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Waste to Wealth

  Rummaging through E-refuse  

From government officials to corporate honchos, everyone is talking about electronic garbage now. While the Delhi government places e-waste bins in various strategic spots in the capital, a leading mobile phone manufacturer recently launched a campaign to recycle old handsets with great fanfare. In other words, a business of pretty significant proportions that was running behind the scenes till date has been put right on the centre stage.

Yes, we are discussing those discarded computers, phones, television sets; printed circuit boards (PCBs). We are also talking about those gigantic volumes of thrown-away cables, wires and metals like copper and lead. Why? Because they are the raw materials of a recycling industry with a global worth of almost US $6 billion. In India it amounts to US $216 million.

The economics of it is impressive, but unfortunately, e-wastes are in the news for more than just this. There is, of course, a growing concern about the huge left overs which end up in landfills or incinerators, un-recycled. This means that toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury that are commonly used to manufacture these products are exposed to the surrounding land, water sources and air. Dangerously.

The bad news is that the impact of e-wastes remains even with the portion that is recycled. And it leaves a rather unpleasant after taste. About 15 to 20 per cent of the total waste generated is recycled. For instance, steel, aluminium and copper are often stripped from outdated machines and reused in newer models and as in paper or glass.

E-Recycling: dirty job?
The problem is that the method of recycling is still hopelessly outdated in India. The labour, mostly children and women, who work in the recycling units have to dip their hands for hours in acids to clean out PCBs. Electronic items contains precious (gold, silver) and non-precious metals (lead, arsenic). Workers who burn them to retrieve the metals not only inhale toxic fumes but also release them into the environment.

“Presently, we do not have the technology to recover precious metals from PCBs. We do have 16 formal recyclers in India, but their operation is limited to disassembly and segregation. After that we have to send the PCBs to Belgium, to companies like Umicore for processing,” says Dr Sandip Chatterjee, a scientist at Ministry of Communications and IT, Government of India.

Waste allures Asia
India and China are among the largest importers of e-waste. It sustains a thriving business here. Availability of low cost labour and a huge demand for cheap electronic goods keep this sector running at a furious pace.

Result? Large scale dumping of electronic junk by developed countries. Shocking stories of unregistered, suspected-tobe- seriously hazardous cargo being shipped off from European ports to India often surface in the international media circuit.

So what stand should India take? One solution, albeit a weak one, is simply banning import and export of e-waste. But is that feasible?

“Import and export of hazardous materials is anyway banned in India. Besides, if proper processes are set up for managing e-waste, it can turn into a profitable business, providing employment to millions. Hence, it would be poor business sense to ban e-waste import or export,” explains Chatterjee.

Way ahead?
Legal provisions, strictly enforced, to monitor the type and quality of wastes that are being traded would be an effective move. Because the current rules address the handling and disposal of industrial waste generated in manufacturing, and do not take into account e-wastes. Fortunately, the first step has already been taken. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has come up with a draft of new rules called the E-waste Management and Handling Rules 2010, which is now being made available for public comments. These new rules attempt to regulate not only producers, but also recyclers and intermediaries such as operators of collection centres.

Consumers, too, are accountable under these provisions. They are required to turn in to end-of-life electronic products for recycling.

  So the next time you are poised to toss out a used phone, or an old television set, stop awhile. You, too, have a role to play.  

 

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Waste to wealth