers of e-waste, still there is a lack of accurate data on e-waste generation, disposal or imports. We just have estimations of e-waste generation approximated either by NGOs or government agencies (refer Table 1).

 

The growth of electronic market in India is a major determinant of these e-waste estimations. As per recent statistics reported by several agencies and government offices, the Indian electronic market has recorded exponential growth in the last 10 years (refer Table 2). With this kind of rapid increase in the growth of electronic industry, the situation of e-waste may worsen in future. It would become difficult to handle e-waste in coming years, if preventive measures and actions are not taken today.

Moreover, the strategies to manage e-waste will be hard to plan and implement effectively in the absence of proper inventorisation of e-waste all over India. Often it is said that what cannot be measured, cannot be managed. Thus, each state should take similar steps in measuring the quantity of e-waste generated. For example, the type of electronic devices included in estimation, time period in which the study is planned to get executed, the methods used for measuring quantity of e-waste generated, the sources or generators of e-waste chosen for estimating generation should all be similar. To illustrate, if a state is including devices like mobile phones, computers, televisions in the study over a period of six months then other states should also estimate in the same manner and for the same duration.

The calculations of e-waste generation by employing same procedures in all states would be more meaningful and we could in fact reach at more concrete inferences and conclusions. Otherwise, the comparison of different states on the quantity of e-waste generated, summing up the data of different states to approximate the data generated in India will be questionable. If inclusion of all states seems practically infeasible at this point of time then at least the top ten states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, New Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh. and Punjab which are known to generate about 70% of e-waste should be considered.

Even though, India has taken initiatives by framing e-waste Management and Handling Rules, 2011, active involvement and cooperation from all stakeholders is needed to enforce the rules. Handling of e-waste by informal sector needs to be taken into consideration as it has social implications. Steps are needed to involve the informal sector. They should be made aware about the hazardous consequences of informal recycling. It is necessary to find the means to keep a check on informal recycling as apart from damaging the health and environment it is also leading to wastage of scarce and valuable resources.

To develop a proper system of e-waste management in India, inventorisation of e-waste generation should be assessed appropriately. Mass awareness needs to be spread among people. Massive campaigns should be organized to make everyone aware about the negative fallout of speedy electronic growth which is somewhere due to increased consumerism, faster replacement cycle of electronic goods, high rate of obsolescence in electronic industry, increased purchasing power and changing life style. People must be sensitized towards the issues and challenges in e-waste management. It is necessary for each one of us to exhibit self discipline and responsible behavior towards environment and society by contributing in the e-waste management of our country even through the smallest possible ways.

Prof Namrata Jain
Shri Vaishnav Institute of Management, Indore

Dr Ashwini Sharma
Institute of Management, JK Lakshmipat University, Jaipur

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