[Sansad TV] Perspective: Electronic Waste Management

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  • According to Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world generated a striking 53.6 Mt of e-waste in 2019 which is an average of 7.3 kg per capita.
  • The growing amount of e-waste is mainly fueled by higher consumption rates of Electronic equipments, short life cycles, and few repair options.
  • Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78.
  • In India E-Waste (Management) Rules were notified in March 2016 for providing environmentally sound systems for disposal of e-waste.

E-Waste Generation in India

  • Electronic waste (e-waste) i.e., waste arising from end-of-life electronic products, such as computers and mobile phones, is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world today.

Toxins present in E-Waste

  • They contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), CFCs and HCFCs.
  • The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and to human health.
  • Improper management of e-waste also contributes to global warming.

Why is it generated at such a large scale?

  • Ubiquitous consumption: With the enhancement in the standard of living, modern societies have become resource-intensive in their consumption.
  • Invention: This has increased the demand for electronic items while considerably bringing down the life cycle of electronic products.
  • Upgradation: Coupled with planned obsolescence by the producers, inadequate repair options or awareness about deposit refund policies consumers tend to dispose of electronic goods along with other household waste, thus products entering the informal market.

What is E-waste Management?

  • E-waste management is a complicated process given the multitude of actors that are involved in the process.
  • The major stakeholders in the value chain include importers, producers/manufacturers, retailers (businesses/government/others), consumers (individual households, businesses, government and others), traders, scrap dealers, dissemblers/dismantlers and recyclers.
  • To critically assess each in the different stages of processing, it is important to understand the e-waste value chain.
  • The process involves four stages: generation, collection, segregation and treatment/disposal.

[1] Generation (discussed earlier)

[2] Collection

  • E-waste is collected by designated organizations, producers, Government retailer take-back, and producer take-back. This e-waste is then taken to a specialised treatment facility.
  • The disposer resorts to openly dumping the product in a waste bin along with other household wastes. E-waste ends up being incinerated or landfilled as other domestic waste.

 [3] Segregation and Disposal

  • The e-waste collected may be sold to an informal dealer who may repair, refurbish, or sell again to a backyard recycler.
  • This recycler dismantles the product through burning, leaching, and melting, thus converting it into secondary raw materials.

India’s regulatory ecosystem

  • Indian electronics sector boomed in the last decade.
  • Increased production and penetration of imported electronics items led to an accelerated e-waste generation that necessitated regulatory control over the sector.
  • India has Electronic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 in place since . Its scope was expanded in 2016 and 2018 through amendments.

Provisions of the 2011 Rules

  • To streamline e-waste management, the Government introduced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) whereby producers were required to collect and recycle electronic items.
  • Since manufacturers were incurring the disposal cost, their designs would incorporate less toxic and easily recyclable materials, thereby reducing input material requirement.

Inherent flaws in Implementation

  • Recycling: Less than five percent of the waste is treated through formal recycling facilities.
  • Informal sector: The rest is handled by the informal sector with very little enforcement of environmental and occupational safety norms.
  • Weak Regulations: A deeper analysis revealed that the EPR regulations in India were not quantified through collection or recycling targets as in other countries with better implementation framework and mechanisms.
  • Lack of incentivization: In the absence of targets, producers had little incentive to ensure the collection of their used products.

Current scenario and issues in e-waste recycling

  • Crude and Scrappage: As of today, some 95% of e-waste is managed by the informal sector which operates under inferior working conditions and relies on crude techniques for dismantling and recycling.
  • Infrastructure lacunae: Another important issue is the lack of sufficient metal processing infrastructure which is why recyclers have to export materials to global smelters.
  • Price competencies: As aggregators are mostly informal, they demand up-front cash payments.
  • Bloomed informal network: The informal network is well-established and rests on social capital ties that PROs have yet to establish and are hence insulated from reaching the viable number of aggregators.
  • Policy failure: Policy changes have tried repeatedly to formalize the sector, but issues of implementation persist on the ground.

Way forward

  • Effective design: Since India is highly deficient in precious mineral resources, there is a need for a well-designed, robust and regulated e-waste recovery regime that would generate jobs and wealth.
  • Consumer responsibility: The consumers must responsibly consume the product for its useful life and then weigh between the chances of repair or disposal with utmost consciousness towards the environment.
  • Recyclable products: On the supply side, e-waste can be reduced when producers design electronic products that are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable.
  • Reuse: Manufacturers must reuse the recyclable materials and not mine rare elements unnecessarily to meet new production.
  • Commercial recycling: Rather than hoping that informal recyclers become formal it would be more feasible for companies and the state to design programs ensure e-waste easily makes its way to proper recyclers.
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