A wiser approach to e-Waste

Updated: Nov 14 2005, 05:42am hrs
You may be a software professional, working on the latest PC. May be a call-centre employee on your first job or a teenager tapping away furiously on an assembled computer at home. Perhaps, a home-maker learning to keep accounts with the use of a machine, or a pensioner discovering the wonders of computing. Whatever slot you fall into, have you stopped to think of what happens when you get parts of your PC, or all of it, replaced Where do these parts go and where does all the unwanted or unusable stuff land-up e-Waste or Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) is no longer a subject for academic discussions at environmental fora. Instead, there is a growing realisation that the issue may assume dangerous proportions over the next few years, if it continues to be left unaddressed.

It is alarming. According to a survey by IRG Systems, South Asia, the total Waste generated by obsolete or broken down electronic and electrical equipment in India has been estimated to be 1,46,180 tons per year based on selected EEE tracer items. This figure does not include WEEE imports. The rate at which the technological changes are taking place, especially, in hardware of not only computers and cell phones but of domestic appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens and the ubiquitous TV set, the problem seems to be compounding.

Dumping ground

End-of-life products find their way to recycling yards in countries such as India and China, where poorly-protected workers dismantle them, often by hand, in appalling conditions. About 25,000 workers are employed at scrap-yards in Delhi alone, where 10,000 to 20,000 tons of e-Waste is handled every year, computers account for 25 percent of it. Other e-Waste scrap-yards exist in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. About 80 percent of the e-Waste generated in the US is exported to India, China and Pakistan and unorganised recycling and backyard scrap-trading forms close to 100 percent of total e-Waste processing activity. Many of India's corporations burn e-Waste such as PC monitors, PCBs, CDs, motherboard, cable and toner cartridges, besides the common light bulb and tube lights, in the open along with garbage, releasing large amounts of mercury and lead emissions.

IT is the largest contributor

Toxics Link, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), says that India annually generates $1.5 billion worth of e-Waste. As per a study done last year by Bangalore-based NGO, Saahas, Bangalore generates around 8,000 tons of e-Waste annually. It is true that the e-Waste spectrum is broad but we see that IT companies are the single largest contributors to the growing mountains of it. This is because 30 percent of their equipment is rendered obsolete every year. The average computer monitor or television set holds, apart from complex plastic blends that are either difficult to recycle or non-degradable, valuable components such as gold and platinum, aluminium, cadmium, mercury, lead and brominated flame-retardants.

Unorganised recyclers

"It is a livelihood for unorganised recyclers. Due to lack of awareness, they are risking their health and the environment as well. They use strong acids to retrieve precious metals such as gold. Working in poorly ventilated enclosed areas without masks and technical expertise results in exposure to dangerous and slow poisoning chemicals," says Wilma Rodrigues of Saahas. She says there are no clear guidelines for the unorganised sectors to handle e-Waste.

The trade in e-Waste is camouflaged and is a thriving business in India, which is conducted under the pretext of obtaining 'reusable' equipment or 'donations' from developed nations. According to K K Shajahan, principal consultant, Indian Institute of Material Management, Bangalore, "Trade in e-Waste, like that in other scrap, is dominated by the 'informal' sector. Although the Waste trade sector in India is known as part of the 'informal' sector, it has a system that is highly organised with extensive co-ordination in an established network. However, the recycling of e-Waste is undertaken in an unscientific manner, impacting both health and environment." Recently, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has given authorisation for two commercial enterprises to handle e-Trash in Bangalore-E-Parisaraa Pvt Ltd and Ash Recyclers.