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Time to tackle e-waste
Studies have shown that Mumbai and Delhi top the list in e-waste generation. Delhi generates over 12,000 tonnes annually while Mumbai produces around 19,000 tonnes. Kolkata and Chennai are catching up with about 9,000 and 10,000 tonnes. Waste from other cities often lands up in Delhi, the traditional hub of recycling with connections to towns nearby.
This e-waste is one of the most hazardous waste streams worldwide. Electronics contain over 50 hazardous chemicals or heavy metals. A cathode ray tube (screen) could have over 1.5 kilos of lead. Inside the box there can be mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, while the plastic casing can contain brominated flame retardants (BFR).
On the other hand, the reasons for recycling such waste are simple - dumped electronics contain gold, palladium, copper, all precious metals which can be recovered for use. However, the process of proper recovery is hi-tech, complicated and requires vast amounts of investment.
The logic of such waste trade is simple. Waste follows the path of least economic resistance. Cheap labour and lax environment regulations encourage dumping since it is lucrative for the exporter and importer at the cost of worker health and the environment. This was the rationale behind the United Nation's Basel Convention, which is a legally binding international treaty to regulate the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes globally. India ratified the treaty in 1995, but it has a poor record of implementation.
The e-waste trade also brings in issues of data privacy. UK consumers who junked their old computers were shocked to find personal details like their bank accounts and e-mails appearing from recycling shops in Nigeria through their hard disks. Proper disposal is in the interests of the consumer.
One feasible way is through the implementation of a two-step system. First, collected waste can be taken to a dismantling centre where it is disassembled manually. This is essentially a labour intensive operation which is followed even in countries like Switzerland. It helps create segregated waste streams like plastics, metals, tubes etc which are diverted to specialised processors. Such a regulated "channel" however needs regulation and the help of industry through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime. It can protect existing livelihoods, shifting them to less hazardous operations, and also create jobs.
Several recyclers have set up operations in India. These are mostly in the early stages of investments, though many have started trading in e-waste, often collecting and exporting to their counterparts overseas. Others have tried to organise recovery operations, though they do not meet the required standards as yet. Through these interests there is a growing demand to allow imports of e- waste, rather than set up collection systems here. In fact, in July, one recycler was granted permission to import 8000 tonnes of e- waste annually from the US and UK, even though it is illegal for India, as a signatory to the Basel Convention, to trade with the US in hazardous waste.
Alongside, consumer awareness in India is low. Consumer pressure for green products is driving manufacturers and green product design worldwide. No longer are people satisfied to see only the "recycle" symbol on their devices. They are also getting concerned about how and where these are recycled.