Graveyard of gadgets: Other side of e-boom

India is sitting on an environmental disaster by not recognising the damage being caused by discarded electronic hardware

Pratap Vikram Singh & Ankita Lahiri | September 4, 2015

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

For Sanjay Patel, 2011 was a pleasant year. An environmental consultant based in Surat, Patel forayed into a ‘lucrative’ business that year. The ministry of environment and forest for the first time had introduced the e-waste (management and handling) rules under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. “When the rules came, everybody thought it will be easier to get a lot of e-waste from the market,” said Patel, sitting in his office on the second floor of an old building in the textile city. Along with a friend, he started Earth E-waste Recycling Limited with a modest investment of just a crore of rupees. He bought land in Altodara village, 40 km from the city, and set up machinery and the plant. Patel applied for a licence for a 6,000 metric tonne per annum capacity plant. He got it the next year. He also recruited seven people (six workers and a supervisor) to run it.

Three years have passed since then, Patel has managed to get a meager eight tonne of electrical and electronic equipment waste. “I have earned only '3 lakh from selling whatever iron, copper, aluminium and plastic recovered from the waste,” Patel said. He said that most of the bulk consumers – the MNCs, PSUs, organisations using electrical and electronics on a large scale – choose kabadiwalas over the recyclers as the former pay more. Since kabadiwalas do not follow rules, or take any environmental safeguards, the cost of treatment is negligible compared to an authorised recycler, who incurs the cost of compliance.

He did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and said that the cost of treatment of one kg of e-waste comes around '120, given his monthly expense of '60,000, which goes in salaries and electricity and 8,000 kg of raw material. As the raw material will increase, the cost of treatment will go down, but that hasn’t happened so far. At present his plant runs only for a week in a month. In the past six months, Patel recalled, a government bank and a leading telco auctioned electronic scrap. It was grabbed by kabadiwalas as they were able to pay higher. “I wrote to both the organisations, informing them about the rules. But both denied having any obligation under the central rules,” he said, wondering how industry and consumers would comply if government bodies themselves were so averse.

The magnitude of the problem

Patel’s failure as a recycler is symptomatic of a larger problem of e-waste disposal across the country. Due to cultural and economic variance, the life cycle of an electrical or electronic product is longer in India compared to other countries in Asia, Europe, and America. Due to lack of education and awareness, consumers prefer selling it to a kabadiwalas than giving the e-waste to a collection centre. So what are the hazards related to e-waste if is not disposed properly or if it goes to the informal sector?

A typical method of extracting metal in the informal sector is to burn the toxic waste or use chemicals wherein the waste water is disposed without treatment. Owing to its metallic and chemical composition – which includes mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead, phosphors and ozone depleting substances – electronic waste can cause impaired mental development and damage lung, liver and kidney, according to a UN report. E-waste has emerged as a global challenge, especially in the developing countries lacking infrastructure for its formal treatment.

According to an Assocham report, e-waste accounts for approximately 40 percent of the lead and 70 percent of heavy metals found in landfills. These pollutants lead to air and ground water pollution and soil acidification. “High and prolonged exposure to these chemicals and pollutants emitted during unsafe e-waste recycling leads to damage of nervous systems, blood systems, kidneys and brain development, respiratory disorders, skin disorders, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart, liver, and spleen damage,” the report noted.

According to UN estimates, India is the fifth largest producer of e-waste, discarding 17 lakh tonnes of e-waste in 2014. The amount of e-waste was 8 lakh tonnes in 2012. The only survey conducted by the government on the amount of e-waste generated was done in 2005; India produced 1.5 lakh tonne e-waste then. The figures for 2012 and 2014, said a central pollution control board (CPCB) official, are an extrapolation. Out of this, roughly 10 percent of e-waste was suitably disposed of, said a report of the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests dated July 23.

