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Hazards of mobile phone e-waste

Print Edition: March 21, 2010

Consider this: A staggering 130 million phones were sold in India in 2009 alone, making it one of the largest mobile phone markets in the world. And a recent study by Gartner estimates that the Indian mobile market will expand to 737 million subscribers by 2012. While this would inherently ensure better communication giving a fillip to economic activity in the country, it's also now posing a big challenge of a different kind—managing the e-waste from discarded handsets.

WHY IT'S A PROBLEM

  • 130 m mobile phones sold in 2009.
  • 12,000 mobile phones sold every hour.
  • 18 months average handset replacement period.
  • 30-35 per cent mobile phones sold as replacement phones.
  • 35 m phones are discarded every year.
  • 5,000 Tonnes E-waste is generated annually.
Mobile phones have a high obsolescence rate and every year millions of handsets in India are replaced with newer models with fancier features. The burgeoning amount of e-waste from mobile phones is a matter of concern, because of its toxic constituents like lead and cadmium.

What's more worrying are the improper ways in which this waste is recycled in the country. Mobile phone waste, like most e-waste, is recycled by informal, uneducated workers using primitive techniques like open burning and acid baths that cause environmental contamination.

Globally, most mobile phone companies have take-back systems, through which they collect discarded phones and ensure safe recycling. In India only few companies provide this facility. Take-back schemes, along with reduction in the use of toxic materials in manufacturing, will be highly effective in reducing the risks associated with recycling this waste.

THE WAY OUT

  • Handset manufacturers should design mobiles for disassembly, reuse and recycling.
  • Mobile phone companies must have take-back systems to collect discarded phones and ensure safe recycling.
  • The government should introduce effective laws for better e-waste management.

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