Saturday, January 31, 2009


Electronic junkyard: E-waste
1 Feb 2009, 0239 hrs IST, Harsimran Singh, ET Bureau
A day in the life of an e-waster

14-year old Ram Kumar wakes up at 4 a.m. in the morning. He starts his search for broken mobile phones, keyboards and CPU cabinets. By 9 a.m., his brown gunny bag is brimming with electronic junk from the stream of sewage and garbage dumps lining a nallah in Patparganj, East Delhi.

Broken mobile phones, cathode ray tubes, radiators, mangled printed circuit boards and smashed refrigerator parts - the e-waste bulges out of the gunny bag. He offloads his electronic knick-knack daily at the nearest assemblers for Rs 100 a bag. On a lucky day, a PC motherboard fetches him Rs 30. As the sun settles, on the banks of the nallah, the assemblers ship all the e-junk to Seelampur, where the e-waste recyclers reside near the slums. Scores of concrete bath tubs, filled with lead acid, line up in the area. The recyclers dump all e-waste into the acid bath overnight.

As dawn breaks, on the banks of the Yamuna, metal scrap from the circuit boards, melts away and settle at the bottom of the acid bath. As the acid loses its corrosiveness after 4 to 5 uses, the bath tubs are drained into the Yamuna. From the river, poisonous metals and chemicals find their way into the ground water, from where it reaches your drinking water supply.

About 3.3 lakh tones of e-waste was generated in 2007, which was dumped into the rivers, nallahs, landfills and sewage drains of the country. An additional 50,000 metric tonnes was illegally imported into the country. While the chemicals seep into the ground water, the e-waste (like junk refrigerator bodies, compressors from air conditioners and waste plastic used to make phones) just keep on piling up. Around residential areas, just off city limits, these dumps are growing.

Out of the 3.3 lakh MT, only 19,000 MT of the annual e-waste is recycled, every year. This is due to high refurbishing and reuse of electronics products in the country and also due to poor recycling infrastructure.

“E-waste is going to be one the major problems facing the world after climate change and poverty,” says Nokia India MD D Shivakumar. “At Nokia, we have realised this and have started a programme under which anybody can move into a Nokia priority care store and put any mobile phone in a box. We then collect all this e-waste and get it recycled via authorised recyclers,” he adds.

Globally, Nokia has collection points for recycling used mobile phones and accessories across 5000 Nokia care centres in 85 countries and engages in collection campaigns with retailers, operators, other manufacturers and local authorities around the world. Nokia’s proactive approach has made it the top electronics major in Greenpeace India’s

Annual Guide to Greener Electronics 2008. In India, Nokia has installed take-back bins in more than 600 care centres across India, with a free gift for people depositing their old mobile phones.

According to a MAIT report, e-waste from discarded computers, television sets and mobile phones is projected to grow to more than 800,000 MT by 2012 with a growth rate of 15% in the country.


Despite the growing concern over the issue, India does not have a legislation to mandate authorised recycling of e-waste. “If the situation is not controlled then we may see large land fills of junk e-waste lying in and outside cities 10 years down the line,” says Vinnie Mehta, executive director, MAIT, the industry body for electronics and hardware, who has been instrumental in bringing the issue to the government’s notice. He is pushing for a legislation for mandatory guidelines for recycling of e-waste.

India has a 27 million PC installed base, 130 million TVs and 380 million mobile phones. The active life of a mobile phone is two years, for a PC it’s three years and for TV sets and fridges its more than 10 years, as the technology is much more stable. And while mobile phone and computer parts are fairly easy to recycle, recycling junk from TVs and refrigerators is difficult. While PCs are growing at the rate of 8 million additions per annum, mobile phones are growing the rate of 100 million additions per year.

Go to any large IT company today and you will find warehouses with hundreds of old monitors, CPUs, and keyboards lying on top of each other. Companies such as Infosys and TCS which employ over 80,000 employees each and have about a lakh PCs, cannot figure out what to do with the e-junk. Laws dont permit a selloff of assets in STP units. Thus, most companies donate the PCs to foundations and NGOs and schools. From there it generally lands into the unauthorised recycling market. Many companies have an end of lifecycle use takeback policy in place, though many don’t have clear cut policies on what they do with their e-waste.

The Greenpeace Campaign

Expressing deep concern over the problem, a Greenpeace India official says that most consumer electronics companies have been slow in getting serious about climate change. Despite much green marketing, many brands including all Indian brands still show little engagement with the issue.

“Motorola, Dell, Apple, Lenovo, Samsung, and LG Electronics are notably lagging behind, with no plans to cut absolute emissions from their own operations and no support for the targets and timelines needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Among Indian brands, Zenith and PCS Technology are yet to address this issue, whereas not much commitment is forthcoming from HCL and Wipro. These huge companies could make a big difference by doing their part to avoid a climate crisis and asking their governments to do the same,” says the Greenpeace India official.

