Over the past few years, the emergence of smart devices has captured people’s imagination across countries. Smartphones are no longer considered a luxury and have become a necessity. There has been a massive surge in the demand for smartphones, tablets, smart watches, smart television sets, etc. According to research firm Gartner, in 2015, global smartphone sales reached 1.4 billion units, an increase of 14.4 per cent over 2014. The smart devices industry is extremely innovative and dynamic, with new models and configurations being introduced almost every day. This has resulted in consumers replacing their gadgets more frequently to stay up to date with the latest technology.
However, the growing volume of devices being used and discarded has led to a major challenge in managing the electronic waste (e-waste) thus generated. E-waste poses environmental and health hazards and it therefore cannot be ignored.
E-waste typically includes discarded computer monitors, motherboards, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), printed circuit boards (PCBs), mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones, white goods such as LCDs/plasma televisions, air-conditioners and refrigerators. Proper management of e-waste becomes crucial as these products contain high levels of toxic components such as lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, arsenic and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These products when dumped in landfills with other solid waste can pose a serious threat to human health as well as the environment.
E-waste menace in India
As per a recent study conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) and Frost & Sullivan, India’s e-waste is likely to reach 300,000 metric tonnes (mt) per year by 2018, up from 185,000 mt at present. The study shows that currently, Mumbai tops the list of e-waste generating cities in India, producing about 120,000 mt of waste per year. Mumbai is followed by Delhi-NCR, which generates about 98,000 mt of e-waste and Bengaluru with 92,000 mt of e-waste. Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune generate 67,000 mt, 55,000 mt, 36,000 mt, 32,000 mt and 26,000 mt of e-waste per year respectively.
Of the total e-waste generated in the country, computer equipment accounts for the largest share of 70 per cent. Telecom is the second largest category of e-waste generating industries, with a share of about 12 per cent. Electrical and medical equipment accounts for 8 per cent and 7 per cent of e-waste generated respectively, while household e-scrap accounts for the remaining 4 per cent.
In India, over 95 per cent of the e-waste generated is managed by unorganised recycling units and scrap dealers. These dealers typically do not have the technical expertise of dealing with this e-waste. Most electronic products have components that contain toxic substances like lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, plastic, PVC, brominated flame retardants, barium, beryllium, and carcinogens like carbon black and heavy metals. These can cause severe health problems among workers handling the waste. For instance, PCBs, which are used extensively in smartphones, contain heavy metals like antimony, gold, silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin and copper. The method of extracting these materials from circuit boards is dangerous and involves heating the metal in the open. Moreover, recyclers in the unorganised sector use primitive methods like acid stripping and open-air incineration for processing e-waste. These methods are extremely unsafe and cause pollution by releasing toxins into the environment.
Lack of consumer awareness
Most electronic products can be recycled, refurbished and redeployed down the value chain and can be made reusable through reconstruction. This can help reduce the harmful impact of these products on the environment. However, only 2.5 per cent of the e-waste generated in India each year is recycled. This is due to lack of proper infrastructure and a legislative framework for recycling. The majority of the e-waste ends up either being managed by the informal sector or being dumped in landfill sites with other solid waste.
Another key reason for the informal handling of e-waste is the lack of awareness among consumers. When consumers switch to a new product, the old goods are generally discarded or given away to scrap dealers, who, in turn send these to illegal processing units. This is because there are no proper collection centres for consumers to dispose of their e-waste.
Delhi is the biggest e-waste recycling market In India. Of the total e-waste generated in the country, 30-40 per cent is processed here. Chennai has fully functional e-waste recycling units. However, their capacity is not in proportion to the e-waste generated in the city. Thus, Indian cities currently lack adequate capacity to handle and recycle e-waste.
The government recognises the challenges that come with e-waste. Moreover, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has recently re-categorised the e-waste disposal business as a red-category industry. This categorisation puts e-waste alongside those industries that pose the biggest threat to the environment by generating maximum level of pollution.
In 2011, the government had notified the E-Waste Rules, which came into effect in 2012 and carried a clause of extended producer responsibility (EPR). As per the clause, the onus of managing telecom devices that reach the end of their product life cycle is on the producers and it encourages them to design products that are more environment friendly. The National Telecom Policy, 2012 has made it mandatory for mobile manufacturers/distributors to install bins at appropriate places for e-waste collection.
The MoEFCC has now notified new regulations, called E-Waste Management Rules, 2016, superseding the earlier ones. These rules prescribe norms that are more stringent and reflect the government’s commitment towards environmental governance. The rules make producers responsible for the collection of e-waste and its exchange, and prescribe a waste collection target of 30 per cent of waste generated under EPR for the first two years, progressively going up to 70 per cent in the seventh year of the rules.
Meanwhile, it is mandatory for bulk consumers to collect the items and hand them over to authorised recyclers. Further, the role of the state governments has been clarified in ensuring the safety, health and skill development of the workers involved in dismantling and recycling operations. In addition, the transportation of e-waste has been made more stringent.
Besides, a provision has been introduced for a penalty to be levied in case of violation of rules. The rules also seek to simplify the process of dismantling and recycling by making the Central Pollution Control Board as the single authorisation agency in the country.
While there is ample policy support at the central level, the same conviction should be present at the state level in order to resolve the e-waste disposal issues.
There is no denying the fact that smart devices, especially smartphones, have become much more affordable. Currently, 4G-enabled smartphones with the latest features are available for as little as Rs 4,000. With this, the rate of obsolescence and replacement is rising, resulting in an increase in the number of devices coming up for disposal. According to the study by ASSOCHAM and Frost & Sullivan, about 10,500 smartphones come up for disposal every day in Delhi.
It is imperative for the industry to recognise the challenges posed by e-waste and expedite the setting up of proper infrastructure to address these issues. Moreover, the government should put a proper legislative framework in place to ensure that best practices are adopted while dealing with e-waste. The public should also be sensitised to the issue and made an active stakeholder in the management of e-waste. In sum, e-waste is a cause of concern, which requires immediate attention.