Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. The rapid growth of the information and communication technology sector and consumer demand for digital devices has led to what has been coined as a “tsunami of e-waste” by the UN. Immediate action is required to protect human health and the environment from the consequences of inadequate handling and disposal of discarded digital devices. If treated with appropriate recycling methods, e-waste could even offer significant economic returns. In this backdrop, governments and organisations worldwide are devising progressive strategies to address the growing problem of e-waste.
A look at the global e-waste situation, India’s position and initiatives, and the way forward…
According to the UN’s latest Global E-Waste Monitor report, approximately 53.6 million metric tonnes (mt) or 7.3 kg per capita of e-waste was generated in 2019. This e-waste comprised gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at $57 billion. However, these materials were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. It is estimated that the amount of e-waste generated will exceed 74 mt in 2030. Thus, the global quantity of e-waste is increasing at an alarming rate of almost 2 mt per year. In 2019, the formal documented collection and recycling was 9.3 mt, only 17.4 per cent of the total e-waste generated. As per the UN report, most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 mt), while in terms of kg per capita, Europe (16.2 kg per capita) generated the maximum. Notably, Europe also has the highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling rate (42.5 per cent). In all other continents, the e-waste documented as formally collected and recycled is substantially lower than the estimated e-waste generated.
A number of countries have taken measures to tackle the issue of e-waste. Since March 2021, the European Union (EU) has mandated manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and TVs to make parts available to professional repairers for 10 years. Officials are working to expand this “right to repair” to smartphones, laptops and other small devices. A European Parliament resolution adopted in April 2022 calls for products to be designed in such a manner that they last longer, can be safely repaired and are equipped with parts that can be easily accessed/removed. France has introduced a mandatory “repairability” rating on a scale of 0 to 10 for electronic appliances to inform consumers of how easy it is to find spare parts and get them fixed. Besides, the EU reached an agreement in June 2022 to adopt a USB Type-C port common charging standard for small electronic devices, including mobile phones, tablets and cameras, by 2024. Meanwhile, the highest policymaking body of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Plenipotentiary Conference established targets in 2018 relating to e-waste. These include increasing the global e-waste recycling rate to 30 per cent and raising the percentage of countries with an e-waste legislation to 50 per cent by 2023. Measures taken by the ITU to tackle the global e-waste challenge are closely linked with the internationally mandated framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
As per the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 report, India generated 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019, ranking third after China (10.1 million tonnes) and the US (6.9 million tonnes). A report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) states that India collected just 10 per cent of the e-waste estimated to have been generated during 2018-19 and 3.5 per cent of that generated during 2017-18. This highlights a significant gap between e-waste generation and collection, and needs to be bridged to make resource efficiency effective. As per CPCB data, there are only 468 authorised recyclers and 2,808 collection points across 22 states. The capacity of these recyclers is 1.3 million tonnes, which is insufficient to meet the country’s e-waste generation.
Besides, India is the third-largest consumer of raw materials produced globally and is expected to consume nearly 15 billion tonnes of it by 2030. E-waste is considered one of the rich sources of secondary raw materials and can contribute towards resource security and environmental sustainability. To make optimal use of the high e-waste generation in the country and derive economic returns, the transition to a more circular approach for the electronics sector is necessary. To this end, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has formulated a policy paper titled “Circular Economy in Electronics and Electrical Sector”, containing short- to long-term recommendations for a circular economy. These include formalising the informal collection network, incentivising producers using critical materials from secondary resources, installing digital infrastructure across India for circular e-waste management, and banning auctioning of e-waste.
The central government has taken a number of steps to formalise the e-waste recycling sector. The E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), provide for compulsory authorisation of the dismantling and recycling units from the concerned state pollution control boards (SPCBs) or pollution control committees (PCCs). The primary objective of the 2016 rules has been to ensure environmentally sound management of e-waste. Under the rules, producers and their service providers, dismantlers, recyclers, refurbishers, etc. are responsible for the collection of e-waste. Meanwhile, the SPCBs/PCCs provide information on the e-waste collected and processed in their respective states/UTs to the CPCB.
In November 2022, the MoEFCC notified the E-Waste (Management) Rules 2022 to replace the 2016 rules with effect from April 1, 2023. Under the new rules, authorisation of manufacturers, producers, refurbishers and recyclers has been replaced by registration on a portal developed by the CPCB. A new extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime has been launched under which Schedule 1 has been expanded to include 106 notified electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), up from 21 in the previous rules. Producers of notified EEE have been given annual e-waste recycling targets. These targets are likely to be applicable for two years, starting from 60 per cent for 2023-24 and 2024-25, 70 per cent for 2025-26 and 2026-27, and 80 per cent for 2027-28 and 2028-29 and onwards.
Besides, several state governments have taken initiatives to curb e-waste. The Delhi government announced the state’s first e-waste park in Narela where waste generators and certified recyclers can operate under one roof. Two more such e-waste parks are in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board is planning to develop five dedicated mega hubs for waste recycling, focusing on plastic, e-waste and non-biodegradable medical waste. Last year, Noida launched a door-to-door e-waste collection drive. A similar service has been launched in Pune.
Private sector players have streamlined their e-waste handling in response to the legislative push. Samsung Electronics is recycling its old Galaxy smartphones into healthcare equipment for underserved people in India, Morocco, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. Xiaomi has introduced a product take-back and recycling programme, whereby a customer receives a Rs 100 discount coupon for every old product collected. Meanwhile, LG directly engages with government-authorised recycling companies committed to no incineration, landfilling or exporting of hazardous waste. OnePlus has authorised e-waste recycling company Attero Recycling Private Limited to collect, dismantle and recycle the e-waste collected from all over India. Dell has 23 drop-off centres for formal e-waste disposal by consumers and has been running its online take-back scheme in the country since 2006. Further, Lenovo has set up Lenovo Asset Recovery Services for business customers in India, to manage IT equipment nearing end of life by offering equipment take-back, data destruction, refurbishment and recycling services. Besides, global tech giants, such as Microsoft, Google and Dell, have collaborated for a new initiative aimed at creating a circular economy for electronics by 2030.
The way forward
E-waste generation in India continues to surge with far less proportionate improvement in its collection and treatment. Going forward, a multi-pronged approach through robust policy intervention and active stakeholder participation will be needed to streamline e-waste management. This includes encouraging formal e-waste handlers, reducing procurement costs, integrating circularity principles and creating awareness. s