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 August 11, 2014
Why Should You Care Where Your Laptop Goes To Die?

 By 2015, India may generate 15 lakh tonnes of e-waste a year. Currently, around 90 percent of e-waste it is estimated to be recycled in the informal sector, which bypasses safety and environmental regulations. Why is e-waste such a problem, and how do we deal with it?

Along Dharavi's main road, right next to an open nallah, there 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 (e-waste). This is the lane of Banwari Compound in Dharavi's Sector 1 -- the gateway to one of India's largest centres for recycling waste.

Kohinoor Dye-Casting, which operates from this lane, has been manufacturing aluminium alloys for the last 40 years and recycles over 50 tonnes of aluminium every month. It isn't authorised to recycle aluminium, but still sources the metal from e-waste -- items such as discarded air-conditioners, electrical wires, computers or fans.

Collected in large bhattis (ovens) and heated to temperatures of 800-900 degree Celsius, the aluminium is then poured into a dye-casting machine to manufacture fresh parts, such as clamp sets -- the aluminium motor component in mixer-grinders. And from there, they travel for distribution across the country: "Apart from selling aluminium ingots, we supply clamp sets to big companies, such as Jaipan," the owner of Kohinoor Dye-Casting says proudly.

There is no daily estimate of the amount of e-waste entering and being recycled in Dharavi, but Farid Siddiqui, general secretary of the Dharavi Business Men's Welfare Association, says that 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. Mubarak Shah (better known as Baba), a 70-year-old scrap dealer, has been doing business in Dharavi since 1966 and has a waste recycling godown (about 250 sq ft with a mezzanine floor) right opposite Kohinoor Dye-Casting's aluminium recycling bhatti.

"I have contacts across Maharashtra and adjoining states from where I pick up e-waste. Several companies auction their e-waste and I regularly check their updates. I bring that waste to Dharavi and, in my godown, I have workers who sort it and take apart the e-waste, such as cables and electrical equipment, to take out metals and plastic."

When this writer visited Shah's godown, two workers were busy taking apart electrical wires for their copper and aluminium. "In a day I manage to scrap at least 15 kg of cables and wires and earn about Rs 200 a day. It is sufficient for me as I live in the godown and don't pay any rent," says one of the workers, a migrant from Shah's hometown in Uttar Pradesh.

Once e-waste is segregated in godowns, it is sold to bigger traders who deal specifically in such metals. These traders, in turn, have tie-ups with big companies to whom they sell the metals or metal products, based on demand or on contracts. The rate of metals such as aluminium and copper fluctuates daily and is decided by the London Metal Exchange. Every morning traders in Dharavi check updates on the exchange's website.

"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 among the masses," says Siddiqui. "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," he adds.

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 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 the 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.

* * *

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. More worrisome is the fact that 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).

How is e-waste recycled?

Each component of e-waste is dismantled and recycled in different ways and the methods informal recyclers follow can be rather crude. Take, for instance, Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) -- a major component in television and computer monitors, containing highly toxic lead in the form of leaded glass (an average CRT can contain up to 1.5-2 kg of lead). Informal recyclers use hammers, chisels, screwdrivers and bare hands to separate different materials in a CRT. Copper and other valuable fractions are sold to dealers who sell those materials. The CRT glass is crushed and fed into a furnace at a temperature of around 1400--1800°C (open incineration). Molten glass is then passed through a roller to shape it before it is cut and slowly cooled to strengthen it.

Sources claim that since glass retains heat, this toxic leaded glass also goes into the base of ovens of bakeries and bangle-makers.

In contrast to CRT, circuit boards have gold-plated brass pins, microchips and condensers. These circuit boards are heated to separate various components. Gold-plated brass pins are soaked in acid (known as acid stripping) to recover the gold and brass separately. The contaminated water is then thrown into open drains. Microchips and condensers are heated in big containers filled with acid to extract metallic parts. The entire process releases toxic gases that are inhaled by the workers and escape into the atmosphere.