According to Toxics Link, an NGO working on issues related to waste disposal, 97 percent (and not 90 percent) of e-waste is treated by the informal sector. About 76 percent of e-waste workers, the Assocham report said, in India suffer from respiratory ailments like breathing difficulties, irritation, coughing, choking, tremors problems due to improper safeguards.

Is regulation the solution?

Waking up to the e-waste challenge, the ministry of environment and forest (now the ministry of environment, forest and climate change) formed a joint working group consisting of industry and civil society organisations in 2009. The group, which included Manufacturers’ Association of IT (MAIT), Electronic Industries Association of India (ELCINA), Toxics Link and Greenpeace, among others, formed the first joint draft of the rules. The government appointed a committee in 2010 to draft the final rules. Subsequently, the rules were drafted and notified in 2011. It provided for one-year time for compliance. 

For the first time, the government introduced extended producer’s responsibility (EPR), wherein the producer of electrical and electronic equipment has responsibility of managing such equipment after the end of its life – once the consumer discards them. “As per the EPR under the rules, the producers are required to achieve 100 percent collection and channelisation of the end of life equipment,” said guidelines for implementation of e-waste rules 2011 formulated by CPCB.

The rules provided that all producers will have to seek EPR authorisation from state pollution control boards. In the application for authorisation, according to the guidelines, producers should clearly mention how they would ensure channelisation of e-waste at end of its life, details of its own collection centres or take back systems or the collection centres authorised by them, shall be specified.

The compliance of these rules was poor, said Ravi Agarwal, director, Toxics Link. He took the case of non-implementation of rules to the national green tribunal (NGT)  in 2014. The case is under consideration of the tribunal. The parliamentary standing committee chaired by Ashwani Kumar has highlighted inadequate enforcement of EPR and lack of infrastructure to deal with e-waste. “The committee feels that EPR has not been adequately enforced nor is the present legal and policy architecture adequate to enforce the same. Ministry of environment, forest and climate change should immediately set in motion steps to address the issue.”

The committee noted that there are only 123 producers who have obtained EPR authorisations. Some of these have been registered more than once (producers have to separately seek authorisation in states where they are headquartered and where they have the manufacturing facility). Effectively, said the CPCB official, the number of producers will be close to 100. There are only 111 authorised collection centres and 126 recyclers for over 120 crore population. There is a yawning gap between the e-waste generated and the capacity developed to deal with it, the committee noted. Even the existing recyclers are struggling for viability as most of the e-waste continues to go to the informal sector. They are working at fraction of their existing capacity, said Agarwal.

“The major responsibility has been with the industry (producers and importers) for setting up the infrastructure. Under EPR, the producers’ responsibility doesn’t end at the point of sale. They have to set up either collectively or individually a green channel for taking waste to the recycling plant,” Agarwal said. The producers don’t have to set up plants themselves. They can get existing recycling plants, help them upgrade and ensure raw material supply, he said. The recyclers like Patel of Earth E-waste Recycling can’t run a system unless they have a pact with the producers.

“It is the only segment which has positive recovery value from metals. It is a profitable business unlike municipal waste,” Agarwal said. Some of the biggest recyclers all over the world are running a profitable business. In Belgium companies have 99.9 percent metal extraction rates. They sell copper, silver and rare earth metals, Agarwal said. In a study titled ‘Time to Reboot’, Toxics Link examined the take back services provided by 50 producers in 2014. The study found that most of the brands in India had failed to set up any take back system on the ground and have shied away from providing any information related to e-waste to their customers.

The report features global MNCs which have been following regulations in other countries for over a decade but take Indian regulations for granted. The brands included Apple, BlackBerry, Canon, Dell and Electrolux. In the meantime, the ministry has revised the initial rules, clearly delineating the responsibilities of the major stakeholders: producers, collection centres, bulk users, dismantlers and recyclers. The new draft rules, to be notified in the coming months, transfer the responsibility of EPR authorisation from the state PCB to the central pollution control board. It also entrusts CPCB to “take action against violation of these rules”. The new rules also provide implementation of deposit refund scheme, wherein an advance recycling fee will be added in the cost of device or appliance and will be given back to the consumer once product at the end of life is given back to the authorised collection centre. However, experts believe that the rules have too many gaps to be effective.

