The amount of e-waste generated in India has been growing at an alarming rate of late. According to industry reports, e-waste generation in India has risen nearly 43 per cent between financial years 2018 and 2020. At present, India is the world’s third largest e-waste generator, producing over 3.23 million metric tonnes (mmt) of e-waste annually, behind the US and China. According to the projections of India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), e-waste generation in India will increase from 4.12 mmt in 2020 to 47.52 mmt in 2040.

E-waste can be broadly described as discarded electrical or electronic devices, including all such waste from electronic and electrical appliances that have reached their end-of-life period. These devices, when dumped in landfills along with other solid waste, can pose a serious threat to human health as well as to the environment.

The key factors driving the growth of e-waste include social and economic growth, the ongoing digital transformation, rapid technology advancement, and dumping of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) waste in developing countries by developed countries. Furthermore, e-waste contribution from rural areas has risen dramatically in the recent past owing to the affordability and accessibility of mobile phones and other EE devices. The Covid-19 pandemic is set to further augment e-waste generation in the country as the usage of electronic devices has been witnessing a boom.

Recycling of e-waste

The process of e-waste recycling primarily involves two stages – manual collection, sorting, separating and dismantling; and subsequent mechanical processing. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India has around 400 authorised dismantlers and recyclers, with a capacity of 1,068,542.7 metric tonnes per annum. Further, there are 51 registered producer responsibility organisations (PROs) and 1,703 producers with extended producer’s responsibility authorisation.

While hardly anything ends up in a landfill, the major concern is that around 95 per cent of e-waste is still handled by the informal sector as there is a paucity of formal recyclers in India. Further, the role of formal recyclers is limited to segregation and dismantling of e-waste till the size reduction stage of printed circuit boards. Moreover, CSE indicates that India’s recycling facilities are largely underutilised, with only 13.5 per cent of the capacity being used to handle and recycle e-waste. There is thus a need to ramp up India’s recycling capabilities to manage e-waste.

Initiatives taken by stakeholders

State initiatives

In June 2021, to ensure the scientific disposal of e-waste, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) started an online collection facility. It partnered with RBH E-Waste Recycle Hub Private Limited. According to the agreement, the company will purchase e-waste from citizens on the basis of requests received through the portal. Further, in April 2021, the Delhi government announced plans to set up three electronic waste parks in each municipal division for dismantling and recycling used products. The plan involves collecting e-waste from informal sector workers at these three parks. Further, recycled products will be supplied to the manufacturers from here. These parks will be spread over 20 acre areas within north, east and south Delhi.

Meanwhile, in April 2021, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) announced that it is in the process of bringing the informal sector within the ambit of the formal sector to enhance e-waste recycling. According to MPCB, the e-waste being scientifically treated in the state has touched around 80 per cent in 2021.

Further, the Bihars’ government authorised 142 e-waste collection points in various districts and has initiated awareness drives regarding e-waste hazards. In December 2020, five e-waste disposal centres were set up across the state. These centres are located at Nagababa Khatal, Harmu, Morabadi, Kantatoli and Khelgaon. Besides, the Ranchi Municipal Corporation is planning to introduce a radio frequency-enabled identification-based door-to-door e-waste collection system soon.

Industry initiatives

With e-waste becoming a big concern in the country, consumer electronics companies are actively doing their bit. For instance, Samsung Electronics is recycling its old Galaxy smartphones into healthcare equipment for underserved people in India, Morocco, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. Under this programme, old Samsung phones are remodelled as eyecare equipment to screen patients with eye diseases. Further, Xiaomi introduced a product takeback and recycling programme, whereby a customer’s Mi account is credited with a Rs 100 discount coupon for every old product collected. The company has collected more than 400 tonnes of e-waste over the past three years.

Meanwhile, Apple is using 100 per cent recycled rare earth material as a key component of its new iPhones. It is also integrating more recycled tin into its new products, including 100 per cent recycled tin in the solder of the main logic boards and select power adapters for iPhones. LG directly engages with government-authorised recycling companies committed to no incineration, landfilling, or exporting of hazardous waste to developing countries. In addition, it runs an “exchange and takeback” programme, whereby consumers can exchange their old products for gift vouchers. Further, as part of the e-waste recycling initiative, OnePlus authorised an e-waste recycling company, Attero Recycling Private Limited, to collect, dismantle and recycle e-waste collected from all over India. Apart from this, leading technology giants, including Microsoft, Dell and Google, have come together for a new initiative aimed at creating a circular economy for electronics by 2030.

Challenges

Like other developing countries, one of the major challenges faced in e-waste management in India is the predominance of the informal sector in the collection and recycling process. Unfortunately, these informal units use highly environmentally degrading methods, which cause serious health hazards. Further, the challenges have been aggravated due to inadequate skills and knowledge among informal operators, and lack of proper recycling facilities in the country. While foreign technologies are available, they are quite expensive and are often not suitable for local needs. Besides the large informal sector, other challenges faced in the effective management of e-waste include the lack of infrastructure and the high cost of setting up recycling facilities.

In sum

As the generation of e-waste shows no sign of saturation, its management through robust policy interventions and active participation of stakeholders remains crucial. At present, India needs a multi-pronged approach to streamline e-waste management. This should include encouraging formal e-waste handlers, tightening the screws on illegal imports, driving down procurement costs and, most importantly, creating awareness. The solution lies in creating a circular economy for electronics, for which the foundation has already been laid by the government. The need now is to act upon it.

By Shikha Swaroop