Age of e-waste: Some solutions to manage a toxic problem

Electronic waste (e-waste) is generated when electronic and electrical equipment and appliances are unfit to use or have crossed the expiry date. Fast replacement of electronic and electrical goods due to rapid technological advancements, increased production of newer products and compelling marketing strategies of brands result in shortening of the usable period of these goods, and end up in the accumulation of e-waste.

Computers, laptops, servers, mainframes, monitors, compact discs, printers, scanners, fax machines, battery cells, mobile phones, televisions, medical apparatus, washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, gaming equipment, solar panels etc comprise common e-waste.

Two-three decades ago, a family most likely bought a single unit of household appliances like television, refrigerator and computer, which were considered a luxury and had a life of at least 20 years or until the appliance was damaged beyond repair.

However, in recent times, due to rapid increase in the purchasing power, technology dependence, extremely effective advertising and availability of innumerable options, more and more Electronic and Electrical Equipment (EEE) are termed ‘necessity’ goods (mobiles, laptops, household appliances and other accessory devices) that people buy in excess, often, just to catch up with the trend.

Along with the public, a major contributor to e-waste generation is the booming Information Technology and Information Technology Enabled Services (IT & ITES) companies. E-waste typically consists of metals, plastics, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), printed circuit boards, cables and so on. They contain significant quantities of precious and rare earth metal and metal alloys that are also toxic such as zinc, gold, silver, liquid crystals (polymeric organic compounds), lithium, mercury, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), selenium, arsenic, barium, brominated flame retardants, cadmium, chrome, cobalt, copper and lead.

The crude dismantling and processing of e-waste with rudimentary techniques without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and containment infrastructure pose an immense risk to humans, animals and the environment, even in very minute quantities. 

The global average recovery of these precious metals is only 10-15% due to the non-availability of viable recovery technologies, resulting in huge loss of valuable metals and environmental accumulation, causing pollution. This gap needs to be addressed by researching and developing technologies in collaboration with stakeholders and regulatory agencies.

India is the third-largest producer of e-waste after the US and China, generating 3.2 million tonnes in 2019 and importing huge quantities from other countries.

Of this, less than 2% of e-waste is formally collected and recycled, while the majority of it is dumped in open dumpsites leading to groundwater contamination, poor health, environmental toxicity, ecological accumulation of heavy metals etc.

E-waste recycling is dominated by the informal sector that often involves people living in slums. Although this sector is well networked, it is unregulated and all the valuable materials that could potentially be recovered is often disposed of. E-waste recyclers use processes such as open incineration, acid-leaching etc. Also, informal channels of recycling/reuse of electronics such as repair shops, used product dealers, e-commerce portal vendors collect a significant proportion of discarded electronics for reuse and cannibalisation of components.

With minimal efforts from stakeholders, authoritative organisations and producers, such informal e-waste collecting and recycling sectors could be channelised systematically, resulting in the overall development of informal e-waste collectors/recyclers besides drastically reducing the burden of e-waste build-up.

It is necessary to establish an appropriate digital tracking and monitoring system on a national level to track the complete life cycle of EEE, including beginning, middle and end of life (BOL, MOL and EOL).

E-waste collection

Currently in Karnataka, 86 dismantler, recycler and refurbishing centres are operating. During 2020-21, nearly 60,000 metric tonnes of information technology and telecommunication equipment and 40,250 metric tonnes of consumer electrical and electronic waste were collected.

A total of 26,800 metric tonnes of materials such as iron, plastic, non-ferrous metals, cables, aluminium, copper, brass, rubber, glass, CFL etc was recovered from recycling of e-waste at the authorised e-waste collection centres. However, more efforts are required to monitor the channelising of e-waste to these collection centres and for proper segregation of such waste to enhance the recovery of precious metals and other materials.

Although e-waste rules were introduced in 2011 and re-notified in 2016 along with the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) targets, the share of formal e-waste management sector is only 10-15% of e-waste recycling and management, while the informal sector dominates the scene with an 85-90% share.

The EPR Plan during 2017-18 of e-waste rules indicates that the phase-wise collection targets for e-waste in weight shall be 10% of the waste generation (quantity), with a 10% increase every year until 2023. After 2023, the target will be 70% of the quantity of waste generated as indicated in the EPR Plan.

Due to the absence of digital mechanisms to monitor the compliance of EPR targets by EEE producers, the e-waste management sector is falling behind greatly compared to the production, causing a serious e-waste management deficit.

This deficit needs to be addressed on priority through the introduction of an efficient tracking, monitoring and enforcement system to bring the informal sector on par with the formal sector.

Such an effort will smoothen effective management of e-waste along with providing a decent livelihood for the poor involved in the informal e-waste management as well as channel resource recovery and reuse of precious metals, further reducing environmental damage and dependence on mining.

(The writer is Member Secretary, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board)

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