Worldwide, e-waste holds its intrinsic material value at about 55 billion EUR
As the world moves towards quicker innovation and more promising technologies every day, the charm of the latest technology leads users to discarding their old electronics within a short span of time. Such obsolete or discarded electrical and electronic products are termed electronic waste or e-waste.
India generates about 3.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste (2019) annually and is the third-largest generator of e-waste across the globe.
Improper management of e-waste not only leads to a cascading negative impact on the environment, life, and public health but also a loss of substantial profits to the economy.
The majority of the e-waste in India ends up with the informal sector owing to their established network and wide presence across the country. Not only do they find value in the metals, both rare and precious that are key derivates from e-waste, but also find extensive value in re-using the electronic products beyond their actual end-of-life. Informal collection networks form a vital part of the e-waste management system, giving India one of the most effective e-waste collection mechanisms in the world. Through its network of aggregators, dismantlers, recyclers – they have been able to develop an extensive ecosystem.
The widely prevalent notion among the consumers of electronic goods is the preference for exchanging it for money within their social network. The ease of availability of a secondary buyer for a product leads to an extended life for the product. In India, informal modes of exchange tend to overshadow the formal channels due to the social fabric that relationships between members of a society are not just transactional but work on a more personal level. This network supports the informal sector in aggregating the waste in large volume making trade vibrant and profitable for them. While this is recognised as an advantage to the sector, it poses a serious challenge to the formal sector and its ability to compete, making the implementation of e-waste regulations extremely challenging.
According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, there are multiple sources of health and environmental impact caused by informal e-waste recycling. Generally, informal sector workers adopt techniques like open burning and acid leaching for resource recovery in an uncontrolled environment. Environmental contamination due to the leaching of substances from landfills or stored electronics, dioxins and furans from dismantling electronics particularly harm the communities involved in home-based workshops either directly or indirectly through the food chain. Children live, work and play in the informal e-waste recycling sites. They are easily exposed to toxic fumes from metals like lead and cadmium, and other corrosive chemicals causing adverse health outcomes. All this is added to the occupational exposure that occurs due to the inhalation of fumes from burning wires and cooking circuit boards by the informal sector. E-waste workers have commonly reported stress, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and dizziness.
Worldwide e-waste holds its intrinsic material value at about 55 billion EUR and India being the world’s third-largest generator holds the potential to unlock this additional cash flow and gain from this profitable opportunity.
According to the CPCB, currently, India has 400 registered recyclers & dismantlers with a total combined recycling capacity of 10,68,542.72 tonnes which is around 33 per cent of the total e-waste generation. However formal sector companies struggle to function profitably at their installed operating capacities. The major reason is the lack of a cooperation framework between producers, recyclers and informal sector workers, as the formal material flows do not consider them a part of the value chain. The informal sector is currently doing well with where they are at and would need the motivation to integrate with the formal sector.
The key asks of the informal sector have been identified as access to land for continuing their operations which would not cause any damage to nature; access to infrastructure for engaging in dismantling in ways and means which will comply with the law and access to finance for formalising their operations. The government could provide financial incentives to the informal sector to formalise their operations, and subsidies and easier facilitation of loans for capital investment. With such benefits, the informal and formal sectors must co-exist in the ecosystem. The government needs to identify solutions to curb the informal practices without affecting the livelihoods of those involved. These key tasks can be fulfilled by integrating the informal sector through trainings and capacity building workshops. Handholding the informal sector through a formal process will allow building confidence which will help them move towards formalisation. Provision of technology to actors who are willing to formalise will allow benefits in the socio-economic and environmental space. This would also keep a check on the monitoring and compliance requirements and greater access to resources in the formal market.
The sooner India establishes an effective mechanism & value chain for e-waste management, the better it will be prepared to tackle the growth of e-waste and manage it in a safe and environmentally sound manner. This would surely minimise the risk of negative impacts on the environment as well as on human health.