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 report clearly indicates changes in soil quality in the recycling areas, and this change is attributable to the recycling activities being conducted in these areas," says Priti Mahesh, senior program coordinator with Toxics Link.

Worse, 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.

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.

What do the rules say?

Keeping in mind the growing problem of e-waste in the country, the e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, came into effect on May 1, 2012. These rules require brands and producers to take responsibility for the end-of-life recycling of their products, under the Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) clause. The law mentions authorising collection agencies and registered dismantlers and recyclers, and has a provision called the Reduction of Harmful Substances (RoHS), which aims to tackle the problem at the time of manufacture: producers need to phase out toxic substances that are used while manufacturing electronic goods, and replace them with safer components. No use of toxic products means no toxic pollutants to deal with later. But these rules have remained only on paper.

"The rules do not mandate any e-waste collection targets to the producers. In the absence of mandatory targets, most brands have shied away from taking any responsibility and have limited themselves to only drop-boxes," says Mahesh.

Two months ago, Toxics Link released another report, 'Time to Reboot', which exposed how the reputed electronic and electrical equipment companies are "showing scant respect for the country's e-waste rules". It found that 16 brands, including some leading mobile phone companies, have not set up any take-back system even after two years of the rules coming into effect. Greenpeace had made similar damning findings in its 2008 report, 'Take Back Blues'.

"Except one or two brands, other producers are absolutely indifferent towards the e-waste problem. By providing drop-boxes, they are only offering culturally inappropriate global standards in India," says Bharati Chaturvedi, founding director of New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, which has worked with waste-pickers for the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, some aware citizens have taken up the cudgels for e-waste recycling. Last July, Ruchika Sethi, a resident of Nirvana Country -- a gated colony in Gurgaon -- launched an e-waste recycling campaign in her neighbourhood. So far, she has organised three e-waste collection drives in close association with a certified e-waste recycler, Earth Sense Recycle Pvt Ltd. Others are following suit. Vipul Greens on Gurgaon-Sohna Road recently held an e-waste collection drive on August 2, and Close North condominium in sector-50 has one planned for August 15.

A joining of forces

What's the way forward? Most waste management experts agree that e-waste recycling by the informal sector is polluting. However, they don't want the ubiquitous waste-pickers and kabadiwalas to disappear, as the informal sector has its own strengths. They claim that in order to have a robust e-waste recycling programme in India, there is a need to marry the informal to the formal sector.

"Waste-pickers and kabadiwalas have an efficient system of door-to-door waste collection, which no brand or producer can match. We need to see how informal sector can be integrated with the formal e-waste recycling sector without compromising on health and the environment," says Mahesh.

Chaturvedi is already working in that direction. Chintan has tied up with Nokia and has signed an e-waste recycling contract with two certified companies -- Attero Recycling and TES-AMM Recyclers India Pvt Ltd.

Under this 'integrated' system, both Chintan and the e-waste recycling firm jointly decide on a rate list for different types of e-waste. Chintan then ties up with local waste-pickers (referred to as aggregators) and kabadiwalas, and trains them to sell their e-waste to Chintan. The collected e-waste is then deposited with the certified e-waste recycler against a payment.

Environmentalists feel that waste-pickers and kabadiwalas should be used for collection, sorting and dismantling (to some extent) of e-waste. However, the actual extraction of metals and other potentially harmful processes must be done in a proper industry with good pollution control equipment. A June 2011 Rajya Sabha report on e-waste recommended this integration when it said: "[I]f the informal or unorganised sector is upgraded to provide a support system for the integrated recycling and treatment and disposal facilities [...] [i]t would enable to bring the unorganised sector in the mainstream of activities while ensuring environmental compliances."

"Waste recyclers in Dharavi do not want to run their businesses illegally. They don't want to be called thieves or polluters. But no government agency has ever come forward to understand our problems and help us jump over to the other side," laments Siddiqui. With a mounting e-waste problem on our hands, facilitating this integration is perhaps the most effective action we can take.