E-waste management is a complicated process given the multitude of actors that are involved in the process. Even though the e-waste management policies are in place since 2011 in India, implementation has been sluggish. 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.
Problem of the millennium
- The world dumped a record 53.6 million tons (Mt) of e-waste in 2019, recycling only 17.4% of it.
- India has an e-waste management policy in place since 2011, with its scope expanded in 2016 and 2018. Yet, the pace of its implementation has not been satisfactory.
- An attempt is made here to outline key policy measures to improve recycling capacity in India through market-based mechanisms for policy enforcement.
What is E-waste?
- 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.
Why is it generated at such a large scale?
- With the enhancement in the standard of living, modern societies have become resource-intensive in their consumption.
- This has increased the demand for electronic items while considerably bringing down the life cycle of electronic products.
- 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.
- Again the life span of devices is getting shorter with the rapid pace of technological advancements, improved specifications and better performance.
- This has led to product replacements much before these run out of their usable periods.
What is E-waste Management?
- E-waste is generated when the first user of the product concludes on its useful life with no intention of reuse and disposes of it by donating or selling.
- This e-waste can be managed either formally through collection or disposal in waste bins or informally through developed e-waste management infrastructure or even without it.
E-waste value chain
- 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.
 Generation (discussed earlier)
- 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.
- Some countries may have an established network of individual waste dealers or companies who collect and trade the e-waste through various channels wherein possible metal recycling may occur at the destination.
 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.
- The pace of its implementation has not been satisfactory.
- Less than five percent of the waste is treated through formal recycling facilities.
- The rest is handled by the informal sector with very little enforcement of environmental and occupational safety norms.
- 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.
- In the absence of targets, producers had little incentive to ensure the collection of their used products.
[I] Deposit-refund system (DRS): This resulted in the e-waste rules being amended in 2016 to include collection targets and implementing a deposit-refund system (DRS) by the producers. In a DRS, an upfront deposit is charged to the consumer at the time of purchase of the product, and the deposit is refunded when the product is safely returned to the producer.
[II] Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs): The 2018 amendment made provision for the registration of PROs. PROs in India offer comprehensive compliance services, from negotiating the most cost-effective regional collection and recycling contracts with different recyclers to helping producers meet outreach and awareness-raising requirement.
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.
- The demand and supply side gap analysis against the backdrop of the regulatory landscape reveals two major stakeholders in the process – (1) Business Advocates and (2) Public and Media Gatekeepers.
- The Government remains a great catalyst in the entire process. Its role can be discounted to that of a facilitator and a regulator in a self-propelled market.
- It is important that consumers responsibly consume the product for its useful life and then weigh between the chances of repair or disposal with utmost consciousness towards the environment.
- On the supply side, e-waste can be reduced when producers design electronic products that are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable. Manufacturers must reuse the recyclable materials and not mine rare elements unnecessarily to meet new production.
Recommendations (by author)
- The electronics sector will have to adapt operations to reduce virgin material usage and build technologies around greater extraction and recycling capabilities.
- Process designs should be revolutionized to find alternatives to existing practices to not unsustainably extract rare earth resources.
- Optimising the e-waste recycling chain requires strict monitoring, enforcement and tracking, the realization of economies of scale and global cooperation.
- Failing to address any of these elements will result in suboptimal resource efficiency while posing a risk to the environment.
- Enforcement of EPR targets and comprehensive monitoring of formal recycling flows and processes is a critical first step to avoid leakage of valuable materials to an uncontrolled informal sector.
- In India, public awareness of e-waste hazards and recycling is low. People should be made aware of the trade-offs between sustainability and consumerism through both industry campaigns and media networks.
India can grab the opportunity
- 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.
- If these materials are domestically isolated, it can lead to greater metals security and resource efficiency in the country.
- 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.
- On the supply side, e-waste can be reduced when producers design electronic products that are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable.
- Manufacturers must reuse the recyclable materials and not mine rare elements unnecessarily to meet new production.
- 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.
- The size and complexity of the e-waste problem are growing at a much quicker rate than the efficacy of strategies to contain it.
- The policy advocates for greater awareness campaigns on the part of producers.
- Concerted efforts are important to generate a momentum of sustained efforts towards increasing disposal through formal channels and catalyzing sustainable consumption patterns.