Industry and government must form a partnership to formalise e-waste collection
By Smriti (Mudgal) Sharma
India is determined to become a leading manufacturing hub of electronics. In 2019, the National Policy on Electronics (NPE 2019) stated its intent to focus on manufacturing for both domestic and global markets. The NPE 2019 moved from regressive tariff impositions on imports to providing incentives to manufacturers. It is in the same spirit that the government recently notified three schemes, worth approximately Rs 50,000 crore, in order to position India as a global hub for electronics manufacturing. Developed economies have a voracious appetite for electronics, and if India starts exporting one of the highest-selling traded items, it will give India a lot of muscle in global trade. However, with great power also comes great responsibility.
An increase in electronics manufacturing is also going to lead to an increase in electronic waste. Electronic waste refers to electrical and electronic equipment, whole or in part discarded as waste by the consumer or bulk consumer, as well as rejects from the manufacturing, refurbishment and repair processes. India is currently the third-largest e-waste generator in the world, after China and the US. According to Global E-waste Monitor 2020, India generated 3.2 million ton of e-waste in 2019, out of which only 30,000 ton was collected and recycled. It is further estimated that in 2020, India will likely produce 5.2 million tons of e-waste annually.
It is critical that India is perceived as an environmentally-responsible manufacturer. It would be detrimental for India to be treated like a backyard cheap labour factory that manufactures electronics but doesn’t clean up after itself.
The good news is that the government and the industry are both committed to responsible e-waste management. India is the only country in Southern Asia with e-waste legislation. In fact, India put laws in place to manage e-waste in 2011. The E-waste (Management) Rules, 2011, mandated only authorised dismantlers and recyclers to collect e-waste. The E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016 further brought manufacturers, dealers, refurbishers, and Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) under the ambit of the e-waste rules. The industry, too, has committed to eliminating waste. Manufacturers engage PROs to manage e-waste on their behalf.
The PROs have a network of collection agents and recyclers. However, formal recycling capacity remains under-utilised, as 95% of the waste is still handled by the informal sector.
In order to formalise e-waste management, the government and the industry need to collaborate and build a robust e-waste collection system.
Currently, the e-waste Rules do not distinguish between collection points and collection centres. Therefore, collection points where the e-waste is dropped off is subject to the same level of regulation as a collection centre. In order to foster a greater presence of drop-off points, the government will have to address the definitional lacunae in the legislation. This will allow for light-touch regulation for collection points versus the more rigorous regulatory requirements for collection centres.
It is important that the government penalises actors who don’t comply with the e-waste rules. However, like all crimes cannot be awarded the death penalty, the penalties on non-compliance must differ in accordance with the intent and gravity of default. Last year, the Central Pollution Control Board put a halt on imports of companies that were found in non-compliance. An adequate notice, followed by an opportunity for a fair hearing, must be afforded to all defaulters. These are the basic tenets of the principles of natural justice.
Finally, the e-waste ecosystem is a complex one with a multitude of actors responsible for the generation, treatment and recycling of e-waste. The current legislation mounts the entire burden of compliance on the producers. The producers are held liable for non-compliance of service centres and refurbishers too.
This is not only inequitable but also undermines the culture of compliance. It is important that consumers, both individual and bulk consumers, dealers, recyclers are made responsible for their e-waste disposal. This can be achieved by increasing awareness, imposing penalties on the defaulting stakeholder instead of shifting the entire burden on to the producers.
The best time to begin is now and the best process would be a robust and transparent consultation with industry to align India’s ambitions and ground realities with international best practices.
The author is Delhi-based policy consultant