The country’s rapid digitalization is exacerbating an already poor track record of electronic-waste management, while smuggling of international e-waste continues unabated

In India, the generation of electronic waste (e-waste) is becoming a cause of major concern, as it is one of the fastest-growing pollutant sources in India, growing at the rate of 10% every year.

A report on e-waste presented by the United Nations (UN) in January 2019 had pointed out that the global e-waste stream had reached 48.5MT in 2018 and was increasing at an alarming rate every year. In fact, India is now the world’s third largest contributor of e-waste, having moved from fifth position in just three years.

Back in 2011, the country India saw its first e-waste rules getting framed, with subsequent revisions taking place in 2016 and 2018. Recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released draft E-waste rules outlining guidelines for businesses on e-waste recycling.

A key aspect of the new standards issued is that electronics manufacturers and any businesses that generate e-waste will have to ensure at least 60% of their electronic waste is collected and recycled by 2023.

Plugging e-waste management gaps
As a step to improve e-waste management, the revised rules include many more electronic items under the extended “producer responsibilities” such as electric cookers, microwaves, electric heating equipment, vacuum cleaners, irons, grinders, medical devices, etc., which were previously not considered. Additionally, the jurisdiction for e-waste management is proposed to move from a regional to a central pollution control board.  

Ravi Neeladri, CEO, Cerebra Green

According to Ravi Neeladri, CEO, Cerebra Green, a recycling firm in the country: “The new rules plug many gaps in the current e-waste rules, and implementing these rules will significantly improve our ecosystems. The government and various stakeholders in e-waste management have been taking steps to ensure that these guidelines are enforced, and that there is more clarity concerning the correct practices of e-waste management.”

However, the one major challenge that impedes enforcement is the integration (in India) of the informal sector with the formal sector, for which the solution is the implementation of strict rules along with strong awareness programs. Major recycling of e-waste is carried out in the informal sector using primitive and hazardous methods, which makes it important to have adequate legislative measures and cost-effective, environmental friendly, technological solution to address the issue.

OEMs and their EPR obligations
As a global practice, producers and manufacturers of electrical and electronics products collect a percentage of the products that they have manufactured after the products reach the end of their life. This Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in each country defines the end of life for all electrical and electronics products: for example, a laptop has five years of average life, and a refrigerator has 10 years of life.

EPR policies expect producers/manufacturers to collect and recycle their products, with an annual collection target also assigned. However many OEMs in the country do not have the authorization to collect and recycle the products that have reached the end of their life.

Conversely, huge amounts of e-wastes from other countries end up in India. Some studies report that almost 70% of electronic waste handled in India is produced elsewhere in spite of a reported import ban on electronic waste. Border control measures need to be enforced in a more comprehensive manner to restrict such e-waste smuggling, while agencies such as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Board need to join hands with manufacturers to manage the goods from cradle to recycling.

Much more needs to be done
Just as the revised laws could go a long way in helping India meet its sustainability goals, the country itself still has a long way to go in catching up with awareness. “As the country strives to become a digital economy, the digitalization of every sphere of life will only add more electronic waste generation. Even large corporates consider e-waste to have economic value and dispose of their e-waste to the highest bidder. There is a need to educate the producers and consumers of electronic goods and establish regulatory policies in the country,” said Ravi. 

Unfortunately, national awareness of the consequences of uncontrolled e-waste generation in India is at a very nascent stage. The public still does not understand the hazards and ill effects of mishandling such waste. If not managed correctly, e-waste most likely ends up in landfills, which are processed in unscientific ways to extract precious metals. This will result in e-wastes ending up in sewers and other water streams.

That is why poor e-waste management can cause severe health problems:

  • damage to the central nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems
  • long-term unexplained illnesses, diseases, birth defects and other pathological symptoms due to atmospheric toxins generated by e-waste burning or dumping—which also contribute to the heavy toll of pollution, global warming, and damage to various ecosystems

Ravi noted that the proper management of e-waste contributes to a circular economy, and it can save tens of billions of dollars every year through proper extraction of precious metals from e-waste rather than through informal mining methods: “Recycling electronic devices allow the extraction of minerals that can be used to manufacture other devices. This cycle ensures a measured use of raw materials, creating a sustainable system.”