But companies disagree with this point of view. HCL, the largest domestic IT hardware company says it is adopting policies whereby it facilitates consumers to ensure that all ‘end of life’ products manufactured by HCL will be recycled/disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

Says George Paul, executive vice president, HCL Infosystems: “HCL extends the recycling facility to all HCL users regardless when and where they purchased the product. HCL facilitates its consumers to ensure that all ‘end of life’ products manufactured by HCL shall be recycled/disposed of in an environmentally safe manner. But as a part of exchange offer HCL donates customers’ old PCs to NGOs.”

But Greenpeace India toxics campaigner, Abhishek Pratap says that it is unfortunate that most Indian companies lack the systems to implement their policy commitment to make products that are toxin-free, easy to recycle and energy efficient.

In it’s Greener Electronics India Ranking 2008, Greenpeace has dropped Hewlett-Packard to 13th place for “failing to operationalise the principle of individual producer responsibility and for its weak voluntary take-back programme, which is mainly oriented towards business rather than individual customers”.

But HP disagrees. The company says that this year it announced the expansion of its product return and recycling programme to enterprise customers in India. HP has offered to take back end-of-life HP and non-HP computing equipment like personal computers, laptops, computer monitors, handhelds, notebooks, servers, printers, scanners and fax machines, as well as associated external components such as cables, mice and keyboards from consumers.

“Customers are integral to our commitment to the environment,” says Jean-Claude Vanderstraeten, director, environmental management, HP Asia Pacific & Japan.

“The number of PCs, servers, print cartridges and other electronics reaching the end of their usable life is growing rapidly. Plastics and metals recovered from products recycled by HP have been used in new HP products, as well as a range of other uses, including auto body parts, clothes hangers, plastic toys, fence posts, serving trays and roof tiles,” he adds. HP’s proactive approach towards product reuse and recycling helps to divert material from landfill to environmentally sound recycling. Customers can now simply follow a four step process to participate in this programme.

Meanwhile, in Greenpeace’s annual rankings Dell has dropped down from 5th place in 2005, to 12th position in 2008, albeit with the same score. The NGO says that Dell loses points for withdrawing from its commitment to eliminate all PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) by the end of 2009.

But the world’s second largest computer company Dell disagrees. “Dell has a global recycling policy in place that offers consumers free recycling for any Dell branded product at anytime, and even free recycling for other branded products with purchase of new Dell equipment. We also offer value-added services to businesses and institutions for recycling of excess IT equipment. We partner with product recycling vendors to manage the recycling process,” says a Dell spokesperson.

Lack of punitive laws

A study by GTZ, an international cooperation enterprise for sustainable development, reveals some significant findings about Indian businesses. “Though a lot of business organisations are aware of e-waste, but the knowledge of proper disposal is lacking. The lack of holistic knowledge about the problem is the reason for 94% of the organisations not having the relevant IT disposal policy,” the reports says.

The problem, according to sources is the lack of will on the part of ministry of environment and forests, to enforce new mandatory guidelines for electronic waste. A general guideline for disposal of normal waste already exists though no separate law exists for e-waste. The electronics companies are willing to help in the enforcement of guidelines. But their basic contention is that it will make the cost of a PC or mobile phone go up, if bought from an authorised dealer.

Unauthorised players and sellers of electronic equipment should also be made a part of the guidelines, they feel. Or they may start losing marketshare to the grey market.

Mehta says that the situation could assume alarming proportions and therefore it is high time we pay serious attention to the issue of e-waste and take corrective actions to contain this problem. “It is essential that the electronics industry encourages reuse of obsolete electronics items by suitably refurbishing them and by providing them necessary service support. Further, institutional users must mandatorily put in place a policy on e-waste management and for disposal of obsolete electronic equipment.”

The Solution

While a guideline for handling hazardous waste already exists in the country, and registration of recyclers is mandatory. No such mandatory registration exists for e-waste, which is different from a chemical or fertiliser waste as the source is not always one company. A huge complex value chain and distribution is involved in handling of an electronics item

But for all this to happen, the government has to define roles of each stakeholder including the vendors, the users, the recyclers and the regulator for environmentally friendly recycling. The informal recyclers should also be included in this model. Severe penalties on violation of these norms should be levied. Otherwise it may go the same way as the disposal of normal waste is done in the country.

The industry is ready and so are the citizens who are willing to incur a cost on recycling. But the government’s apathy is making the e-garbage stock pile up and making your air, food and water more poisonous everyday. The ball is now in the government’s court.


Sam said...

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Sam Porter


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