E-waste crisis: Cities look for right answers

A promising R&D effort at safe metal recovery and separation within India is unable to take-off for want of long-pending consent/approval from a State Pollution Control Board for furnacing trials. A rapidly growing e-waste crisis needs rapid official decision-making and time-bound responses.

E-waste crisis: Cities look for right answers
As campaigns to check plastic make the news, little thought is given to electronic waste, which is an equal environmental hazard. With over 100 crore mobile phones in India, it’s no wonder it is among the top five countries in the world when it comes to e-waste generation. What’s the road ahead?

The city of Moradabad, located on the banks of river Ramganga (a major tributary of river Ganga), is famous for brassware. This peetal nagri (brass city) of Uttar Pradesh is now the largest e-waste hub in the country, as e-waste is brought there for recovery of metals such as copper and traces of silver and gold. Risky and rudimentary ways of metal recovery from open burning of e-waste components such as circuit boards and wires have choked the city, while panning the hazardous black ash for metals on the riverbanks has polluted the waters of Ramganga.

Moradabad’s air quality index had peaked at 500 in 2017—the highest reading in the country that year—while the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found heavy metal contamination of surface water, groundwater, soil and sediments in the vicinity of the river. All this has serious repercussions for the health of the residents, besides being environmentally unsafe. There are fears that a Moradabad-like polluted e-waste hub may be in the making in Jamnagar next to the brass industry cluster there.

Seelampur, an e-waste hub on the northeast fringe of Delhi, is the largest electronics dismantling market in India. Electronic waste is dumped by truckloads to scrap dealers for workers to extract mostly copper from the discarded e-waste, again unmindful of the consequences of the crude methods of recovery on health and environment. There are also other cities engaged in similar eco-disastrous resource recovery from e-waste. E-waste is generated when electrical or electronic equipment (EEE) is discarded, or returned within warranty by consumers, and also from manufacturing and repair rejects. Discarded laptops, desktops, cellphones and their batteries, air-conditioners and television sets, cables and wires, tube lights and CFLs which contain mercury are some examples of e-waste.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. The Global E-waste Monitor estimates that 44.7 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste was generated in 2016. India was the fourth-largest generator (2 MT) after China (7.2 MT), the US (6.3 MT) and Japan (2.1 MT) in 2016. As Indians spend more on electronic items and appliances with rising incomes, e-waste is expected to continue to grow rapidly. While technology obsolescence creates e-waste (for example, landline phones, 2G versus 4G devices), power supply voltage surges that damage electronic devices are a major factor contributing to India’s e-waste. An additional problem arises when developed countries export their e-waste for recycling and/or disposal (legally or illegally) to developing countries, including India.

A study by Assocham and NEC finds that a mere 5% of India’s e-waste gets recycled, much less than global recycling rates of only 20%; also, 95% of India’s e-waste is managed by the unorganised sector (kabadiwalas, scrap dealers and dismantlers) using dangerous methods to recover metals from circuit-boards and wires. Since electrical wires are almost invariably encased in PVC, which contains 57% chlorine, the act of burning produces deadly dioxins; the smoke from such burning is known to cause cancer, damage to the nervous system, and also poses several other health hazards. The National Green Tribunal has advised a ban on single-use PVC and short-life PVC products, but not on wires and cables. The workers themselves ignore safety measures needed for their work.

Kabadiwalas have been our age-old recyclers, efficiently channelising used metals, paper and plastic to a new life. But PVC wires and cables and circuit-boards require strict monitoring and deterrence, along with safe alternatives for recycling. Wire stripping units can be set up at the points of aggregation and burning, funded by wire and cable manufacturers. Similarly, producers can offer attractive buyback prices for circuit-boards and channelise their recycling to the formal sector.

Not all e-waste is hazardous to manage when dismantling or recycling is carried out by the informal sector. It is usually a minuscule proportion of the total, but has disastrous consequences for the environment and public health, and for their own health if not carried out with due precaution. For example, only the metal recovery process from a 40-gm circuit-board in a discarded clothes washing machine weighing 100-kg poses a challenge. The major portion of the discarded machine goes into the usual recycling streams such as aluminium, iron, plastic and glass.

India enjoys a frugal hand-me-down culture with a long line of re-users from a younger sibling to a maid to her village. As a result, our e-waste takes a lot longer to reach end-of-life. What can we do with our end-of-life products? Cities should organise quarterly collection drives or provide drop-off centres. Producers should set up collection centres for EEE. Ideally, we should all purchase new products turning in our old ones for a discount, so that dealers become aggregators for channelising e-items to authorised dismantlers.

Meanwhile, we, as users, can reduce e-waste by buying long-life items, and supporting repair and refurbishment. Producer responsibility organisations such as the Reverse Logistics Group and Karo Sambhav are paid by EEE producers to source and pay for e-waste. They should be encouraged to network with kabadiwalas. For instance, California’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act achieves this through an Electronic Waste Recycling Fee on purchases of EEE. That helps reimburse numerous recycling centres offering free services to businesses and consumers.

Management of e-waste requires its dismantling, refurbishment or recycling, and safe disposal. The E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016 address these issues. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is mandated to ensure effective plans for collection, setting up collection centres, and buyback mechanisms or a deposit-refund scheme. But the Rules need to be backed by enforcement of the regulatory framework, provision of the necessary infrastructure, and an enabling environment for compliance.

There are close to 200 e-waste recyclers in India that are licensed by the CPCB, but most of them are also just dismantlers. Formal sector recyclers face stiff competition from informal operators who get away without following the regulations. Authorised recyclers incur large overhead costs for mandatory infrastructure for construction and equipment, and the official and unofficial costs of compliance with multiple regulations.

Currently, the only safe way to recycle circuit-boards, for example, is to shred them for export to a handful of large companies worldwide, which add them to copper-ore in smelting furnaces. The precious metals that come out with the copper are then separated by sophisticated chemistry. Annual export permits for circuit-boards have been routinely granted since 2007. But for the past one year, there has been a logjam in the issue of these permits by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change.

The consequential cost of inventory build-up encourages malpractice and leakage of e-waste to the informal sector because material-flow monitoring of the authorised recyclers is weak. A promising R&D effort at safe metal recovery and separation within India is unable to take-off for want of long-pending consent/approval from a State Pollution Control Board for furnacing trials. A rapidly growing e-waste crisis needs rapid official decision-making and time-bound responses.

Ahluwalia is Chairperson, ICRIER, Delhi, and former Chairperson of the High-Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure and Services. Patel is Member, Supreme Court Committee on Solid Waste Management.

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