Dealing with the Danger in our hand – Electronic/Hazardous Waste

We can be so much in love with our electronics gadgets, laptops and smartphones that we are very ignorant of its other effects on us and while in love with using these we fall for our new smartphones and gadgets and dispose of the previous one, sometimes only to have the feeling of technical supremacy – no matter how much we loved it, it is discarded very mercilessly, unprofessionally and irresponsibly

The problem is, we’re used to irresponsibly discarding electronic/electrical items when they’re no longer useful to us, be it a smartphone, computer, laptop, printer, fridge or toaster. This adds to the growing stream of e-waste in the world, which reached about 50 million MT in 2018, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum. That’s equivalent to the mass of more than 4,500 Eiffel Towers.

India alone produces a staggering two million MT of e-waste every year (The Global E-waste Monitor 2017), thanks to its booming electronics industry, lack of proper recycling and poor abiding of laws.

How much of this e-waste is recycled?

The global e-waste problem is more severe than it seems. Only 20% of e-waste was formally recycled in 2018. And the rest was discarded in landfills or treated in a crude way, exposing e-waste workers to toxic and carcinogenic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury, and health hazards like:

  • Lung cancer
  • Reproductive issues
  • Kidney damage
  • Developmental problems
  • Skin ailments
  • DNA damage
  • Asthmatic bronchitis
  • Cadmium accumulations on liver and kidney

In India, 95% of e-waste is recycled by the informal sector, comprising of over 1 million poor people. These workers have little to no awareness of the health risks posed by e-waste, and they work without any preventive measures like gloves or masks.

E-waste management laws in India

Despite the fact that India has state-of-the-art technology required for safe and environment- friendly recycling of e-waste, a very small percentage of e-waste is scientifically recycled in the country. It’s common to sell old electronics to a scrap dealer (kabadiwala) or keep them at home in a drawer/storeroom for ... well, forever. Discarded waste often ends up with unauthorized dismantlers and recyclers where it is manually treated in a rudimentary way – one that adds to groundwater contamination and air pollution.

The e-waste management laws have been around since 2011, placing responsibility on producers of electric and electronic equipment to facilitate e-waste collection and channel it to authorised re- processing units. E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016 mandated manufacturers to set annual collection targets linked to their production numbers and the average life of their equipment. Unfortunately, its enforcement as well as implementation remains terribly poor.

Incentive to recycling and urban mining

E-waste is a lot of things, but scrap isn’t one of them. In fact, the potential value of e-waste raw materials is estimated to be $62.5 billion. The majority of e-waste comprises of iron, copper, aluminum and plastic, and in smaller amounts, it has precious metals like gold, silver, cobalt, palladium, iridium, and rare earth metals. There’s 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than a tonne of gold ore. This research paper claims that it can be far more efficient to extract gold from e-waste (urban mining) than gold mines.

Collective responsibility – WHAT CAN WE DO?

One way for individuals to contribute to the environment is getting rid of the habit of hoarding e- waste at home, which prevents recycling of limited resources and may cause supply chain problems going forward. Buyback is a feasible option to do away with old gadgets. Companies like Samsung and Chroma have e-waste pick-up on call service, making it easier for customers to discard e-waste responsibly. The government, public and private sectors, which are the primary source of e-waste (ASSOCHAM- KPMG study), must rise to the challenge and partner with authorized e-waste management organizations to make the world a better place.