Library / 6 April 2006
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The ugly side of the E-world
by Afternoon Dispatch & Courier (Bombay,India)
6 April 2006 – Electronic gadgets do make life better albeit with a price tag. As e-gadgets become obsolete within no time and find their way to the scrap dealer's, they do affect man and his environment. Kaptan Mali assesses the flip side of electronics and vows never to get wired-up again

Oh sure, it's the electronic age. Demand and supply for electronic gadgets are both rising by the day. As more and more companies launch products with added features, buyers eagerly await the foray of such electronic items, never mind the price.

But, ever wondered as to what happens to your old, discarded electronic instrument which you sell to the scrapdealer? Well, it's a question which has a deep impact on everyone's life as it could pose problems, which could prove harmful not only to one's health but to the environment too. And electronic products so junked by users as new gadgets give way to the new are collectively termed as Electronic Waste, abbreviated as E-Waste.

Computers and peripherals, Television Sets, Refrigerators, Mobile Handsets, Batteries etc are the main root of this problem which have become an important part of our life without which life seems to be incomplete.

These electronic products are toxic as they contain toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury that are commonly used in these products which can contaminate land, water and air.

Mumbai is one of the most polluted cities in the world and in India, Mumbaikars use electronic products the most and also very fast to grab modern technology, thereby dumping old electronic products as scrap, generating more E-waste which is growing at a rapid pace.

Developed countries being more accustomed to modern technology, tend to discard used electronic items which are happily imported by scrap dealers of developing and underdeveloped nations as they are still treated as `modern' by these countries like India, Pakistan, China and Eastern Countries.

According to British Environment Agency (BEA), e-waste exports are worth hundreds of millions of Rupees. Last year, such waste involved tens of thousands of old computers, 500,000 television sets, 3,000,000 refrigerators, 160,000 tonnes of other electrical equipment and millions of discarded mobile phones, all sent to Asian countries like India, China and Pakistan.

But on the other hand, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Government of India's regulatory and monitory body, continues to deny that e-waste is coming into India. It is high time that the Government and Port Authorities in India implement the Hazardous Waste Rules and check the illegal imports of hazardous e-waste at the entry points itself. E-waste is included in the List A and B of Schedule 3 of the Hazardous Waste Rules, 2002, where its import is restricted.

By far, environmentalists agree that such e-waste can trigger various diseases. So because, in Mumbai there are many places like Chor Bazar, Kurla, Bhandup, Deonar among others where such e-waste is extracted by unskilled labourers without any safety measures which creates danger to their life. In these scrap godowns, scrap dealers break these electronic products for extracting metals like copper, aluminum and some useful electronic parts for reuse.

E-waste in amchi Mumbai
According to Kishore Wankhade, Mumbai is one of the main growth centres of the country and being a port city, it is also home to large users and is a manufacturing base for electronics. It also houses large number of Infotech parks in Navi Mumbai and Pune. According to a survey by IRG Systems South Asia, a Delhi-based consultancy firm, the total waste from electronic and electrical equipment in India is estimated to be 1,46,180 tonnes per year.

Presently, Mumbai tops the list, with an annual estimated generation of 11,017 tonnes of e-waste. Thus, given in this background, there is an urgent need to have good mechanism to collect, treat and dispose e-waste, generated in the city.

As of today, e-waste finds its way through junk dealers of the city to the recycling yards, where poorly-protected workers dismantle it, often by hand, in appalling conditions. Hundreds of workers are employed at these scrapyards where tonnes of e-waste is handled every year, a major chunk of which is computers.

Sometimes, hazardous and crude processes are employed to recover precious metals like gold, copper, lead etc. These processes are very low in technology with minimum pollution- control mechanism. Thus it tends to pollute the environment as well as damage workers' health.

Sometimes e-waste dumped into the landfills, is to be found burning at the Deonar dumping ground. E-waste comprising PCBs, CDs, cables, toner cartridges, light bulbs and tubelights, is burnt in the open along with garbage. This releases huge amounts of mercury and lead into the atmosphere.

