Digital dump is increasing

Written by Huma Siddiqui | Updated: May 27 2014, 03:04am hrs
These days its often more convenient to buy a new computer, mobile phone, tablet or a microwave than to upgrade an old one. But what happens to those old devices once they have been abandoned for newer models No prizes for guessing, but the refuse from discarded electronics products, also known as e-waste, often ends up in landfills instead of being recycled. And that means toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury that are commonly used in these products can contaminate the land, water and air. A scary scenario, isnt it

A close look at the dark side of the digital age. Globally, an estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced annually, with residents of the US and the UK generating some of the highest rates worldwide at 30 kg and 22 kg per person, respectively. A recent report by Indias department of scientific and industrial research shows that e-waste heading into India is increasing by 10% a year, with nearly all of it heading into urban slums for dis-assemblywhich means a huge amount of toxins hitting a huge number of people.

The total amount of Indias e-waste imports is projected to reach 4,34,000 metric tonnes this year, and about 25,000 people in the countrys slums will make up the bulk of the recycling industry there. The report notes that there is almost no oversight or regulation for dismantling used electronics there, which contain toxic substances like lead, mercury and cadmium and are often disassembled in environmentally and toxic ways.

Of many toxic heavy metals, lead is the most widely used in electronic devices for various purposes, resulting in a variety of health hazards due to environmental contamination. Lead enters biological systems via food, water, air, and soil. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoningmore so than adults because they absorb more lead from their environment and their nervous system and blood get affected.

Looking at the increasing digital dump, companies globally need to figure out that the materials inside old gadgets are highly valuable for making new gadgets, and then perhaps put in place better programmes for collection and reuse. After all, eventually recyclers and manufacturers will have to hold hands if they want to still have a planet full of consumers.

Unfortunately, e-waste will not magically stop growing by especially as we get more attached to gadgets like affordable laptops instead of computers, e-readers instead of books, or mobile devices we replace every 18 months and so on. E-waste is no small issue. Because it provides a form of income for those people working as dismantlers, their health is risked for survival, the DSIR report estimates that 25,000 people in Indias slums are working in this recycling industry, where 95% of the e-waste imported will be dismantled. In the financial capital of IndiaMumbai, there theres only one facility for recycling e-waste, and Mumbai generates over 25,000 tons of e-waste a year.

As far as I know, there has been plenty of legislative action to ban trade and informal recycling, but insufficient action to develop alternate approaches, says Eric Williams, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who led a recent study that examined how to more effectively link informal and formal e-waste recyclers.

As e-waste flows shift, manufacturers in China, India and many other developing and under-developed countries are increasingly viewing e-scrap as a valuable commodityboth for extracting metals or for manufacturing new devices from a products component parts. That is partly because the value of e-waste broadly has increased in recent years in tandem with rising demand for the so-called rare earth elements used in laptops, cellular phones and other electronic devices.

Policies that encourage sustainable harvesting of e-waste resources already exist in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, says Michael Biddle, president of the California-based plastics recycler MBA Polymers, which has a facility in China. They are doing it not just to protect their environment, he adds.

For the recycling of e-waste, India heavily depends on the unorganised sector as only a handful of organised e-waste recycling facilities are available. Over 95% of the e-waste is treated and processed in the majority of urban slums of the country, where untrained workers carry out the dangerous procedures without personal protective equipment, which are detrimental not only to their health but also to the environment.

There is no doubt that the ever-increasing amount of e-waste associated with the lack of awareness and appropriate skill is deepening the problem. The need of the hour is a major thrust to recycling of old equipment, as well as a scientific way to dispose off the old equipment in an environment-friendly manner.

After all, let e-waste not be a problem!