Where does your discarded music system, iPod, PC, laptop and other such gadgets and electronic white consumer goods end up, after it has ended its built-in lifespan? In a landfill. This is where the rag pickers and garbage sorters scavenge for those motherboards and other assorted components, for that little precious amount of gold that they can pry out of them. Since no one has kept accurate count, it is estimated that globally, eWaste amounts to 40 million tonnes annually.
That is a lot of waste to sift through for meagre quantities of gold and other valuable metals such as palladium, silver and copper. But to separate them from the junked heaps of metal is a cumbersome task at the best of times. In India, this is done in a crude manner – by either burning or leaching the component. Needless to say, that such an ad-hoc process leaves toxins behind in the environment, and noxious smoke comprising elements from harmful metals like cadmium, lead and mercury within human lungs.
In Japan, this process is done in a more clinical, safer and cost-effective manner and it is being called ‘urban mining’. This fancy term explains what Japan is trying to mine from eWaste – some of it that they actually import to meet recycling costs – rare earths or rare minerals, which they have been importing from China so far. Their recent political tussle with China and with China holding back rare earth exports, has made the Japanese realize their vulnerable position. So they have reopened mining plants for recycling purposes.
There is an imperative to get a National eWaste Strategy in place that works without fear or favour, for the good of the environment and the people involved in the recycling ecosphere. Such a policy needs to be put in place by the Ministry of Environment, which is seeing a proactive incumbent in the shape of Jairam Ramesh. This IIT-MIT educated minister is leading the charge and pulling up delinquent companies, like Vedanta. Putting together a hefty penalizing system, will help India Inc realize that their e-waste can not be left for other people and generations to pick up after them.
This can be done broadly with the relevant industry heads sitting down with a government authority, and hammering out the issues of legislation, studying data, skills and technology needed to dispose of this e-waste in a holistic and clean manner. The awareness campaigns need to reach down to the grass root workers, who actually power most of this informal recycling industry in India. There are websites and NGOs like Greenpeace that bring up the problem of eWaste regularly through their ‘Guide to Greener Electronics’, which does a good job of castigating and praising the top global electronic brands, whose products end up as electronic waste.
In India, eWaste management is a nascent concern at best and if any move is being made to make this into a full-fledged, skillful, license-based activity, then it’s so far shrouded in secrecy.
There are no programmes, except one-off initiatives such as an online eWaste Guide, which is an Indian-Swiss-German join effort to tackle this problem. What words of wisdom from this Guide, has percolated down to the local junk-dealer, garbage sorter and indigenous recycler is debatable.
So, this is where electronic manufacturers should step in and start spreading the word through their own corporate communications team, advertising agencies and via tie-ups with retailers who stock their merchandise. Any steps taken should involve the man/woman-on-the-street who actually do the work of going door-to-door to pick up the used stuff. Incentives offered to them should look at what would really benefit them.
The urbanised population can look to alternatives like trading-in or selling stuff through seconds websites. The better the condition of the product, the better resale value it is likely to fetch, and this fact should act like an incentive to get retailers to encourage people to use such sites as well. The reason is simple – Old stuff out the door means people will go to the retailers to buy new stuff. This is the very rationale behind e-cycle – which is US retail chain Best Buy’s strategy. They look competent and eco-conscious while getting people to send in their old electronics…and hopefully buy that new iPad or iPhone 4 from them.
Electrolux has gone one step further and created a line of vacuum cleaners that have debris from the oceans incorporated into their product design, as a style statement. These vacuum cleaners are called ‘Vac from the Sea’, and they are such wonderful looking conversation pieces. What’s more, there is a customized one for each ocean and major seas!
India’s manufacturers and retailers need to play catch up – both, on the product innovation front and the recycling front – and taking things easy is not a luxury they can enjoy because climate change concerns are rapidly becoming an everyday talking point.
What is a talking point today will soon become finger pointing tomorrow, and eWaste producers better have some answers, if not solutions, ready by then.
She is on the websphere – so searching a little bit for her should be fun for those who are curious to know more about her.
Image Source: [http://devcon3e-waste.yolasite.com/resources/recycle%20electronic%20waste.jpg]