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E-waste: Profitable after recycling, expensive to recycle

For the last few years, 1,600 Japanese municipal officials have been collecting thousands of tonnes of old electronic devices, from which nearly 8 tonnes of gold, silver and bronze will be extracted. These metals will be used to make the medals of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. E-waste has been recognised as a cause for concern abroad, but remains neglected back home in India. Why isn’t e-waste collected consistently and efficiently? What would it take for it to be recycled? The Clean India Journal gives you a deep dive.

Electronic waste (e-waste) includes discarded computer monitors, motherboards, servers, printers, scanners, copiers, calculators, fax machines, mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones, television sets, air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, electric cords, smartphones, tablets and more.

It may account for only 2% of all solid waste, yet it represents a whopping 70% of all hazardous wastes. This is because electronic equipment contains an array of metals which – once they enter the environment – have disastrous, long-term effects. However, it is pertinent to note that up to 25% of all e-waste consists of something that we already know how to recycle: plastic.

Globally, one half of all e-waste is personal devices such as computers and phones, while the rest comprises larger household appliances, as well as heating and cooling equipment.

How is it harmful?

From lead-lined, cathode ray tubes in old TVs to lead and chromium in circuit boards of various devices, e-waste contains substances that are hazardous to human health, including mercury, cadmium and lead. The presence of toxic substances such as liquid crystal, lithium, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), selenium, arsenic, barium, chromium, cobalt and copper – which are essential components of electronic devices – makes it very hazardous, if it is dismantled and processed with rudimentary techniques.

A majority of the e-waste is recycled by the informal sector, where very crude methods are used. Women and children are particularly affected as they burn the plastic from electronic goods in the process of getting to the metals, which can enter their bloodstream. Once these heavy metals enter the environment, they pollute water sources and food-supply chains. Findings from many studies show increases in spontaneous miscarriages, still and premature births, as well as reduced birth weights and birth lengths associated with exposure to e-waste.

The India problem

India is ranked fifth in the world among the top e-waste producing countries after USA, China, Japan, and Germany. Computer equipment accounts for almost 70% of e-waste, followed by telecommunication equipment phones (12%), electrical equipment (8%) and medical equipment (7%), with the remaining from household e-waste.

A few years ago, the country generated 2 million tonnes of e-waste every year; this figure is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 30% and is estimated to have reached 5.2 million tonnes in 2020. As newer and newer models of electronic equipment are developed, they replace the older ones in our consumerist society.

Most of the e-waste is dumped in rivers, lakes or canals, causing irreparable damage to the environment. E-waste is also sold in the market to scrap dealers who dismantle it instead of recycling. Dismantling e-waste products releases further toxic emissions in the air.

We formally recycle less than 2% of the total e-waste we produce. Most is recycled by the informal sector.

India’s law for e-waste management

The E-Waste (Management) Rules were enacted in 2017, and over 21 electronic products were included under its preview. The rule also extended to components or consumables or parts or spares of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE), along with their products.

The law says that producers of electronic items should provide postal address, email and toll-free numbers of collection centres – where consumers can drop off their e-waste – through websites and user booklets to facilitate the return of e-waste items. The law also details different mechanisms to collect and recycle e-waste. These include deposit return schemes (where the producer takes a surcharge at the time of the sale and refunds it when the customer returns the product) and exchange schemes. The stakeholders – producers (all brand owners and importers), manufacturers (all registered companies that make electronic goods), dismantlers and recyclers – have to obtain an authorisation for their operations. The producers must obtain an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) authorisation from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) which will ensure that they channelise the e-waste to recyclers/dismantlers and meet their annual collection targets.

This target is required to be at least 20% of the waste generated by their sales. This will increase by 10% annually for the next five years (40% for FY 20- 21). The law also says that the responsibility of producers is not confined to waste collection, but also to ensure that the waste reaches the authorised recycler/ dismantler.

What are an e-waste collector’s responsibilities?

The law mandates the following:

• Collect e-waste on behalf of producer/dismantler/recycler including those arising from orphaned producers, provided the collection centers established by the producer are equipped to do so.
• Ensure that the facilities are in accordance with the standards or guidelines issued by the CPCB from time to time.
• Ensure that the waste collected is stored in a secure manner until it is sent to the concerned authority.
• Ensure that no damage is caused to the environment during storage and transportation of waste.

So what’s the problem?

Remember that the major component of e-waste is old computers, each in a separate household. Remember that only 2% of e-waste recycled is done in a formal manner; at the moment, most goes to a neighbourhood raddiwala who may or may not dispose of it properly.

Some large IT firms have set up on-campus e-waste collection centers. Many electronic producers have also provided for an e-waste collection area in each of their retail stores. But what about the millions of computers scattered across homes and tiny offices across the country? Who will collect them? Where can their owners drop off their e-waste? Why will someone who owns an old fridge bother lugging such a huge device to an e-waste collection center, even if it is in his neighbourhood? Why not sell it to the raddiwala, who comes and collects it and even pays him for it?

The problem with enforcing the law is that it makes no financial sense for a reputable e-waste collector to dedicate a vehicle and one or two helpers to collect a single computer from a single household, and to repeat this process for every person who wants to consign his e-waste to a responsible recycler. If such a collecting company was to invest in the number of vehicles and personnel required, it would completely negate whatever profits they would make from selling the rare metals retrieved from each device.

Unless a city’s municipal corporation starts collecting e-waste separately – as Bhopal’s now does, or a community comes together to allocate a space on its premises where residents can deposit their e-waste, which than be collected in one go, e-waste collection will remain financially unviable, and old electronic devices will continue to be dumped in landfills along with other solid waste, or dismantled by untrained workers at a great cost to their health.

In recent times, some collection agencies have sprung up which allow you to book a pickup for your old devices online at a time of your convenience; this is then sent to government-registered recyclers for processing, and you are intimated of the successful end of the process by email. Such agencies need to be publicised, and embraced by the public; only then can e-waste — the most modern, yet unfeared form of waste — enter the circular economy.

Mrigank Warrier

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