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Grey clouds loom over formal e-waste recyclers

Illegal factories process 95% of all e-waste and are flouting safety norms; they are also taking business away from licensed recyclers

May 09, 2016 12:00 am | Updated November 17, 2021 05:04 am IST

Pay off:Dust of metals extracted from e-waste; labourers at illegal processing factories work in extremely hazardous conditions and are regularly exposed to toxic fumes.Photos: Shanker ChakravartySource: APCO-CEAMA study

Pay off:Dust of metals extracted from e-waste; labourers at illegal processing factories work in extremely hazardous conditions and are regularly exposed to toxic fumes.Photos: Shanker ChakravartySource: APCO-CEAMA study

Mohammed Sabir spent his childhood learning to dismantle broken circuit boards. It was a reliable source of income for a long time, but the health hazards of handling toxic waste convinced Mr. Sabir to join the formal electronic-waste recycling sector. It’s been a tough road since then.

“So far I’ve been making a loss,” he told The Hindu . Two years ago his firm Green E-Waste Recyclers Ltd had 12 employees, now he can barely afford three.

“I thought I would get large, steady orders from big companies…but that has not happened. I am not sure how long I can continue,” he said.

Mr. Sabir is among the very few recyclers in the city who’ve registered with the government and is licensed to dismantle, crush and extract precious metals such as gold, platinum and titanium from e-waste, and then dispose the remnants safely.

Formal vs. informal sector

Mr. Sabir’s business is suffering at the hands of the informal sector — scores of unauthorised and illegal e-waste processing factories, which can afford to skimp on expenses such as rent and high wages, cut corners on workers’ safety, and disregard the proper way to dispose of e-waste.

Shankar Sharma, who handles customer service and marketing for Gurgaon-based e-waste recycler Green Vortex, says that running a formal e-waste recycling centre is challenging because of the arbitrary rules.

“There was a level playing field in 2012 when the Central Pollution Control Board had the final say, but now with recycling being handled by individual States… it’s the grey market, which seems to have benefited,” Mr. Sharma told The Hindu .

The ‘grey’ market, according to Mr. Sharma, refers to several recyclers who claim to be breaking and disposing e-waste sustainably, but are employing the hazardous methods observed in the informal sector.

Though formal recyclers have better technology and can extract nearly 95% of precious metals and rare earth elements from residual goods, they can’t match the informal sector in terms of their reach.

Nearly 75% of e-waste is generated by households and the rest by corporate and government institutions.

“A substantial part of e-waste is stocked in residential colonies and we’ve just got the license to begin collecting them,” said Sneha Jain, Marketing Manager of Pom Pom Recycling Pvt. Ltd, a city-based recycling outfit.

Stricter rules

The Union Ministry of Environment has announced stricter rules on the management of e-waste that encumbers producers of electronic goods to collect a percentage of their annual sales as e-waste.

The new rules, which are expected to come into effect later this year, will require companies to ensure that in the next two years they recover at least 30% of their electronic produce. By 2022 they will be expected to recover 70% of their e-produce.

“Unless the informal sector is formalised or made to be part of a defined e-waste supply chain, it will defeat the purpose that the government intends to achieve,” said Radhika Kalia, a spokesperson for CEAMA, an industry body of electronics manufacturers.

Tonnes of e-waste

India’s appetite for consumer goods means that it is looking at a mountain of e-waste.

Televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines make up the majority of e-waste by weight, while computers and mobile phones account for about 20 percent and two percent respectively.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, nearly 50 million tons of e-waste will be generated globally every year by 2017.

India will be producing about 2.7 million tons per annum.

Impact on health

Apart from valuable materials such as non-ferrous, precious and semi-precious metals, electronic goods are also repositories of hazardous and toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, halogenated substances, polychlorinated biphenyls and poly-brominated di-phenyl ethers.

Refrigerators, ACs and washing machines contain steel, plastics and copper wiring. However, they also contain potentially harmful substances such as chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochloroflourocarbon (CFCs/HCFC) gases, which have high ozone-depletion potential.

The health effects of handling e-waste carelessly are well-known. Metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, effect brain development of children and cause damage to the circulatory system, kidneys and the reproductive system.

Advanced recycling fund

Recyclers such as Mr. Sharma are hoping that a scheme called Advanced Recycling Fund can solve the problem of improving e-waste collection.

Under this initiative, consumers pay a surcharge for buying electronic goods and are reimbursed when they return the product to a licenced seller. “This is the practice in the US and Europe and has proven to work well. So it should work well here too,” he added.

Independent organisations say that producers must do more to address the problem of e-waste. Rather than hoping that informal recyclers become formal, it would be more feasible for companies to design programmes that can establish tie-ups and ensure that e-waste only makes its way to formal recyclers.

“The new rules are good because they set measurable targets for companies,” said Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator of ToxicsLink, an environmental agency working on e-waste issues, “it’s ambitious but not impossible and they will have to come up with better ways to deal with the informal sector.”

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