E-WASTES : A MAJOR HEALTH HAZARD

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E-waste, an acronym for electronic waste refers to the old, discarded, obsolete and broken electronic and electrical devices such as, PCs, laptops, television sets, mobile phones, calculators, etc. These wastes contain harmful substances such as, lead, cadmium, beryllium and mercury along with valuable materials such as, gold, palladium, silver and copper. Owing to its mammoth size, consumer-oriented fast rate of growth and technological advancement,  product obsolescence, etc., e-waste accumulation in India has become a huge  menace.

The Issue

The hazard of e-waste has grappled India, especially metropolitan cities such as, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, etc., in its jagged tentacles. As India is firmly marching towards growth and development, the average usage of mobile phones, PCs and television sets is plummeting incredibly. Volatile changes in trends ensuing increase in affordability and rise in the standard of living have all contributed to the skyrocketing levels of e-wastes in the country.

Owing to the enormous volume of these wastes    generated, the components of toxic and valuable materials in them, has led to the emergence of business opportunities besides being an environmental hazard. Valuable metals such as, iron, copper, aluminum and gold account for a fraction of over 60%, whereas plastics and hazardous pollutants comprise of 30% and 2.7% each respectively.

Obsolete electronic items in India are done away with by exchanging them  for purchase of new equipments from the retailers. A whopping 1,46,000 tons per year, is the total e-waste generated in India, according to the reports of Confederation of Indian Industries (2006).

Also, a large share of e-waste is reportedly being imported from the developed nations. Ironically though, larger is the extent of doubt concerning the substitutability of these inter-country e-waste streams, as most of these trade practices are disguised and carried out in the name of procuring “reusable” items or “donations” from the developed countries

The hazard of e-wastes

Presence of toxic and hazardous materials such as, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, cadmium, etc., can cause immeasurable and irrecoverable damage to health and the environment.  Air, water and soil are all endangered due to the emissions of recycled e-waste toxics, when left to unsuitable techniques and unprotective measures.

Informal recycling processes, being unreliable inflict dire impacts on the health of the workers and the environment. This has been proved by a study conducted in 2004 on the burning of printed wiring boards. Alarmingly, enormous concentration of dioxins was detected around the adjacent areas in which the wiring boards were burnt openly. Fatal diseases such as, cancer and asthma can be caused by inhaling these toxins or by their presence in the food chain via crops from the nearby agricultural fields.

Mobile phone battery, something we hardly ponder on, is capable of polluting 600 cubic meters of water.

Groundwater is highly endangered by leaching of lead, a result of land filling of e-waste . Brominated flame retardants, present in the printed wiring board and housings of electronic products are clearly monstrous for health and the environment.

E-waste management in India

Although the informal sector (privatized and business-oriented) is at the helm of affairs of the collecting, processing and recycling of e-waste, the Government of India has taken several measures in this regard through its agencies such as, Ministry of Environment and Health (MOEF) , Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)-an autonomous body under MOEF), etc.

There are numerous obstacles in the way of systematic management of e-waste such as-

1. Unavailability of reliable data, which hampers designing of an e-waste management strategy and investment decisions.
2. A meager 10% of the e-waste is recycled owing to the absence of adequate infrastructure and consumer-friendly schemes.
3.  Excessive reliance on the informal sector due to acute shortage of the required infrastructure in the formal sector, thus ensuing severe damages to the ecosystem.

India’s strong ties with Germany and Switzerland to curb the menace of e-waste stand testimony to its willingness and efficiency. India partners, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in undertaking the program “Knowledge Partnerships in E-waste Recycling”.

Solutions

According to the UN reports, e-waste will be growing manifold in the next 10 years. Therefore, it is high time that we, as obligors of the environment support and strengthen it; protect it against the ruthlessness of the fast-paced development.

The simplest solution lies in reducing the volume of e-wastes. This is possible only when we start using our electronic equipments for longer duration than what we are currently doing.

Upgrading and developing e-waste recycling infrastructure by the Government is the need of the hour. This would reduce our dependency on the informal sector, thus reducing the level of threat to the environment it causes.

Heavy and high quality equipments can be sent to developed nations such as U.S.A, U.K, Germany, etc., where they could be processed and recycled to extract valuable metals   This, though a cumbersome task in itself, would generate employment opportunities both in the developed nation where the e-waste is sent, as well as in India.

Therefore,  rational planning and strict implementation, an excellent-opportunity can be harvested through an e-waste crisis.

Nikita Dhingra

Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/techbirmingham/345897594/sizes/m/]

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