Electronics industry is the world’s largest and fastest growing industry. The last decade has seen a tremendous growth in the manufacturing and consumption of electronic and electrical equipments all over the world. As a consequence of this growth, combined with rapid product obsolescence and lower costs, discarded electronic and electrical equipments or ‘e-waste’ is now the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world.
E-waste is end-of-life electronic and electrical gadgets. In simpler words, they are the broken, surplus or obsolete gadgets run by electricity. It includes discarded equipments like computers, printers, phones, TVs, fridges, toasters, electronic toys, etc.
The Global E-Waste Monitor (2017) estimates 44.7 million metric tonnes of worldwide e-waste generation in 2016 which is equivalent to 6.1 kilogram per inhabitant. According to this global statistic, Asia generates the largest amount and in the same year India’s generation of e-waste was estimated to be around 2 million metric tons. India’s electronic industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Sadly, only 20% of this global e-waste amount was documented to be collected and properly recycled, rest is undocumented. Of the undocumented, about 4% is thrown into the residual waste in higher income countries and the remaining 76% takes unknown pathways, mostly, dumped, traded or recycled under inferior conditions, that is, routed to the informal markets. The amount of E-waste being controlled by the informal sector in India could be as high as 95% – thriving with both domestic and imported e-waste.
The generation is estimated to go up many times in coming years, making it a critical issue. However, e-waste is not just a problem of waste quantity or volumes. The concern is compounded because of the presence of toxic materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, certain brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and many other chemicals.
In a developing country like India, most e-wastes land up in the informal sector, where it is recycled without any consideration to health and the environment. Open burning, acid baths, unventilated work spaces and crude handling of chemicals are typical of these operations, where susceptible groups like children and women are regularly employed. With no safety equipments at hand, the workers in some of the recycling hotspots spread all over the country, are exposed to the toxic cocktails daily. The unregulated practices also release hazardous materials in air, water and soil, thereby endangering our environment.
E-waste also contains valuable non-renewal materials. Hence, there is the necessity to recycle materials and reduce burden on mining of virgin materials. Recovery of these materials without any adverse impact on environment requires a set of complex operations and highly advanced technology. Some of these complexities and concerns for environment created conditions for the policy makers many parts of the world is to involve the producers/product.
Toxics Link has been actively campaigning on the issue of safe management of e-waste in the country through various researches, reports and awareness building exercises. It has been actively involved in pushing the national government for a separate rule on e-waste, which finally saw success with the notification of E-Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2011 which was notified by the Government of India in May 2011 and it came into force in May 2012. These Rules were based on EPR principle and assign responsibility to producers for collection and processing of e-waste. Unfortunately, there was not much progress on the take back system post this rule. This rule was further replaced by the E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 (came into effect from October, 2016) mandating targeted collection responsibilities to the producers. These rules aimed to ensure effective implementation and clear delineation of the role of producers. Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and other mercury containing lamps were brought under the purview of rules for the first time. The rules were further amended as E-Waste (Management) Amendment Rules, 2018 with relaxation in the EPR plan by reducing E-waste collection targets for industries.