Every year we are introduced to new technologies, which are improved versions of existing technologies. But do we ever think about what is done to these old electronic products. The lack of awareness about e-waste management has made India the fifth largest e-waste generator in the world.
A study by Assocham-cKinetics on electronic waste management in India revealed that India is likely to generate 52 lakh metric tonnes of electronic waste by 2020 and become one of the world’s major electronic waste generators. It further said India’s e-waste is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30% per annum. The fifth largest producer of e-waste in the world, India currently generates 18 lakh metric tonnes. Telecom equipment alone accounts for 12%. The report further added that the global volume of e-waste generated is expected to increase from 93.5 million tonnes to 130 million tonnes in 2018 at an annual growth rate of 17.6%. It is a matter of concern to see the rising levels of e-waste generation in India in recent years. According to the report, with more than 100 crore mobile phones in circulation, nearly 25% end up in e-waste annually.
Devices that account for maximum e-waste
E-waste items that account for maximum waste are discarded computer monitors, motherboards, printed circuit boards, mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones, LCD/plasma televisions, air conditioners, refrigerators, and so on. Computer equipment accounts for almost 70% of e-waste material followed by telecommunication equipment (12%), electrical equipment (8%), and medical equipment (7%). Household e- waste accounts for the remaining 4%. The main sources of electronic waste in India are the government and the public and private (industrial) sectors, which account for almost 75% of the total waste generation. The contribution of individual households stands at 16%. Computers, televisions, and mobile phones are most dangerous because they have high levels of lead, mercury and cadmium.
Only 1.5% of the country’s total e-waste gets recycled owing to poor infrastructure and legislation. This diminishes natural resources and causes irreparable damage to the environment. More than 95% of e-waste generated is managed by the unorganised sector and scrap dealers who dismantle the product instead of recycling it. The main sources of electronic waste in India are the government, public and private (industrial) sectors, which account for almost 75% of total waste generation. The contribution of individual households is relatively small at about 16%.
Priti Banthia Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator, Toxics Link, an Indian environmental research and advocacy organisation, while talking to BE, said, “India is not doing enough to manage the huge quantities of e-waste which are being generated in the country presently or the amount which is set to increase manifold in the coming years. Though India did bring in a regulatory framework in 2011 (effective from 2012), there has been no effort to implement it. Also, there has been hardly any effort to work towards reducing this toxic waste.”
Causes and effects of e-waste
Electronic waste affects nearly every system in the human body. They contain a number of toxic components including mercury, lead, cadmium, polybrominated flame retardants, barium, and lithium. Even the plastic casings of electronics products contain polyvinyl chloride. Toxic chemicals from e-waste enter the “soil-crop-food pathway”, one of the most significant routes for heavy metal exposure to humans. These chemicals are not biodegradable and they persist in the environment for long periods of time, increasing exposure risk.
E-waste accounts for approximately 40% of the lead and 70% of heavy metals found in landfills. These pollutants lead to ground water and air pollution and soil acidification. According to the Assocham report, high and prolonged exposure to these chemicals/ toxins emitted during unsafe e-waste recycling leads to damage of nervous systems, blood systems, kidneys and brain development, birth defects, respiratory disorders, skin disorders, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart, liver, and spleen damage.
Regions that account for maximum e-waste
According to a study conducted by Assocham and Frost & Sullivan in 2014, Mumbai (96,000) tops the list in
generating e-waste followed by Delhi (67,000), Bengaluru (57,000), Chennai (47,000), and Kolkata (35,000). These cities have also emerged as major hotspots for e-waste processing in the country.
Though the use and manufacturing of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been banned to reduce the pollution and rise in e-waste, the use of these toxic materials has contaminated Indian soil and air quality. Analysis of soil samples from seven cities has revealed that the average concentration of PCBs in Indian soil was almost twice the amount found in global background soil.
India is a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty and has banned the import and manufacture of PCBs. In a study, 84 samples of surface soil up to 20 cms and air samples were collected from different sites in New
Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Goa, and Agra along urban, suburban and rural transects. The study found Chennai to be most contaminated in terms of PCB concentration in soil, with an informal e-waste shredding site recording maximum concentration. Lesser soil PCB concentration was found in New Delhi and Mumbai, but both the cities showed high levels in the air largely due to emission during the crude process of informal e-waste recycling.
“India is one of the first developing countries which notified Rules (2011) to tackle the problem. A fresh set of Rules has come up in 2016. But of course the implementation is much below expectation. Many efforts are taking place in the country. But compelling the producers for taking responsibility is not up to the mark. Business viability for such management is still not achieved,” said Sasanka Dev, Secretary of Disha, a society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action.
India lacks awareness
India generates about eighteen lakh metric tonnes of e-waste annually while the 151 registered recycling facilities can handle only half of that quantity. There are no systematic studies on India’s waste generation. Producers and consumers of electronic goods have a responsibility under the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 to ensure proper disposal but progress has been slow for various reasons. Priti informed, “When the regulatory framework Rules were notified in 2011, suddenly there was a spurt in the number of authorised e-waste units in India. But barring a handful, all of them are dismantling units, which means there is hardly any infrastructure for recovery of resources, especially precious metals. Moreover, the authorised units are not being monitored.”
Urban solid waste management policy has focussed on cleaning streets and transferring garbage to landfills, ignoring the legal obligation to segregate and recycle. Hazardous materials, including heavy metals, are dumped in garbage yards, polluting soil and water.
“One of the key reasons why E-waste system has completely failed is because there is no awareness among general public. You will see how people, even in large metro cities, are unaware of the problems. The government and the producers (electronic brands) need to take initiative to make public more aware of the issue and for that public campaigns are required. Also, the future users, children and youth need to be educated and this can be done through workshops, film screenings, and collection drives etc.,” added Priti.
A Toxics Link report on ‘What India Knows About E-waste’ released in 2016 shed light on the fact that the rules, which mandates that e-waste should be disposed to only authorized e-waste agencies, have not been implemented in Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, where 93%, 90% and 74% respondents respectively did not know anything about the legal framework and its provisions.
The study further reveals that as many as 61% of the respondents are ignorant about the impacts of improper disposal of electrical and electronic equipment. The study also found that 50% people sell their e-waste to kabaadiwalas, a practice known to lead to informal recycling causing harm to humans and environment.