Reimagining E-Waste: Empowering India's Transition to a Circular Economy

In India, computer equipment accounts for almost 70 percent of all e-waste, followed by telecom/phones (12 percent).

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One of the world's top manufacturers of e-waste is India. The nation has seen a rise in electronic trash production due to its rapidly expanding economy and large population of electronic device consumers. The issue is made worse by a lack of appropriate infrastructure and insufficient recycling facilities. India's e-waste problem is a serious environmental and health hazard that has worsened recently.

E-waste refers to discarded electronic products like computers, ICT equipment, home appliances, and audio/video devices. Computers, cell phones, televisions, and other electronic equipment are examples of electrical and electronic gadgets referred to as "e-waste," or electronic garbage. There is no universally accepted definition of e-waste, but it typically includes expensive and durable data processing, telecommunications, and entertainment products.


E-waste: Environmental and Health Hazards Persist

In India, computer equipment accounts for almost 70 percent of all electronic waste, followed by telecom/phones (12 percent), electrical equipment (8 percent), and medical equipment (7 percent), according to a report by KPMG and ASSOCHAM. E-waste is not hazardous if stored safely, recycled using scientific methods, or transported in the formal sector. However, if recycled using primitive methods, it can become hazardous.

E-waste contains substances like heavy metals, plastics, and glass that can harm the environment and human health if not handled properly. Improper recycling in the informal sector can cause environmental damage. The negative effects of e-waste include soil contamination, water pollution, and air pollution from emissions and burning of e-waste.

E-waste improperly handled and disposed of, poses serious environmental and human health threats. Hazardous compounds, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants, are frequently found in e-waste. If improperly handled, these poisonous substances can pollute the land, water, and air, degrading the ecosystem and harming the local population's health.


Alarming Growth and Challenges

India's e-waste output grew by around 2.5 times to 3.23 million metric tonnes in the six years before 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor Report 2020. Only 22.7 percent of the 10,14,961.21 tonnes of electronic garbage produced in India in 2019–20 was appropriately gathered, disassembled, recycled, or disposed of. This e-waste consists of the 21 categories of electrical and electronic equipment covered under the 2016 E-Waste (Management) Rules.

Comparatively, just 9.79 percent of the entire amount of e-waste produced in India in 2017–18 was handled and recycled, whereas the ratio was roughly 21.35 percent in 2018–19.

The informal sector's predominance in the recycling and disposal processes is one of the main obstacles to India's effective e-waste management. A significant amount of e-waste needs to be handled more efficiently in the informal sector, posing health risks to employees and resulting in the inappropriate handling of dangerous items. Unsafe working conditions, a lack of safety equipment, and the discharge of poisons into the environment are characteristics of the informal sector.


India's Legislative Framework

Since 2011, India has been the only nation in South Asia with a dedicated legislative framework for addressing e-waste. The Indian government has implemented several initiatives to combat the rising e-waste issue. The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change created the E-trash Management Rules in 2016 to control the collection, disposal, and recycling of electronic trash. Manufacturers, big users, and recyclers are all held accountable by the standards for effective e-waste disposal.

The E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules include the transportation, storage, and recycling of e-waste and the necessity to treat it ecologically and sustainably. Despite the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016, which assign responsibility to producers for the collection, storage, transportation, dismantling, and recycling of e-waste through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), the data reveals that less than a quarter of the generated e-waste is being adequately managed.

The idea of extended producer responsibility (EPR) has also been presented. Buy-back, deposit refund, and exchange schemes were added to the EPR, while Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) was introduced thanks to changes made to the laws in 2016. However, due to high handling and procurement costs, slim profit margins, and underutilised capacity, the majority of formal sector or pollution control.

Like untreated solid garbage, untreated e-waste may enter open areas and water bodies. The 2016 regulations include clauses addressing e-waste recycling and disassembly. State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) or Pollution Control Committees (PCCs) must provide authorisation to dismantlers and recyclers. After confirming that the recyclers and dismantlers have the required facilities following the criteria issued by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the competent SPCBs or PCCs grant these authorisations.

The government has also started programmes like the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programme, which holds producers liable for collecting and ecologically appropriately disposing of electronic devices at the end of their useful lives. To further encourage appropriate e-waste management, awareness programmes, recycling drives, and collecting facilities have been established.

However, despite these initiatives, India still has a huge e-waste problem that requires more all-encompassing solutions. To guarantee the secure disposal and recycling of e-waste, building and improving official recycling facilities, promoting sustainable practises, increasing consumer awareness, and enacting stringent legislation are essential.


From Waste to Worth: 7 Strategies

Several strategies may be put into practice to handle the e-waste problem efficiently. The following are some crucial actions that can be made:

1. Establish and enforce rigorous standards for collecting, disposing, and recycling e-waste: Governments should implement and enforce strong e-waste management legislation. These rules should cover every stage of an electronic product's life cycle, from production to use to end-of-life planning.

2. Create official recycling infrastructure: Governments and businesses should spend money creating formal recycling facilities that can handle e-waste securely and effectively. These establishments must use eco-friendly procedures and have the equipment and knowledge to manage dangerous items.

3. Encourage recycling and responsible disposal: To encourage responsible recycling and disposal of e-waste, public awareness campaigns and educational programmes should be run. Instead of using unofficial routes, consumers should be urged to use authorised collection points and recycling facilities.

4. Support the informal sector's transition to safer, more sustainable practises: Since the informal sector contributes significantly to e-waste recycling, efforts should be made to help them do so. This may be accomplished by offering access to the right technology, implementing training programmes, and ensuring worker safety on the job.

5. Encourage manufacturers to develop products with recyclability in mind: Promoting product design for recyclability should be a priority for producers. This entails selecting materials that are simpler to recycle, reducing the usage of dangerous compounds, and implementing modular designs that make component recovery and disassembly easier.


6. Promote eco-friendly disposal techniques: To avoid inappropriate e-waste disposal, actions may be made to encourage eco-friendly techniques, including repairing, reusing, and donating electronic items that are still in good functioning order.

7. International cooperation: To successfully address the issue of e-waste, which is a global one, international cooperation is crucial. Governments, organisations, and stakeholders should cooperate on research and development to share best practices, exchange knowledge, and promote sustainable e-waste management.

India's e-waste problem is a developing concern with serious environmental and health repercussions. The most recent figures show a sharp growth in the production of electronic trash, underscoring the urgent need for appropriate management and disposal techniques.

The government, businesses, consumers, and the unorganised sector must collaborate to solve this problem and establish an ethical and sustainable e-waste management system. By putting these ideas into practice, it will be feasible to lessen the e-waste problem and guarantee that electronic trash is managed responsibly, creating a cleaner environment and lowering health hazards for people and ecosystems.

(Anjal Prakash is a Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director- at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at ISB. He contributes to IPCC reports. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Environment   E-Waste 

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