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Why you should start worrying about e-waste!
E-waste, technically known as waste electrical and electronic equipment or WEEE refers to discarded electrical or electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, tablets, printers, routers, televisions, washing machines and so on.

According to a 2014 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) and Frost & Sullivan, e-waste generation in India is set to increase to 15 lakh tonnes per year by 2015, from the present 12.5 lakh tonnes per year. Mumbai is the highest generator of e-waste with 96,000 tonnes per annum, followed by Delhi at 67,000 tonnes and Bangalore at 57,000 tonnes per year.

The study also found that computer equipment accounts for almost 68 percent of e-waste, followed by telecommunication equipment (12 percent), electrical equipment (8 percent) and medical equipment (7 percent). Household e-waste stands lowest at 5 percent. The majority of e-waste (around 70 per cent) is generated by government, public and private industries.

A 2009 UNEP report projected that by 2020, e-waste from computers would dramatically increase by 500 percent and that waste from discarded mobile phones would increase 18 times from 2007 levels in India. Out of the total e-waste recycled in the country, 95 percent is handled by informal recyclers, and only 5 per cent by the formal recyclers, as pointed out by a 2007 GTZ-ASEM report (some experts claim the market share now is 90:10).

Ground realities

Currently, around 90 percent of e-waste is estimated to be recycled in the informal sector, which bypasses safety and environmental regulations. In Mumbai, along Dharavi’s main road, lies a small, busy lane, invariably blocked by a truck loading or unloading large gunny bags full of waste, including end-of-life electrical and electronic waste.

There is no daily estimate of the amount of e-waste entering and being recycled in Dharavi, but there are seven bhattis (which run on oil or electricity) being used to recycle aluminium - a practice considered extremely hazardous because of the environmental pollution caused in the process and its adverse impact on health. Apart from these aluminium bhattis, there are about 50 reprocessing units that recycle about 50-60 types of plastic from e-waste. The plastic waste is sorted, ground, washed and melted to make dana (small pellets), which is supplied to various companies to manufacture plastic goods. The monthly turnover of one such plastic recycling unit is around Rs. 2 crore.

E-waste that does not get recycled in Dharavi, such as monitors, computer circuit boards and so on is sent to Saki Naka in western suburbs - another area known for e-waste recycling in Mumbai. E-waste recycling in Dharavi is illegal – and highly organised. There is a chain of traders working back-to-back to collect, sort, dismantle, reprocess and recycle e-waste.

In 2005, Greenpeace carried out a study in unauthorised electronic recycling yards in Delhi and found that over 25,000 workers were employed in Delhi’s scrap-yards, where they handle 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. As per the ASSOCHAM report, this figure has jumped by several tonnes. Delhi-NCR now has 85,000 workers handling 25,000-30,000 tonnes of e-waste per year.

Last month, Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based NGO, released findings of its study conducted at two illegal e-waste recycling sites in the capital. Whereas results of water samples were not way off the mark (only one water sample had mercury level 20 times higher than the desirable limit of Indian standard), the study found soil samples to be heavily contaminated with substances such as cadmium, nickel and mercury.

The saddest part is, over 4.5 lakh children between 10 and 14 years of age are engaged in e-waste related activities across India, such as collection, sorting, dismantling and burning. They don’t use any protective gear and are unaware of the health risks involved.

Clash of opinions

According to Farid Siddiqui, General Secretary of the Dharavi Business Men’s Welfare Association, some big companies use only virgin material to manufacture products. For instance, bottled water is packaged only in virgin plastic bottles. However, there are a lot of small companies that use recycled plastic to manufacture household goods. Such goods are cheaper and more popular amongst the masses. Metals like aluminium and copper are not labelled as ‘recycled’ even after reprocessing. They remain virgin and are reused by companies on a large scale.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), recycling aluminium from e-waste saves 90 percent of the energy necessary for mining new aluminium. While traders in Dharavi believe that they are performing an important task by extracting metals from e-waste, thereby reducing the need for mining fresh material, residents of apartments in Mahim (East) (Dharavi’s waste recycling sector is next to Mahim railway station) often blame the burning of waste for the area’s poor air quality and the prevalence of disease.

E-waste contains several toxic substances such as chromium, mercury, lead and arsenic that can be inhaled or ingested by the workers in the sector who often work without safety gear or protection. But it isn’t just people working directly with e-waste that need to worry about its impact – these pollutants enter the soil and the water bodies, and finally make their way into human bodies through the food chain.

Organised v/s unorganised

In July 2009, organised recyclers formed an e-waste recycler’s association in order to beat the informal sector, but they face stiff competition from the unorganised sector even today, and are unable to run to their full capacity. The organised sector claims it cannot compete with the unorganised sector as the latter has huge profit margins because of its crude process and ability to bypass regulations on pollution and labour.

In September 2010, 23 e-waste reprocessing units were registered with the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There is absolutely no national data on the number of illegal e-waste recycling units, which may even run into the thousands.

Source: Grist Media

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