The next iPhone is coming out in a few months’ time. Before the end of the year, televisions with till now unheard of technology and laptops thinner and lighter than anything in the market will be released. Parallel to that, some of the devices being used now are slowing down by the day or are becoming non-compatible with newer technologies, literally forcing us to queue up to buy new products.

The idea of ‘planned obsolescence’ by which a product is manufactured by artificially limiting its lifespan was in currency even 100 years ago, when manufacturers of things such as light bulbs colluded to set a maximum lifespan for the products. But the current speed of innovation in electronic goods has made it far easier for manufacturers, as consumers are now faced with a combination of ‘want’ and ‘need.’

Consequently, the electronic waste (e-waste) that we produce is growing exponentially. From our attics to dingy storerooms in corporate houses, the pile is growing but people probably do not realise it as this waste does not stink.

It might sound like a ‘First World problem,’ but the Third World countries suffer more owing to their own waste, and that diverted from bigger countries.

Though Thiruvananthapuram city seems to be in a slumber as far as awareness and action on e-waste is concerned, Technopark from where the maximum e-waste is produced, thankfully, has an arrangement with a private company to collect such waste from companies.

“We have contracted a private company to collect e-waste from the park. Their agents come here for collection every quarter. The individual companies are given advance notice,” says M. Vasudevan, Senior Manager of Technopark.

From Technopark

S. John Robert, chief executive officer of the Hyderabad-based Earth Sense Recycle Company, which collects e-waste from Technopark, says that annually around 70 tonnes of waste is collected from there.

“The majority of it is old computer systems. Then there are tube lights, CFL lamps, and old mobile phones, which companies throw out in bulk when they replace them with new ones. We erase the data from the hard disks and memory cards and send it to a collection facility in Palakkad. From there, it is taken to the processing centre in Hyderabad, where the useful materials are segregated from the hazardous waste, which comes to around 2 per cent. A part of the collected waste goes to landfill,” says Mr. Robert.

The erasing of data is crucial as hard disks sometimes store credit card numbers, account information, records of online transactions, and other important data, which in the hands of cyber scammers can be catastrophic.

In addition to the 70 tonnes from Technopark, Earth Sense collects around 30 tonnes of e-waste annually from Thiruvananthapuram — from hospitals, banks, and other organisations.

But even as this system is functioning smoothly, when it comes to the city as a whole, there is no proper system to collect e-waste from houses and apartments. Rather, no collection happens, though awareness campaigns are galore.

“Some of the residential associations had discussions with Kudumbasree to collect e-waste from their areas. But without a system to process the waste, there is no use in just collecting it,” says Paraniyam Devakumar, general secretary of the Federation of Residents’ Associations, Thiruvananthapuram.

In Kochi, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI) had an agreement with a private firm to supply e-waste from its flats, but the project failed to take off.

Collection costs

“Without enough quantity of waste, we cannot have an arrangement with residential associations, as the transportation costs involved are huge. The lack of a centralised collection system for all residential associations is a major problem,” says K. Dileep, Business Development Officer of Earth Sense.

A fallout of this is that e-waste from houses gets mixed with regular garbage and ends up in dump yards, where its burning can cause severe air pollution and also leaching of the chemicals into groundwater.

From the scrapyard to your desktop

Anoop Varghese, who works at a major company in Technopark, was walking along the city streets when a poster caught his eye. It promised used computers at just Rs.3,999, with a warranty to boot.

“I called posing as a buyer on the number listed on the poster. They said that these were all imported from America and other Western countries. I am sure they cannot sell the computers at such rates if these were not e-waste sold at scrap rates. Companies also sometimes auction off old computers in working condition, and these dealers then sell these after basic repairs. Such systems have a short lifespan and soon become e-waste,” says Mr. Varghese.

Only a small percentage of the e-waste from developed countries is processed there itself, and is instead shipped off to Third World countries in violation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes. For instance, the Accra wetland in Ghana has morphed geographically into the biggest dump yard for e-waste in the world.

In India, some of the major dumping sites are in Delhi and Gujarat. Though Kerala is yet to turn into a dump yard, outdated systems are shipped here clandestinely as described above.

But for the producers of e-waste among us, one question that is hard to evade is where one’s old mobile phone or laptop is heading to. It reaches a large recycling facility in the suburbs of major cities in our neighbouring States or in scrapyards.

Though the companies claim to provide safety to the labourers as per the norms, much of the taking apart is done with bare hands in the unorganised sector. That might be worth pondering over before one gets excited about the next ‘upgrade,’ which is more often a fashion statement rather than a necessity.