From where e-waste comes
About 80 per cent of world's electronic trash is transferred to Asia every year. Of which, India has its share too. The earlier study by Toxics Link in Delhi had clearly brought to light the culprit countries involved in this toxic trade. In India, imports of computer scrap are mainly from: USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Middle East, Europe. Of these, Singapore and Dubai in the Middle East act as turntable ports for computer scrap coming from the European Union.

Debi Goenka (Environmentalist)
E-Waste in India has been dumped by foreign countries for the purpose of extracting heavy metals from them. But in the extraction process, scrap dealers just burn the circuits and motherboards for melting the plastic which emits many dangerous gases. These gases are not only dangerous for the labourers, who recycle it but also for those who reside in and around the vicinity where such activity takes place.

Goenkar said, "Motherboard of a computer contains chromium, cadmium, lead etc and while burning it for extracting the heavy metals, it emits many dangerous gases which cause cancer. Also they burn wires to extract metal that also emits dangerous gases but government is not taking it seriously."

He further stated, "In India most of the e-waste is generated by Mumbai alone. To make money, these scrap dealers put others' lives in danger but the government doesn't mind it nor does it show any interest in dealing with this problem."

Goenka is of the view that in order to deal with this problem, people must be aware of it in the first place and raise this issue as government is not going to take any action in this matter because government does not consider it to be a problem."

Kishore Wankhade (Programme Coordinator, Toxicslinks Mumbai)
E-waste is a collective name for discarded electronic devices that enter the waste stream from various sources. It includes electronic appliances such as television sets, personal computers, telephones, cell phones, electronic toys, etc but this list of e-waste can be further widened, if we include other electronic waste emanating from electrical appliances such as lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and kitchen utilities or even airplanes.

The problem of e-waste, per se, is still in a nascent stage in India. E-waste is a small percentage of the waste generated by the world. It contains over 1,000 different substances and chemicals such as heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) etc, many of which are toxic and are likely to create serious problems for environment and human health, if not handled properly.

What the law says
As far as the environmental and government regulations are concerned, imports of e-waste to India is illegal as per the law as it requires permission to import and till date no permission has been granted for import. Majority of world's toxic waste is generated in the backyard of developed countries due to their affluent lifestyle. They shy away when the question of recycling arises. Instead, they find an easy way out by exporting them to developing economies, which keeps their door open to this toxic trash in the name of free trade.

According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's study, it was found to be 10 times cheaper to export computer scrap than to recycle in their own backyard.

So, what’s the Solution?
To solve this problem, India should ban all such imports and exports of e-waste that are hazardous waste, including computer monitors, whole computers and circuit boards.

It should direct the producer to take back a product at the end of its useful life (i.e., when discarded) either directly or through a third party. This will help place the burden of a product's environmental impact clearly back into the hands of those who design it in order to provide immediate incentive for improvement.

Wankhade further stated, "The producers should also design the product for recycling to ensure clear, safe and efficient mechanisms for recovering raw materials. No recycling is 100 per cent and there are toxic emissions from it. Thus, input materials must be suitable for safe reconstitution and recycling and there must be a pre-identifiable recycling market and mechanism established for the input material. Equipment components must be properly labelled to identify plastic and metal types. Now it's time to be proactive in managing waste, introduction of better collection system, clean recycling processes and technologies, new recycling units etc."

"The producers and manufacturers of the electronic goods do not apply the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in India, which they do so in other developed countries of the world, setting an example of double standards. The accountability of the products over the entire life cycle should be introduced in the case of e-waste. This will encourage producers to prevent pollution and reduce resource and energy use in each stage of the product life cycle through changes in product design and process technology."

"The producers should design their products with less hazardous and more recyclable materials. Many stakeholders and groups in the country need to come together to develop a comprehensive platform to address the growing e-waste crisis."

Toxics constituents
Lead and Cadmium
Lead oxide and cadmium
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Printed circuit boards
Cathode ray tubes (CRTs)
Switches and Flat screen monitors
Computer batteries
Capacitors and transformers
Printed circuit boards, plastic-casing cable
Cable insulation releases highly toxic dioxins and furans when burned to retrieve copper from the wires.
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