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E-waste 101: What is it, and why should we care?

What happens to unwanted electronics, and why the planet's health is degrading because of unsustainable disposal practices. Here is your introduction to e-waste, read on.

E-waste are electronic products that are unwanted, not working, and nearing or at the end of their “useful life.” The problem of e-waste management started way back in 1970. The number of smartphones discarded everyday has increased exponentially since then. Around 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated every year, out of which only 17% is documented to be properly collected and disposed of. E-wastes are composed of different types of materials including metals, plastics, PCB, pollutants, wood, etc. Based on the impact caused during recycling materials are classified into three categories : primary, secondary and tertiary contaminants. Secondary contaminants are generated as a result of improper recycling processes. Tertiary contaminants are materials used for recycling components which are not disposed of properly.

What are current e-waste disposal practices?

Various ways of e-waste disposal include - landfilling, acid bath, incineration, re-use and recycling. There is a huge demand for dismantling smartphones because of the rare earth metals found in them.

Some of the techniques like acid-bath are used to extract these rare earth metals which can be recycled and used in the making of new products. However, it is crucial to dispose of the acid-waste properly in order to avoid mixing with the local water bodies. The process of extraction and the disposal of acid-waste is highly hazardous. This process only extracts about 1% of the smartphone waste, the remaining 99% is dumped into the land. Also, the efficiency of extracting these metals is very poor since the extractors do not have the sufficient sophisticated equipment.

E-waste around the world

Some of the e-waste management systems which are practised in the EU involve the companies being responsible about their products from designing till disposal. Switzerland opts the EPR system. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) can be defined as “the producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the postconsumer stage of a product’s life cycle”. The system is designed in such a way that there are designated sectors which are responsible for collecting, processing and recycling of e-waste materials. The government takes up the responsibility of overseeing the entire process. The EPR system is a clear, efficient system which prevents illegal dumping of wastes. E-waste management demands infrastructure like collecting, logistics and re-processing technologies. In some countries, they adopt the end- user pays principle where the consumer pays for the cost. Some developed countries take up exporting up to 40- 80% of their e-waste to countries like Africa, India and China. Countries like Germany collect the e-waste from the individual consumers directly without collecting any charges.

India's story

Due to the technology revolution and the availability of cheap smartphones, India is the fifth largest generator of e-waste in the world. Around 3 million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. A quarter of this load is dumped in a place called Seelampur. Seelampur, the digital underbelly of India, is an unorganised e-waste recycling sector. Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh; Loni, Mundka and Mandoli on the outskirts of Delhi; Kolkata and its suburbs in West Bengal; and Perungudi, Ambattur and Guindy in Chennai district are among hundreds of unorganised e-waste hubs in India. For the amount of e-waste generated, there are only 170 authorised recyclers in India. Out of these 170, only four or five are recyclers and the rest are dismantlers.

The labour conditions in the unorganised e-waste management sector like Seelampur are deplorable, like the hundred others all over India. Men, women and teenage boys are employed under hazardous working conditions to extract precious metals like gold, silver, brass, copper, etc. They deal with dismantling, segregation and extraction of metals, plastic, etc from smartphones for less than Rs.200 per day. The process of extraction of rare earth metals causes toxic fumes which have posed health threats to the labourers and their family at Seelampur. According to a study by Assocham, a Delhi based industry body, last year, 76% of India’s e-waste workers are prone to cancer and suffer from weakened immune systems. Elements like Lead can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and even deteriorate brain development in growing children. Other issues include POP - persistent organic pollution which negatively impacts human and animal life.

Recycle it all, no matter how small!

Let's take inspiration from the 2019 e-waste day slogan, ‘Recycle it all, no matter how small’.

In 2019, 22 million tonnes of small e-waste was generated. Efficient e-waste recycling and re-using of devices is crucial at the moment. Since the production of smartphones is a linear process, prolonged usage of the devices without succumbing to the planned and perceived obsolescence contributes to the lesser generation of e-wastes. Illegal recycling and dumping of e-wastes should be regulated. An accurate data of e-waste generated and the processes involved is the first step in regulation.


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