By Ritika Passi:
There is, as usual, bad news. The good news is that there is good news despite the bad news.
Waste along roadsides, in rivers and canals, and overflowing garbage dumps are common enough sights in India. Solid waste and decomposing trash vie for visibility. Water pollution, hygiene hazards and unwanted methane are evil consequences. In a country of liberal waste-disposal practices and sporadic garbage collection, a new scourge is running rampant — electronic waste, i.e., e-waste, bringing with it its own merry band of toxins.
Of the 40-50 million tonnes of e-waste produced globally every year, a figure increasing between 3-8% annually, India contributes about 0.8 million tonnes. Granted, we’re far behind China (2.5 million tonnes), the US (over 3 million tonnes), and the EU (7-8 million tonnes), but with 80% of all e-waste being shipped to Asian developing nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and, you guessed it, India, there is definite cause to worry. Some 50,000-odd tonnes of e-waste makes its way into India after having skirted national bans and exploited loopholes. This may not seem like much in face of the fact that it is China which is the world’s electronic graveyard (absorbing 70% of global e-waste). But as newer models of mobile phones and computers whet India’s growing consumerist appetite (Over 900 million mobile phone subscribers. India now the 3rd largest internet user country!), every tonne counts: By 2020, India will have seen a 500% increase in e-waste generated by computers alone.
The manner in which e-waste in India is disposed is the key problem. It is either dumped into landfills like at Deonar, where it goes on to release toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium, or scrap dealers (kabidawallas) go door-to-door and buy most of the high-tech trash, paying consumers by the kilogram. The collected items end up in scrap markets like the one at Seelampur in East Delhi, the biggest scrap market in the country. Metals like copper, silver and gold are extracted using unsafe, illegal methods such as open acid baths. Hazardous toxins come into contact with unprotected workers, increasing chances of mercury poisoning, asthma and skin diseases, and seep into the soil and groundwater.
Fortunately, the government has seen the light (or at least the initial glimmer). E-waste management rules were published by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2011 and brought into effect in 2012. The onus has shifted onto producers and bulk consumers, who now need to look for authentic, licensed recyclers. This has had a positive effect for start-ups collecting, segregating and recycling digital detritus, in some cases to the tune of more than a five-fold increase in revenue. From handling a mere 3% of India’s e-waste four years ago to over 7.5% today, there is scope for increasing investments in the organized sector — particularly in the face of the entrepreneurial-minded younger generation, which sees the benefit of partaking in the potentially highly lucrative field of extracting precious metals like platinum from electronic waste. For example, there is potentially five times more gold to be found in e-waste than in any mine worldwide. It could very well be opportunities of this kind that drive technological advancement in this field and set the stage for healthy competition. The added benefit would be a lower environmental cost (compared to, say, surface-mining).
Take Nitin Gupta’s Noida-based Attero Recycling, an early bird in the nascent Indian e-junk management industry that is now aiming for billion-dollar status in the next five years. It is not only involved in the Clean E-India initiative with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank to raise awareness and work with the informal sector, but is also gearing up to open its first plant abroad in Mexico by early 2014, followed by subsequent units around the world. Though it is the only company in India currently capable of recovering valuable metals to resell in the commodities market, there are other startups worth mentioning: Karan Thakkar’s Mumbai-based EcoCentric, a self-funded project that runs a 1,200-tonne plant to dismantle used electronics; Shankar Sharma’s Gurgaon-based Green Vortex (also set up with personal funds), working towards getting enough e-waste to fully utilize the company’s 1,500-tonne recycling capacity.
A growing presence of e-facilities being set up, the government will hopefully further the cause of safe and organized electronic waste management. This isn’t to say the matter has found a happy end; there is still the concern of integrating the 80,000 people part of the informal sector that deals with 93% of India’s e-waste. Active regulation from the government’s ends to ensure compliance with rules as well as to gauge progress would also not be amiss. And of course, in a country of 1.3 billion strong, there is always scope for raising awareness and inculcating eco-friendly habits, this time regarding use and recycling of electronics. Some commentators remark the situation is likely to worsen before it can ameliorate; with Mumbai being called a ticking e-waste bomb, this could very well be the case. Indeed, there’s a long way to go from having a 7.5% of the market to capturing even a 50% share.
Whether it is the intrinsic value of the gadget or the call of nature motivating awareness and action, it is imperative such good news keeps on coming; no guts and all glory, at least in the e-waste arena, could go a long way in boosting the Indian morale.