Gadgets need a burial too

Written by Vrishti Beniwal | Varun Jaitly | Updated: Sep 17 2007, 06:19am hrs
As we race to acquire the latest and hottest tech toys, our backyards pile up old, discarded PCs, cellphones and other gadgets. Sooner or later, these head to small time recyclers who are willing to disassemble any piece of unglamorous electronics to extract valuable metals like gold, copper, palladium and iron.

And these discarded gadgets can generate profits for many. You can expect to get recoverable material worth Rs 2.88 lakh and profit of Rs 1.78 lakh from 183 computers (equivalent of 5 tonne of ewaste). But recycling gadgets is not as simple as stripping plastic off copper wires and pulling out valuable materials from circuitboards. Harmful pollutants released by crude extraction pose serious health hazards and are catching the attention of many environmentalists. A harmless looking desktop could have more than 15 toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and poly-vinyl chloride. Dangers to those involved in the trade include serious problems in nervous system, kidneys, liver, lungs, muscles, heart and even DNA.

High-tech trash that we generate threatens to grow bigger with every passing year. We currently produce 1.4 lakh tonne of ewaste every year, when only 22 of every 1,000 people own a PC in India. Environmentalists are worried about the ewaste we will generate in five years when 120 people out of every 1,000 will have a PC. Significantly, computers are only a part of the pile, which comprises phones, music players and other electronics gadgets.

Moreover, our pile of ewaste is much bigger than what we generate in the country. India, along with China, is one of the biggest dumping grounds for electronics products facing end of life. In India, the problem is bigger. Besides handling its own computer waste, India also has to manage the waste dumped by other countries. Trade in ewaste is camouflaged and is a thriving business in India, conducted under the pretext of obtaining reusable equipment or donations from developed nations, says Jaijit Bhattacharya, country director, government policies, Sun Microsystems.

Till now, not many have paid much attention to how these are disposed off. Typically, these equipment are either being refurbished or reused, following which these are disposed off, usually in landfills, or incinerated to obtain valuable metal components present in the electronics.

Some countries like Japan, Malaysia, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium and Singapore have taken steps to manage this ewaste. These countries already have laws and regulations in place that ban the import of hazardous ewaste and regulate domestic recycling. In fact, Malaysia has a plant that is dedicated to handle ewaste. Even China has ratified international laws and implemented domestic regulations banning ewaste imports.

However, India is still waiting for the guidelines on how to regulate ewaste. We are yet to see the final rules for ewaste management, says Ramky Group chairman, A Ayodhya Rami Reddy, who is setting up a waste recycling plant in Hyderabad in a tie-up with Singapore-based Cimelia Resource Recovery. The level of awareness in the European Union (EU) and other western countries about ewaste is very high. There are laws for manufacturers to follow; and for any manufacturer interested in sending his product to these countries, it is necessary to follow these norms. In India though, there is no legislation to combat ewaste, says Priti Mahesh, senior programme officer, Toxics Link.

Various companies have been devising workable models to manage ewaste. One such model by the NGO Toxics Link gives the financials for re-cycling per 5 tonne of ewaste. At 27.2 kgs per computer, it estimates 183 computers in 5 tonne of ewaste.

The total value of recoverable material from 183 computers is computed to Rs 2,88,108. The input cost of collection of 183 computers (calculated from market sources) comes to about Rs 1,09,800 at a logistical cost of Rs 600 per unit. This translates into a profit of Rs 1,78,308 per 5 tonne of ewaste recycling.

Key to a cleaner and safer recycling could also come from manufacturers. Though majority of Indian PC vendors are today ranked at the bottom of environment friendliness studies, many are now waking up to the need to go green. Wipro, for one, claims to have met the July 2006 deadline set by EU for its directive on Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). This means it has stopped the use of toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury in electrical and electronic equipment products.

We have been actively working on manufacturing RoHS compliant hardware for some time now. We wanted to make sure that what ever we do not only complies with the law of the land, but also goes a long way in protecting the environment, says Ashutosh Vaidya, vice-president, Wipro Personal Computing Division.

Indias largest hardware manufacturer, HCL Infosystems has initiated a take-back process offer for its customers for the end-of-life product to be recycled. Ewaste is a subject of concern globally and nationally. HCL has a comprehensive policy on environment management processes to ensure protection of environment, health and safety of all its stakeholders.

HCL Infosystems is the first IT company in India to offer its customers a take back process for end-of-life products to be recycled in an environment friendly manner, says George Paul, executive vice-president, HCL Infosystems Ltd.

HCL also claims to have encapsulated in detail internal and external ewaste management processes to facilitate end-of-life product recovery and recycling

While international NGOs have been taking on established vendors for lax ewaste management policy, over a third of PCs sold today come from small time neighbourhood assemblers. And we need many more recycling plants like Ramky and clear-cut regulations before we regulate our electronic waste.