Managing e-waste: Making cash from electronic trash

Electronic appliance companies need to treat e-waste management not as regulatory compliance, but an an opportunity

The total value of all the raw material present in e-waste generated in India in 2016 has been estimated to be about Rs 2 lakh crore.

By Kalyan Bhaskar

Electronic waste (or e-waste) refers to waste arising from end-of-life electrical and electronic appliances (EEA) such as computers and mobile phones. The total value of all the raw material present in e-waste generated in India in 2016 has been estimated to be about Rs 2 lakh crore. So, whose responsibility is to manage e-waste in our country? It’s not central, state or local governments, but producers of electronics who are responsible for environmentally-sound management of e-waste under Indian e-waste rules, introduced in 2012.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing streams of waste in India and the world, and is a complex combination of several precious metals (gold, silver, etc), toxic metals (lead, barium), rare earth metals (lanthanum, cerium), ferrous and non-ferrous metals (copper, steel), plastics and wood. This complex composition of e-waste, its sheer economic value, the growing consumption of EEA, and the resulting growing volumes of e-waste and the potential health and environmental hazards due to its improper management were key drivers to introduce the 2012 rules. The rules, based on the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR), were revised in 2016 and contained several new provisions. Producers of EEA were now required to collect a certain percentage of their EEA sold in India. The collection target, 10% now, increases gradually and is set at 70% from 2023 onwards. The revised rules also contain a penalty provision for non-compliance and suggest a number of options for producers to pursue in order to meet the collection targets.

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The rules have been in place for more than six years now, and it is worth asking as to how has the producers’ response been all these years. The response was very slow to begin with. In the first couple of years, only a handful of producers took any action mandated as part of EPR. Even among those who took some action, the response was mostly limited to making information available on their websites without any meaningful change on the ground, like informing and incentivising customers for proper e-waste management and tying up with authorised recyclers. The response has increased after the 2016 revised rules, and almost all major producers of EEA have sought and been granted EPR authorisation by the regulators. Some producers have started collecting e-waste on their own, using their retail channels, some have tied up with government-authorised formal e-waste recyclers that were set up after the introduction of rules, and others have tied up with third-party producer responsibility organisations (PROs) to fulfil EPR responsibilities and meet their e-waste collection targets.

There are many challenges for producers to collect and manage e-waste. These include absence of a proper and cost-effective business model to channelise e-waste from consumers into the formal sector, complexities involved around working with the informal waste management sector that manages 95% of India’s e-waste, and the absence of cost-efficient technologies to recover and recycle the numerous metals present in e-waste.

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Given this response and these challenges, what more can be done to improve management of e-waste in India? A trend that is being witnessed the world over is that, increasingly, consumers are becoming more aware about environmental and social issues like climate change, air pollution, water pollution, etc. In many countries, faced with pressure from stakeholders like consumers, companies like GE and Google have either changed their practices or adopted new practices that are environment- and society-friendly. In India, too, we are witnessing increased demand for eco-friendly alternatives to plastics and other materials. The recent ban on plastics in Maharashtra was driven by demand from civil society, and just like e-waste, the plastic management rules in Maharashtra are based on EPR. There is currently lack of consumer awareness about e-waste and the ill-effects of improper e-waste management in India. As a result, there is not sufficient demand from consumers yet that could result in increased and better response from producers. However, as consumers become more aware in the future, producers of EEA will need to improve e-waste management and make changes in product design level to reduce use of toxic metals, and allow for easier disassembly and recycling of e-waste. For example, in Guide to Greener Electronics 2017 report published by Greenpeace, companies like Dell and HP have been singled out for designing products that are easy to repair, upgrade and disassemble for recycling.

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Globally, there are many initiatives by governments and civil society that are causing producers of EEA to address issues like sustainable design, use of recycled materials, and elimination of hazardous chemicals from EEA. These suggest that producers of EEA in India will need to treat e-waste management not as an issue of regulatory compliance that is a burden on them and that can be avoided. Instead, they should consider it as an opportunity to contribute to society and environment, and meet the evolving consumer demand and future governmental norms.

After all, businesses don’t operate in a vacuum and are part of the society, and businesses that don’t meet societal demands cease to be in business.

-The author is assistant professor, XLRI Jamshedpur, and a member of IFC’s stakeholder advisory panel for the ‘India E-waste toolkit.’ Views are personal

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