Dr. Anwesha Borthakur
With the intensification of the market for electronic products, ‘electronic waste’ emerges as a relatively new yet a rapidly emerging category of waste in the current global environment. Electronic waste, popularly known as E-waste, is a major challenge confronted by almost all the countries worldwide today.
It is a complex category of waste and thus, its definitions are equally intricate. While a standard definition of the term is yet to come up, a number of countries, organizations and research scientists have provided their own interpretations and explanations of the term ‘E-waste’. Simply put, all the appliances that function on electricity contribute to the E-waste stream once their functional lives are over. These electrical and electronic equipments could range from large and small household appliances (such as televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, ironing machine, hairdryer, electric bulbs etc.) to information technology (IT) and telecommunication equipments (such as mobile phones, laptops, printers, photocopy machines etc.) and medical devices (such as the MRI or X-ray machines). Thus, the types of equipments falling under the purview of E-waste are exhaustive and require due attention towards responsible end-of-life management mechanisms.
Globally, the amount of E-waste generated has increased remarkably during the last decade. Emerging economies such as India and China contribute a major share to this waste stream. For instance, substantial volume of E-waste is generated in the information technology hubs (IT-hubs) of India such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pune. Moreover, major Asian cities are huge markets of consumer electronics which subsequently result in increasing E-waste generation. Complicating the issue further, considerable amount of E-waste is shipped into many Asian and West African countries from the developed world, particularly in the name of ‘donation’. These out-of-use electronic goods are often not in good conditions for reuse purposes and mostly add up to the domestically generated E-waste volume. Nevertheless, E-waste is no longer an ‘urban waste’ stream as considered a few years ago. If we ponder over the situation in India alone, the increasing purchase of mobile phones or televisions nowadays is not restricted to the urban Indian cities. Today, mobile phones find its presence in the remotest part of the country with the mobile network providers boosting of their coverage in the farthest locations. There are strong incentives for purchase of these phones and the network service providers come up with attractive customized plans to tailor the need of a wide range of people across geographies, income levels and interest groups. As the purchase of the electronic products increases, there are two elements which have observed a constant decrease during the past few years – 1) the price of the electronic equipments, and 2) their lifespans. Increasing market competition coupled with advanced design and innovation prompts the manufacturing companies to sale their products at a very competitive price. As a result, today, the cost of the electronic products, especially the likes of mobile phones, laptops and televisions, observe a constant decrease. The best example of this could be the endless discounts/sales on the cellular phones in e-commerce sites such as Amazon or Flipkart. If one keeps a record of the frequency of these sales, it looks both overwhelming and perturbing. This encourages people to purchase new and newer products in frequent intervals even when their current products are functioning well enough to satisfy their requirements. This decreasing lifespan of the electronic products finally contributes to an increasing volume of E-waste. Further, the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’, where a product is designed deliberately by the manufacturers themselves for only a limited lifespan, too finds its relevance in the context of electronic products and E-waste today.
Considering the ever-increasing growth of E-waste, it is essential to focus on its management practices and policy initiatives. And a first step towards this is to create adequate public awareness for ensuring responsible consumption and disposal behaviour. Currently, most of the E-waste is recycled in the informal sector in the developing countries. Such as, the informal waste recycling sector has a massive presence in the major Indian cities and their peripheries. Traditionally, in India, wastes like plastics, paper, glass, metals etc. are recycled through the informal sector where scrap dealers or ‘kawariwalas’ would come door to door to collect these wastes. Over the years, E-waste found a prominent place and established itself as a major component in this informal collection and recycling system. In a country characterized by large competition for all kinds of employment opportunities at every sphere, the informal sector never faces any dearth of people to collect and recycle waste. Although informal sector is efficient in recycling the components of E-waste, the sector is considered as sites of uncontrolled pollution problems, especially intense air, water and soil pollution. Unlike some other kinds of waste finding ways to the informal recycling units, E-waste is toxic and hazardous. It contains significant portions of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. Thus, it poses serious threats to the environment and human health if not correctly managed. Unfortunately, workers in the informal recycling sector (including a large number of children and women) continue to work in a noxious environment where their wellbeing is massively challenged and compromised. More often than not, no health and safety measures (in terms of safety equipments, health insurance coverage etc.) are provided to these workers in this sector.
The initiatives undertaken to deal with E-waste in India look too little, too late. The problem of E-waste in India started to intensify a few years after the economy opened up in the early 1990s. The information technology (IT) industry established itself as a major component not only of the Indian economy but also of the whole world. Consequently, cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad became IT hubs of the country. The IT industry inherently is dependent on a large number of electronic equipments. For uninterrupted services, they must opt for the most advanced versions of the IT equipments rendering the older ones obsolete or ‘E-waste’ at regular intervals. Today, new and newer versions of software are being developed every few months. Often, with the newer software, the older hardware becomes outdated and finally finds its way to the E-waste stream. Substantial quantity of E-waste was already generated in the country before the introduction and subsequent implementation of the first law dealing solely with E-waste in India – the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. The rules came at a time when together with the evolution of the IT sector, India already had become a major attraction for the consumer electronics manufacturers. The market had, by now, been constantly flooded with new and advanced electronic devices, resulting in an ever-decreasing lifespan of these products. Tackling the E-waste challenge in the country became more complicated than ever and it continues to be the same!
The more recent E-waste (Management) Rules of 2016 and its subsequent amendment of 2018 are able to create some awareness, especially among the bulk consumers of electronic products such as central and state government establishments, multinational companies, education institutes, banks etc. The individual consumers, however, are still at a loss while trying to deal with the E-waste generated by them in their households. Most of them have no idea about the presence of a law in the country exclusively for the purpose of addressing the E-waste. Considering the purchasing behaviour of the Indian consumers, it is evident that E-waste (especially from equipments such as mobile phones) will observe a constant increase in the years to come. Time has arrived to formulate and implement proper E-waste disposal mechanisms right up to the grassroots level. Otherwise our cities, towns and the villages will be inundated with an electronic waste (E-waste) crisis beyond control in the near future.
(The author is Marie Skodowska Curie Postdoctoral Fellow Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Belgium)
E-Waste: An Emerging Environmental Concern
Dr. Anwesha Borthakur