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Responsible recycling of e-waste

Management of e-Waste is a serious issue. Currently India is estimated to generate around 4 lakh tonnes of e-Waste annually (Toxics Link, Delhi, 2014). This e-Waste is generated by households, institutions, government offices and the corporate sector. The generation is estimated to go up many times in coming years, making it a critical issue. However, e-waste is not just a problem of waste quantity or volumes. The concern is compounded because of the presence of toxic materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, certain brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and many other chemicals which are carcinogenic in nature.

Currently 95% of e-Waste continues to be recycled by the informal sector. Open burning, acid baths, unventilated work spaces and crude handling of chemicals are typical of these operations, where susceptible groups like children and women are regularly employed. With no safety equipments at hand, the workers in some of the recycling hotspots spread all over the country, are exposed to the toxic cocktails daily with evident affect on there health. The unregulated practices also release hazardous materials in air, water and soil.

The above situation is not meant to overwhelm. It is meant to caution and bring attention to the current situation as also to motivate all generators including households to actually get involved in the solutions.

India introduced progressive legislation in the form of the e-Waste management and Handling Rules in 2012.

These rules make a mandatory guideline for all generators including households to ensure that e-Waste is recycled only by authorised recyclers. In large cities like Bangalore and Chennai there are adequate recyclers who are authorised by the State Pollution Control Board. These recyclers however continue to face difficulties in getting e-Waste to their facilities since a large fraction of e-Waste generated continues to flow to the informal sector.

Currently only a few large companies have introduced internal policies which ensure appropriate storage and safe recycling of all their e-Waste through authorised recyclers. All other generators continue to ignore the rules.

Special attention must be drawn to households where there is practically no awareness about e-Waste and also to the responsibilities of consumers as well as the sales network. On the one hand large retail chains advertise exchange programmes which lure customers to bring in their old electronic equipment including televisions and refrigerators and exchange them for new models. While customers are happy to hand over their e-Waste to these retail outlets they rarely ask the stores what is done with all the e-Waste collected. Recently Saahas in association with EMPRI, the research arm of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board studied the flow of the e-Waste from these retail chains. It was observed that 90% of these retail chains use services of scrap dealers who purchase the waste from the stores and sell to the informal sector.

It is really surprising that the retail sector has not put any attention to this huge lapse. This situation also arises because of the consumer demanding to be paid for his e-Waste. He does this either through a direct sale to his neighbourhood Kabadiwala or through an exchange programme where he receives a discount against a new purchase.

Over the last few years Saahas has set up drop points for collection of e-Waste in Bangalore. Our experience with running these centres has not been very encouraging since there is very little e-Waste that is actually dropped off by consumers at these centres. This is because the consumers do not get paid for the material dropped.

For now there is a need for readers to connect with the fact that consumers are expected to demonstrate responsible behaviour by using authorised collection centres to drop their e-Waste. These collection centres provide citizens an opportunity not just to comply with the rules but also to ensure that their e-Waste does not become a threat to our health and environment.


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