Poisoned bodies, poisoned future

With companies flouting rules for safe e-waste disposal, can the good old kabadiwala provide a solution?

Nidhi Jamwal | September 9, 2015

#ewaste   #e waste recyling   #environment news   #ewaste environment disaster  

Think hazardous toxic waste and what immediately comes to mind is either industrial chemical waste, or the bodily fluid-laced hospital waste. Little do we understand that the computer on which this article has been typed, or the mobile phone which you use daily to update the Facebook status is a cocktail of toxic materials, which when discarded and dumped not only pollutes the environment, but also causes cancer and damages the brain and nervous system.

E-waste, technically known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), consists of discarded microwaves, toasters, television sets, mobile phones, air-conditioners, computers, printers, etc., and is one of fastest growing waste streams in both the developed and developing countries. The United Nations University (UNU) has calculated that the world generated about 42 million tonnes of e-waste last year. Keeping in mind the growing purchasing power and the fast pace of changing technology, it is estimated that the volume of global e-waste generation will touch 50 million tonnes by 2018.

India is a growing economy and its e-waste generation is also on the rise. With e-waste generation reaching 1.7 million tonnes in 2014, India has become the fifth largest e-waste generator. As per a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Engineering Research and General Science, by 2020 the e-waste generation from obsolete desktop PCs, laptops, mobile phones and television sets alone will cross 3.6 million tonnes in India. And, this e-waste will contain huge quantities of hazardous materials, such as 1,09,024 tonnes of plastics, 20,133.5 tonnes of lead, 14,569.5 tonnes of copper, 491 tonnes of zinc, 146 tonnes of cadmium, and 140.5 tonnes of mercury. Why should we worry? Take just a pinch of mercury and throw it in a water body. It is sufficient to contaminate 5 million gallons of water forever, explains Dr TK Joshi, director of Occupational and Environmental Programme, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, New Delhi.

The inside story

E-waste is a cocktail of all the toxic metals and chemical elements listed under the periodic table. For instance, cadmium, present in printer inks and toners, can cause lung cancer, kidney damage, pulmonary emphysema and bone disease. Chromium VI in data tapes and floppy disks may cause DNA damage. Lead, present in the cathode ray tube (CRT) screens and batteries, is particularly dangerous for young children because it can damage nervous connections and cause blood and brain disorders. Burning of plastics, present in computers and peripherals, releases dioxins, which are persistent pollutants.

The worst affected from e-waste are the urban poor and the young children who are involved in e-waste recycling and dismantling activities. However, the health concerns of e-waste are not limited to occupational exposure alone. Toxins in e-waste leach into the air, soil and water, and travel long distance to enter human bodies through food chain or the air we breathe.

Take the 2011 study conducted in Taizhou area of Zhejiang province in China, where 60,000 people dismantled more than two million tonnes of e-waste every year to recycle metals (Note that nearly one-third of the world’s total e-waste is contributed by the US and China alone). Researchers took air samples from Taizhou and examined their effects on human lung epithelial cells. The results showed that the samples of pollutants caused significant increase in both Interleukin-8 (IL-8) and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels, which may lead to DNA damage and induce oncogenesis, or even cancer.

E-waste concerns in India

A 2009 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report has projected that by 2020, e-waste from computers would increase by 500 percent and that e-waste from discarded mobile phones would increase 18 times from 2007 levels in India. Coupled with this is the fact that almost 50,000 tonnes of e-waste is annually imported (read dumped) in India, making it one of the biggest dumping yards of e-waste.

While most countries are grappling with the problems of e-waste toxicity and its management; the situation is more complex in India. On the one hand, almost 90 percent e-waste in the country is recycled by the informal sector that follows no environment regulations; on the other hand, the producers/manufacturers brazenly flout the rules and have failed to take responsibility for their products, which they otherwise do in the developed countries.

Irresponsible producers

Till 2011, there were no rules in India to govern the e-waste sector. The e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, came into effect only from May 1, 2012. These rules introduced the much-needed concept of 'extended producer responsibility' (EPR), which is defined as “responsibility of any producer of electrical or electronic equipment, for their products beyond manufacturing until environmentally sound management of their end-of-life products”. Simply put, the producer is responsible for collection of e-waste in line with the principle of EPR and to ensure that such e-waste is channelised to a registered dismantler or recycler.

The producer of electric equipments should also ensure that new equipment do not contain lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and meet the maximum concentration value of these elements as specified in the 2011 rules. This reduction of hazardous substances in products had to be achieved within two years of the implementation of the rules, i.e. by May 1, 2014. The environment ministry has recently released an updated draft of e-waste rules, 2015.

Predictably and shamelessly, producers and brands have been brazenly flouting the 2011 rules. In the absence of mandatory targets for collection and recycling of e-waste, most brands/producers have shied away from taking any responsibility for the e-waste and have limited themselves to only drop-boxes. Sector experts are extremely critical of these drop-boxes for e-waste, which they claim are nothing but culturally inappropriate global standards being copy-pasted in India.

Last year, Toxics Link released a study that reported how even two years after the e-waste rules, 16 brands, including some leading mobile phone companies, have not set up any take-back system in India. Toxics Link has filed a petition at the national green tribunal against non-implementation of the 2011 rules, asking for producers to be made responsible for their products. (See infograph on page 34: 'How companies fare?' )

Can there be a win-win solution?

No doubt the e-waste recycling by the informal sector is polluting. However, wishing away the ubiquitous waste-pickers and kabadiwalas is not the solution, as the informal sector has its own strengths. Waste-pickers and kabadiwalas have an efficient system of door-to-door waste collection, which no brand or producer can match. Can this efficient informal sector be integrated with the formal sector without compromising on health and the environment?

Bharati Chaturvedi, director of New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, which works with waste-pickers, is affirmative and is already working in that direction. Chintan has tied up with Nokia and has signed an e-waste recycling contract with two certified companies – Attero Recycling and TES-AMM Recyclers India Pvt Ltd. Under this ‘integrated’ system, both Chintan and the e-waste recycling firm jointly decide on a rate list for different types of e-waste. Chintan then ties up with local waste-pickers (referred to as aggregators) and kabadiwalas, and trains them to sell their e-waste to the NGO. The collected e-waste is then deposited with the certified e-waste recycler against a payment.

This ‘integration’ is what a June 2011 Rajya Sabha secretariat report had also recommended. The report said that the informal or unorganised sector should be upgraded to provide a support system for the integrated recycling and treatment and disposal facilities. This would help to bring the unorganised sector in the mainstream of activities while ensuring environmental compliances, the report said.
It is time the central government and the CPCB took note of this ‘integration’ and prepare a roadmap to marry the informal to the formal sector. This may also be our unique solution to the growing problem of e-waste pollution.

Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist reporting on environment matters.

(The article appears in the September 1-15, 2015 issue)



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