Image source: Virogreen

We have truly entered the digital age. Technology has permeated into every aspect of human life. Cars, smartphones and now, virtual assistants- our existence is defined by technological intervention. Their ubiquity, though, is marked by a  short shelf life owing to rapidly advancing technology bringing in a new wave of upgraded products, leaving the earlier ones, outdated, and hence redundant. This is especially true in the case of smartphones. This implies that the kind of waste that humans generate has also undergone a significant change. Not only has its quantity exponentially increased over the years, but it has also become highly non-biodegradable and hazardous, due to the presence of toxic metals like mercury, lead, and chromium. It is thus, essential to ensure proper recycling/disposal of this Electronic waste ( E-Waste).

India is among the 5th largest producer of E-Waste in the world, generating 2 million tonnes of E-Waste annually. Of this, only 5% is recycled, with 90% of the recycling  occuring in the informal sector. Further, studies show that the soil in areas of informal recycling activities is contaminated with heavy metals due to the open dumping of non-recycled hazardous components along riversides or on the ground, without proper treatment. Why has such a scenario emerged?

Employing over a million people, the informal recycling industry has a wider market reach and understands the lay of the land, enabling them to perform better on various parameters like producer-supplier relations, market dynamics, and access to vital business information which may not be available to a nascent firm. The informal sector enjoys operational efficiency since it bypasses various government licenses and safety regulations, while a formal recycling unit would have to obtain consent licenses from State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), an E-Waste license, a  proof of installed capacity among many others – the costs of obtaining which runs into lakhs. Additionally, they have to undergo auditing and inspections and abide by labour regulations, all of which further inflate the operation costs. As a result, the informal recyclers end up offering at least twice for the same digital scrap as their formal counterparts.

A survey carried out  by Centre for Civil Society found that six recycling firms in Faridabad, Rohtak, Manesar and Hapur were operating at 39.9% of their total capacity to recycle e-waste. Access to India’s huge secondary markets for refurbished goods is another avenue through which informal recycling establishments make profits, since resale is always more profitable than recycling a metal. Authorised Recyclers on the other hand, have to obtain permission from the producer companies to sell refurbished goods, which is more than often denied due to a fear of creating a parallel market.

In 2010, an informal recycler died after exposure to Cobalt 60 while attempting to dismantle radioactive pipes in Delhi. This invited significant media backlash, taking cognizance of which India introduced E-Waste Management (EWM) Rules in 2011.The major purpose behind enacting the EWM Rules was to divert the supply of E-Waste from the informal to the formal sector which could be regulated and organised in order to ensure minimum safety measures. The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was introduced in the same, which made the manufacturer/seller responsible for ensuring the E-Waste generated by their products reach the authorised seller. Clearly the intended objective has not been achieved as the producers only implemented a few inexpensive aspects of EPR.

To plug the deficiencies, EWM Rules, 2016 (and subsequently EWM Amendment Rules 2018), were enforced, which provided a mechanism for holding the producers accountable for fulfilling their obligations under EPR by introducing mandatory collection targets, and financial penalties in case of non compliance. Introduction of initiatives such as Deposit Refund Scheme (DRS), which incentivises consumers to return used products to producers for a refund; Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs), which aid producers in setting up and running collection centres and spreading awareness about e-waste to consumers; and easing the authorisation for establishing Collection Centres (CCs) aim to incentivise producers to manage e-waste better.

It is to be seen whether these measures can change the existing E-Waste management scenario. A stringent enforcement of the rules and regulations, along with  massive awareness campaigns are the need of the hour. The government, the civil society and the people in general will need to become more conscious and responsible in order to contain the irreversible damage that E-waste is causing to our environment.