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E-waste: A Growing Problem

The country's e-waste generation increased 43 per cent between FY18 and FY20. The pandemic-induced consumption of electronic devices is set to add to the problem in future
Rukmini Rao | Print Edition: May 30, 2021
E-waste: A Growing Problem
Photograph by Yasir Iqbal

Little has changed over the years in the narrow bylanes of Seelampur in the national capital, India's largest unorganised e-waste recycling hub, as hundreds of establishments, big and small, salvage computer peripherals, laptops, mobile phones and other electronic waste in the most unscientific way. Government regulations on e-waste management have had little impact here.

If Seelampur represents how India has decided to handle one of modernity's biggest problems - e-waste - things are hardly better in other parts of the country. India is now officially the world's third-biggest e-waste generator, producing over 3.23 million metric tonnes of e-waste per year, behind the US and China. While hardly anything ends up in a landfill, the big worry is that 95 per cent of e-waste still continues to be handled by the informal sector.

India's e-waste generation has risen nearly 43 per cent between FY18 and FY20. The pandemic-induced increase in use of electronic devices is set to accentuate this problem in the near future. A study by KPMG and ASSOCHAM says computer equipment account for almost 70 per cent of e-waste in India, followed by telecom/phones (12 per cent), electrical equipment (8 per cent) and medical equipment (7 per cent).

Till now, urban areas have been the biggest contributors to generation of e-waste. Now, thanks to the mobile phone revolution, even rural India is sitting on a time bomb. Even though new regulations mandate manufactures of electronics devices to take part in disposing e-waste, what India needs is a multipronged approach to streamline e-waste management, right from encouraging formal e-waste handlers to driving down procurement costs, tightening screws on illegal imports, creating awareness and improving inventory management.

Formal v/s Informal

India's e-waste production has risen almost 2.5 times to 3.23 million metric tonnes in six years to 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor Report 2020. India is also the only country in South-Asia to have a specific legal framework for handling e-waste since 2011. The E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules address not just the need to handle e-waste in an environmentally friendly way, but also its transportation, storage and recycling. They have also introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR). In 2016, the rules were tweaked to introduce Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) while bringing buy-back, deposit refund and exchange schemes under EPR. However, given the high cost of handling and procurement, low margins and underutilisation of capacities, most formal sector or pollution control board-recognised e-waste handlers are grappling with basic problems.

E-waste is largely made up of metals, plastics and glass which, once salvaged, give precious metals such as copper, iron, tin, nickel, lead, zinc, silver, gold and palladium. Printed circuit boards contain rare and precious metals such as ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum - together referred to as the Platinum Group Metals. Owing to this, the rate of e-waste collection is high in India, but instead of the formal players, it's the neighbourhood kabadiwala who tends to be the favourite mode of disposal for retail as well as small businesses. And it's with such kabadiwalas that the formal sector, with its high compliance and procurement costs, has to compete with. Uttam Doraswami, Founder and Director of Elxion Pvt Ltd, says, "There are legislative requirements for running and picking up material. Our vehicles have to be closed. We have to provide PPE kits to the staff. There is no way of minimising this cost beyond a point." Even though the company's total e-waste processing capacity is 380 tonnes, procurement challenges have constrained this to just about 80 tonnes.

B.K. Soni, Chairman & MD, Eco Recycling, one of the handful of listed companies in the waste management space, says while an estimated kilogram of e-waste can fetch about one dollar, about 98 per cent of such waste goes to the informal sector. "If it's a $10-billion market, the formal sector's share is only $200 million". With people always looking to monetise e- waste rather than dispose it responsibly, he recalls an initiative to collect retail e-waste at a collection centre at Mitibai College that they ran along with the city municipal corporation, "In three-four years, not a single person came," he says.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India has 51 registered PROs and 1,703 producers with EPR authorisation. Then there are around 400 authorised dismantlers and recyclers with a capacity of 10,68,542.7 metric tonnes per annum.

Still, the unorganised sector continues to thrive due to some Producer Responsibility Organisations resorting to sourcing their waste from here to meet the targets. Several PRO firms buy e-waste at marked-up prices from the unorganised sector just to lay hands on large quantities of e-waste or show credits and process paper work.

Law of the Land

Most large global manufactures have now streamlined their e-waste handling following the legislative push. "In India, as part of the EPR under E-waste Management Rules 2016, we have established a collection takeback mechanism for our IT products; and are channelising the same through our e-waste management partners for ethical recycling," says Ketan Patel, MD, HP India Market. Customers can return their end-of-life HP equipment and supplies under HP's Planet Partners Programme. The company has also set up mechanisms for small and medium business customers to drop-off their empty, original HP ink and toner cartridges at the nearest E-waste collection centre operated by e-waste management partners.

Lenovo has also set up a new set of services called Lenovo Asset Recovery Services (ARS) for business customers in India to manage IT equipment at the end of life by offering equipment take-back, data destruction, refurbishment and recycling services. "Consumers can recycle any Lenovo or other products like HP, Dell, Apple for free and receive a certificate as proof of their device being disposed of ethically," says Rob Taylor, Director of Regulatory Affairs, Sustainability & Corporate Safety and Standards, Lenovo Group.

The Way Forward

India currently ranks among the bottom 10 out of 180 countries on the Environmental Performance Index 2018 as per the World Economic Forum 2018. The first regulations to manage e-waste in India were introduced in 2011. They came into effect in 2012. The e-waste rules have been amended twice since, in 2016 and 2018. While the 2012 regulations mandated takebacks, they did not mandate any target or provide incentives. The changes brought in 2016 provided more regulatory certainty by specifying gradual and increasingly stricter collection targets. The latest changes brought in 2018 revised collection targets under EPR by 10 per cent every year until 2023. Thereafter, the target has been made 70 per cent of the quantity of e-waste generated.

The pandemic is also playing a part in the game with more equipment being added due to work and education going online. So, what is the way forward? According to Suneel Pandey, Director, Environment & Waste Management division, TERI, even as legislation and rules have come a long way and evolved over time, "Bringing smaller players under the EPR net is a challenge and that is where the government needs to work on an incentive mechanism."

Several organisations are also working at making kabadiwalas at the centre of the efforts. Take Saahas, a holistic waste-management NGO, which, as a PRO, is processing 1,500-2,000 MT of e-waste a year. Shobha Raghavan, Chief Operating Officer, says "We search for people in the informal sector, scavengers and bring them into the company and provide a safe and secured environment"

However, what has been largely an urban issue could well become a problem of rural India in the coming years. Experts point out that the shelf life of gadgets in rural markets is much longer with people preferring to repair and use rather than replace. Still, the problem will come to the forefront in the future. For effective e-waste handling, the need of the hour is not just stringent monitoring and enforcement of provisions of the E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, ensuring EPR targets are met, but also better data around e-waste for better management. Tax incentives could also bring more stock in to formal sector. However, what can't be stressed enough is consumer awareness, which can play a critical role. As author Robert Swan says - "The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."

@rukminirao

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