Rapid advances in technology mean electronic devices become obsolete very quickly, often within 2 years. Rising income levels and the relative affordability of electronics allow more and more people to purchase electronic goods.
Disposing of obsolete devices is a challenge because they contain lead, beryllium, brominated flame retardants, mercury, cadmium, and other deadly chemicals. When e-waste is disposed of in landfills, these chemicals can seep into the ground contaminating water used to supply homes and much else.
In India, approximately 2 million tonnes of e-waste is generated annually of which nearly 82% comprises of personal devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and screens. Globally India is the 5th largest producer of e-waste. Annually only 1.5% of e-waste generated in India is recycled- the unorganised sector is a major culprit behind improper disposal of e-waste.
If e-waste is simply stored it doesn't pose any hazard, however, when it is improperly handled and disposed of the chemicals it contains pose a serious hazard. Not only does improper handling of e-waste allow dangerous chemicals to seep into the soil and groundwater, but it also leads to wastage of base metals which can be reused. Thankfully, there are steps people can take to dispose of e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner.
Sell Your Electronics
While in the west households regularly dispose of electronic items because they are obsolete to most living in such countries, in India due to relatively low levels of income, many old electronics can be precious to millions. Even though India is the fifth largest producer of e-waste, including computers, millions in India to whom a computer can be of great value have never owned or used one.
In the Indian context, it makes great sense to sell outdated electronic devices instead of trashing them. Even decades-old computers can run software that can teach many disadvantaged Indians while feature phones and old smartphones will seem priceless to millions as well.
Give Electronics to Certified E-Waste Recycler
The hazards posed by e-waste are real and the unorganised sector which often strips e-waste of its most useful parts compounds the problems posed by it. Workers in the informal sector who remove precious base metals from e-waste work in hazardous conditions. While working they are surrounded by toxic fumes against which they haven't been provided adequate protection.
This is why the safest way to dispose of e-waste is by giving it to a certified e-waste recycler. E-waste recyclers can also refurbish it to make new products.
Donate to NGOs
A number of NGOs in the education space have a need for electronics. NGOs often teach basic computer skills to young children and women from underprivileged backgrounds. To impart computer skills, such NGOs don't need the newest machines; even decades old computers that use GUI are useful to them. When a computer is donated to an NGO, not only does it not turn into hazardous e-waste, but it is used to teach and open vistas of new opportunities to many.
Donate to a Small College or Rural School
It's true that rapid developments in technology are leading to the production of more e-waste. The good news is that even a decade old computer is powerful enough to run software that can be used to teach. It makes sense then to donate or even sell old electronics to rural schools or small colleges or institutes of learning in a rural area. Such institutes and colleges have a need for electronics including computers and many are willing to pay for them.
Sell Back to Manufacturers
In India technology takes longer to become obsolete than in other countries. This is why a number of electronics manufacturers are willing to buy back used products. Selling used TVs, desktops, washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves, and smartphones back to manufacturers is an effective way to dispose them of. Manufacturers of such products know how to extract value from them. Like certified recyclers, they often refurbish electronics.
The volume of e-waste generated in India is growing 21% annually. In 2016 newly launched e-waste management rules mandated manufacturers to register and collect e-waste and channel it to authorised recyclers. While a step in the right direction, because collection targets from manufacturers are low, it is insufficient to deal with the massive quantities of e-waste generated in India.
Therefore it is essential for households and businesses to explore new ways, some of which have been described above, to effectively dispose of e-waste. Importantly before handing over electronics to certified e-waste recyclers, NGOs, colleges, manufacturers, or anyone else, it's crucial to remove all personal information from them. Otherwise, there is a chance data stored on hard disks will find its way into the wrong hands.
(The author is CEO, Deshwal Waste Management Pvt Ltd)