E-waste: Environment’s next big threat

Ever wondered what happens after you replace your old mobile phone for a fancy music phone that’s just hit the market? Where does your old computer go once you decide to buy that long awaited notebook? Where do you think your VCR is now that you have moved onto a DVD player? All these items and several more are the primary products of what is known as the Electronic Waste (more commonly e-waste) chain. Devices and gadgets used for communication, entertainment and data processing commonly fall under the category of products that give rise to e-waste. To make it simpler, consider all the gadgets that require electricity to run and are of no use anymore comprise as e-waste.


In a country such as India, an average urban household is likely to own a computer, a refrigerator, a CD or a DVD player, mobile phones, juicer, toaster, hair dryer, vacuum cleaner and much more. That is quite a list and is steadily growing as affordable products flood a market of willing customers. With the rural areas fast catching up in terms of mobile phone and electronic gadget usage, these numbers are soon going to reach sky high. Their disposal seems to be something that we have thought little about.


As the concept of e-waste is still nascent and far from being completely established in, it is not hard to believe that the methods for its disposal are still in their trial and inefficient stages.


One of the common techniques for disposal is that the e-waste is collected, a large pit- commonly known as the landfill is dug – and the waste is dumped and buried all together. This leads to seepage of toxic materials into the soil and renders the land unusable apart from releasing effluents into the water as well.


Another popular method is to collect the plastic bits of the gadgets and burn them, leading to monstrously high levels of pollution in the air. Not only do these techniques damage the environment irrevocably they also have an adverse impact on the health of the workers, who largely belong to the rag pickers or waste disposers category.


The e-waste disposal system in India is a flourishing business in the informal sector and the processes are often shoddy and extremely damaging. A disturbing fact making the situation graver is India’s status as a preferred destination of dumping e-waste from all over the globe. As low-cost and low-safety techniques are used with no fear of the law, countries from all over prefer to outsource this to India as well. Although India has ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, a nearly complete lack of effective regulatory mechanisms to govern the dismantling of electronic items, which host a variety of toxic substances such as mercury and lead, has allowed the situation to worsen. Developed nations prefer to send across their e-waste to developing countries such as India to cut costs and avoid the stringent regulations.
Late in 2008 the state of Maharashtra drafted new regulations regarding the disposal and recycling of e-waste within the state. While this shows a ray of hope for sprawling cities such as Pune and Mumbai, it remains to be seen if the government can ensure that the correct procedures are set in place. It may just have been easier to establish the correct processes than to make people unlearn what they know as the cheap and quick way for something that will need more time and effort.


While the world is slow in acknowledging the true gravity of the situation, some companies such as Nokia have begun programmes such as ‘Take Back’ to ensure correct disposal of old mobile phones and chargers. The customers are encouraged to drop their old handsets and chargers in the company’s stores or at any of the recycling bins set up across Nokia Priority Dealers and Nokia Care Centers and win gifts. In India, this was run as a pilot project in four cities and is believed to have collected 3 tonnes of e-waste.


The e-waste disposal industry as with any industry has the potential to be profitable. Disposal of e-waste is also an economic activity, which India can profit from but this needs to be regulated and the workers and the environment protected. However, as long as it is at the cost of the environment and the workers, it could well prove to be an environmental disaster waiting to happen.


Shruti Saxena

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