The e-waste problem
The hazardous effects of e-waste are a worrisome problem, says Vinutha V.
by Vinutha V., Express Computing
India, 21 November 2005 – You may be a software professional working on the latest PC, a call-centre employee on your first job, or a teenager tapping away furiously on an assembled computer at home. Whatever slot you fall into, have you stopped to think what happens when you get parts of your PC, or all of it, replaced? Where do these parts go and where does all the unwanted or unusable stuff land up? e-waste or Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) is no longer a subject for academic discussions at environmental forums. Instead, there is a growing realisation that the issue may assume dangerous proportions over the next few years if it continues to be left unaddressed.
The situation is alarming. According to a survey by IRG Systems, South Asia, the total waste generated by obsolete or broken-down electronic and electrical equipment in India has been estimated to be 1,46,180 tons per year based on select EEE tracer items. This figure does not include WEEE imports. At the rate at which technological changes are taking place, not only in computers and cell phones but also in domestic appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens and TV sets, the problem seems to be compounding.
India a dumping ground
End-of-life products find their way to recycling yards in countries such as India and China, where poorly-protected workers dismantle them, often by hand, in appalling conditions. About 25,000 workers are employed at scrap-yards in Delhi alone, where 10,000 to 20,000 tons of e-waste are handled every year, with computers accounting for 25 percent of it. Other e-waste scrap-yards exist in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. About 80 percent of the e-waste generated in the US is exported to India, China and Pakistan, and unorganised recycling and backyard scrap-trading forms close to 100 percent of total e-waste processing activity. Many of India’s corporations burn e-waste such as PC monitors, PCBs, CDs, motherboards, cables, toner cartridges, light bulbs and tube-lights in the open along with garbage, releasing large amounts of mercury and lead into the atmosphere.
IT is the largest contributor
Toxics Link, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), says that India annually generates $1.5 billion worth of e-waste. As per a study done last year by Bangalore-based NGO, Saahas, that city generates around 8,000 tons of e-waste every year. It is true that the e-waste spectrum is broad, but we see that IT companies are the single largest contributors to the growing mountains of it. This is because 30 percent of their equipment is rendered obsolete every year. The average computer monitor or television set holds, apart from complex plastic blends that are either difficult to recycle or non-degradable, valuable components such as gold and platinum, aluminium, cadmium, mercury, lead and brominated flame-retardants.
“It is a means of livelihood for unorganised recyclers. Due to lack of awareness, they are risking their health and the environment as well. They use strong acids to retrieve precious metals such as gold. Working in poorly-ventilated enclosed areas without masks and technical expertise results in exposure to dangerous and slow-poisoning chemicals,” says Wilma Rodrigues of Saahas. She says there are no clear guidelines for the unorganised sector to handle e-waste.
The trade in e-waste is camouflaged and is a thriving business in India. It is conducted under the pretext of obtaining ‘reusable’ equipment or ‘donations’ from developed nations. According to K K Shajahan, Principal Consultant, Indian Institute of Material Management, Bangalore, “Trade in e-waste, like that in other scrap, is dominated by the ‘informal’ sector. Although the waste trade sector in India is known as part of the ‘informal’ sector, it has a system that is highly organised with extensive co-ordination in an established network. The recycling of e-waste is undertaken in an unscientific manner, impacting both health and environment.” Recently, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has given authorisation for two commercial enterprises to handle e-waste in Bangalore—e-Parisaraa and Ash Recyclers. The authorised companies get e-waste from corporates to manage the menace following the rules and regulations set down by the Pollution Board.
In India, organised recycling companies extract metals through copper smelting, which is followed by pulverisation. The use of chemicals for bleaching is avoided. They also ensure safety aspects such as employees wearing masks.
State of denial
As of now, NGOs are carrying out an inventory of e-waste. Like the disposal of medical waste, private sector participation is needed to set up units to handle the huge quantity of e-waste that’s being generated. The Central Pollution Control Board, the Government of India’s regulatory and monitoring body, continues to deny that e-waste is coming into India. Unfortunately, it’s true that countries such as India and Pakistan are becoming the dumping yards of e-waste from the US and other industrialised nations. e-waste recycling is lucrative because electronic equipment has small quantities of valuable material such as gold and copper. Loopholes in law and enforcement are utilised by all parties—the importers, traders and recyclers.
The problem is compounded by the fact that imported equipment is brought in duty-free and is customs-bound. It is high time that the Government and port authorities in India implement the Hazardous Waste Rules and check the illegal imports of e-waste at the entry point itself. The awareness on the hazardous effects of e-waste has not yet sunk in, barring a handful of IT and consumer electronics firms. Companies such as LG, Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Wipro and Infosys are involved in eliminating toxic chemicals from electronic goods. Says Y B Yoo, Vice-president, Manufacturing, Samsung India, “We encourage our vendors to ensure lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium-free components. In addition to 1SO 14001-compliant vendor facilities, they should have a manual for ensuring conformity with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Act. Our audit team regularly checks vendor facilities for environmental compliance. The waste generated is either returned to the suppliers for recycling and reuse or disposed off to vendors certified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for treatment of the waste.” Under its Ozone Initiative, Infosys complies with all legal requirements. It meets and exceeds the ISO 14001 standards for environmental initiatives.
The IT sector is taking baby-steps towards dismantling e-waste through the organised sector. Says P Parthasarathy, Managing Director of e-Parisaraa, “IT companies are bypassing [the proper procedures to deal with] their obsolete hardware products through donations and the unorganised sector. The rules, regulations and maintenance of records involved in going through organised recyclers are holding back many companies.”
Additionally, the support from the Government is not up to expectations. The draft of the policy and guidelines for e-waste management which are ready are waiting for the approval of the Government adds Parthasarathy who is also a member of the e-waste management task force.
The Governments Responsibility
- e-waste policy and legislation
- Encourage organised system recycling
- Collecting fee from manufacturers/consumers for the disposal of toxic materials
- Should subsidise recycling and disposal industries
- Incentive schemes for garbage collectors and general public for collecting and handing over e-waste
- Awareness programme on e-waste for school children and general public
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