Rules don’t rule all the time

The rules of 2011 and 2015 are completely silent on engaging the informal sector which handles most of e-waste. Agarwal said that traditionally the environmental regulatory regime doesn’t consider the informal sector as an important stakeholder and has focused only on compliance by the formal sector. He cited the example of non-compliance of the batteries (management and handling) rules, 2001, as most of the batteries are taken by kabadiwalas.

Swati Singh Sambyal, senior research associate, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said that to a large extent the informal sector in India is also involved in the extraction of precious metals. They use highly polluting processes without being aware of risks, she said. Rules ignore illegal import of e-waste in India. “A huge quantity of e-waste come to India in the name of charity and finds its way to the informal sector. For instance, in 2005, out of nearly five million personal computers in India, 1.38 million were either model 486s (about eight years old by 2005) or even older,” she said.

Reuse or recycling may prolong the life span of a product but sooner or later, it would find its way into the waste mainstream, Sambyal said. The rules elaborate the responsibilities of each stakeholder and entrusts the state pollution control board with the monitoring of EPR.

“Most of the state boards are under human resource crunch. E-waste comes as an additional responsibility to officials working with the state boards. CPCB itself has just one scientist dedicated to e-waste division,” the CPCB official said. With limited human, financial and technical capacity, Sambyal said, it will remain a challenge to monitor so many players and enforce the provisions of the rules. The penal provisions of the rules – which provide for imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to '1 lakh in accordance with Sections 15 and 16 of the 1986 Act – hasn’t deterred stakeholders against non-compliance.

What about the informal sector?

Experts believe that the first and foremost step should be to recognise the informal sector and integrate it with sound environmental management of waste. There has to be a cooperative system instead of competing system between the recyclers and the informal sector, noted Agarwal. Since they don’t have a fixed cost of treating or dismantling e-waste, they will always win. “We will have to raise the capacity in the informal sector,” said Agarwal.

The informal sector engaged in e-waste dismantling and metal recovery can be formalised with the intervention of an external agency such as an NGO or a government authority. “The external agency can build capacities on getting formalised, obtaining registration and authorisation and using environmentally sound ways of dismantling. Dismantling and segregation are relatively safe processes and can be continued at household levels,” said Sambyal.

The state government can play a major role in building linkages between them and formal recyclers, she said. Their participation can’t be just limited to dismantling. A lot of handholding will be required by the NGOs or the government in every step of waste channelisation. The cost for the formalisation, Sambyal said, can be borne by CSR funds of the producers. “Or set up cooperatives and give them the status of micro or small enterprises to carry out metal extraction or channelise them as formal e-waste recyclers,” she said.

The government must strengthen CPCB and SPCBs in terms of human resource and technical know-how. Setting up green channel or the disposal infrastructure will require land and investment. It is important to have coordination between the pollution board, urban local bodies and other stakeholders, Agarwal said. The penal provisions have to be more graded and nuanced. Environmental laws have either extreme or no punishment. A straightjacket approach will not work, said Agarwal. The change in penalisation and punishment requires an amendment in the Act, said Agarwal.

The producers must leave their double standards approach and ensure a viable recycling ecosystem in the country, which they have already been doing in Europe and America for over a decade. The industry should also come forward to implement the deposit refund scheme, which would incentivise and give a sense of ownership to the consumers towards formal recycling.  Both Agarwal and Sambyal stress that there was a need for the producers to invest in mass awareness programmes and encourage people to rightly dispose their devices and appliances.

Back in Surat, Sanjay Patel has no plans to shut down the Earth E-waste Recycling plant even after bearing losses for three consecutive years. He is hopeful that once laws are enforced it will be easier to channelise e-waste. An optimistic Patel is also mooting a plan to invest in high-end machinery for precious metal extraction.

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



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