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E-waste management – India must act quickly now

For a sustainable solution to the problem of E-waste, India should evolve a recycling model on the lines of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), prevalent in European countries.

By Anubhav Srivastava

June 01, 2009

India is one of the largest consumer goods market in the world. However, with the growing consumption of electronics and IT goods in the country, the environmental threat posed by E-waste has touched an alarming level. ‘E-waste’ is a collective name for discarded electronics devices that enter the waste stream from various sources that include electronic appliances such as televisions, personal computers, telephones, air conditioners, cell phones, electronic toys, etc. The quantum of electronic waste will cross 4.7 lakh tons per annum by the year 2011. 

Over the years, E-waste has become a global problem. The rapid technology change in the electronic devices coupled with low initial cost breeds obsolescence resulting in a growing e-waste environmental problem. What makes the matters worst for developing countries like India is that they have become a hot destination for developed nations for dumping their hazardous E-waste. To add to the problem is the unsafe recycling of the electronic goods in the unorganised sector leading to a negative effect on the environment. The effects of E-waste on human beings are too dangerous to be ignored. They are biologically non-degradable. Some of the highly toxic substances found in E-waste and their ill effects on human beings are as follows – 
  • Lead – Lead is found in television and computer monitors on the glass panels.  Exposure to high levels of lead can result in vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. Other symptoms are appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability, and headaches. Lead damages the central and the peripheral nervous system, the circulatory system, the reproductive system and mental development of young children. 
  • Cadmium – It is used in making semiconductor chips and cathode ray tubes (CRTs). Inhalation of cadmium can cause severe damage to the lungs, kidneys and can even cause death.  
  • Mercury – The electronic goods industry consumes about 22 per cent of all the mercury produced in the world. Mercury is used in the manufacturing of circuit boards, cell phones, and batteries. Mercury is also used in flat screen displays in television and computer monitors. Mercury causes severe damage to organs such like the brain and the kidneys.
  • Barium – Barium is used to protect people from radiation from the cathode ray tube (CRT) screen panels. It can cause the brain to swell, weaken muscles and cause severe damage to the heart, liver and spleen. 
  • Beryllium – Beryllium is used in the electronics industry because it is light, strong, a good conductor of electricity and non-magnetic . However it is extremely harmful if inhaled and can cause lung cancer.  
  • Hexavalent chromium – Chromium is used to prevent corrosion in steel and in steel housing. Chromium can enter the body and is absorbed by human cells. Once in the body it has toxic effects on the body. It can also damage DNA. 
  • Poly-vinyl-chloride (PVC) – Poly-vinyl-chloride or PVC makes up for the largest percentage of plastic used in electronic equipment. An average computer contains about 13.8 pound of plastic, including PVC. The burning of PVC generates dioxins, a class of super-toxic chemicals that can damage the immune system and cause birth defects in children. PVC can also cause diseases such as brain and liver cancer.
The alarming rate of generation of E-waste in India and the unsafe methods of disposal in the small and medium-scale units in the informal sector pose serious environmental and health risks. According to estimates, over two million old PCs are ready for disposal in India. About 30,000 computers become obsolete every year from the InfoTech industry in Bengaluru alone. About 80% of the e-waste generated in the US is exported to countries like India, China and Pakistan for e-waste processing activity.

Electronic waste, if treated properly, is a valuable source for secondary raw materials. However, if not treated properly, it is a major source of toxins and carcinogens. Unsafe recycling methods not only expose those involved in the activity to serious health hazards, but also pollute the surroundings. Therefore, there is a need to have an organised sector for recycling E-waste in a safe manner. 

Technical solutions to tackle the problem of E-waste management are available but in India, much more is needed to be done in terms of legal framework, a collection system for the E-waste and the logistics involved in the process. According to Mr. Rohan Gupta, Chief Operating Officer of Attero Recycling, India’s leading company in the field of E-waste management, India needs to have stricter laws and greater enforcement when it comes to E-waste management. He explains how the company’s recently launched, state-of-the-art E-waste recycling facility in Roorkee is not only handling complete processing of E-waste in compliance with all safety norms but providing client-friendly services like pickup of E-waste from premises of the companies and complete data security. 

Gupta adds that since E-waste management in the organised sector is in the initial phase in India, government must provide subsidies to the industry considering its importance in keeping the environment clean. “To have a sustainable solution on E-waste management in India, we need to evolve a recycling model on the lines of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), prevalent in European countries, where companies which manufacture electronic products are made responsible for the safe recycling of the products after their useful life. The companies either recycle the products themselves or delegate this task to a third party,” says Gupta. 

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India. 


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