E-waste disposal, a mounting headache for the city

The system mostly hinges on informal players like ragpickers

October 25, 2021 01:14 am | Updated 01:14 am IST - New Delhi

A scrap shop selling outdated and discarded electronic waste in Seelampur in Delhi.

A scrap shop selling outdated and discarded electronic waste in Seelampur in Delhi.

For a little over 10 years, Sakir Mohammad, a ragpicker in the city’s Patparganj Industrial Area, has been collecting electronic waste from nearby companies. A growing concern for Delhi despite measures in place for collection and recycling, the industry has been dependent on informal players like ragpickers for e-waste disposal.

As per the data provided by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), 39 pickup requests were made for e-waste collection to Attero Recycling, a private firm roped in by the municipal body, from July 29 to September 30 this year. However, 25 of these requests were cancelled.

Only “12 pickups were done” and “129.97 kilograms” of e-waste were collected during the period. It further said that “lots of calls” were made for “picking up material in working condition” and that users’ “expectation of cost was high”.

Lack of awareness

EDMC Mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal said that “people lacked awareness”. “We are working to create awareness through various mediums and by getting in touch with resident welfare associations. I agree that a significant portion of the e-waste goes to the informal sector, and they are also welcome to join the formal sector, but only if they meet the requirements,” he said, adding that more private players for e-waste collection will be invited in the near future.

South Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Mukesh Suryan said “they have already taken the initiative” to collect e-waste through a private player. “It will take some time for people to understand and follow the system. We are trying to create awareness regarding collection and recycling of e-waste in colonies through various methods. We have an online portal which people can make use of,” he said.

Staggering numbers

According to a 2018 report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), India had generated close to two million metric tonnes of e-waste, with a significant portion of the waste going to the informal sector. Delhi was among the top e-waste contributors in the country with 9.5% and a future estimate of three million metric tonnes in India was quoted.

Thirty-year-old Mohammad is one among the city’s many informal waste collectors, who collects old and unusable electronic items with regular scrap materials. “I collect whatever comes in the scrap, including old phones, air conditioner parts and compressors. Once collected, I sell it to whoever is willing to buy — mostly shopkeepers who want to resell it. Otherwise, I send the remaining waste to a place near the Ghazipur Dairy Farm,” said Mr. Mohammad, who has no knowledge of what happens to the e-waste after he sells it.

While Mr. Mohammad said he does not have a licence to collect e-waste, he is not keen on acquiring one. “Sometimes, I end up paying a meagre fine to the municipal corporation authorities but the matter does not escalate beyond that. I have monthly expenses to maintain my business, which includes paying police officers every month. They keep our set-up safe when we are not around and also give us tip-offs prior to any raids that are going to be conducted by civic bodies,” he said.

Sahil Khan, an e-waste collector of old computer parts, wonders “what happens to the e-waste generated by big tech companies”.

“We follow a system where we dismantle the waste we collect and recycle it at plants outside Delhi. We also keep a record by taking videos of the recycling process. Every electronic waste item has a different method of dismantling and recycling, but one should visit the recycling plants that handle e-waste from big tech firms,” Mr. Khan said, adding that he suspected a foul play in their process of handling the waste.

Broader issues

In the city’s Seelampur, a hub of the informal sector, one can see scores of local shops selling outdated and discarded electronic waste, from old mobile phones, phone batteries to motherboards, hard disks, fridges and compressors.

A shopkeeper in the area said he dealt with “old mobile phones” which he would dismantle and sell “to buyers who resell the same in the market”. “We only dismantle and sell the core parts of the device; we sell it in bulk quantities and the demand for these parts is quite high,” he said.

A cart puller, who regularly transports the waste to these shops, said, “We only pick up and drop the waste as instructed. For us, it is a matter of daily earnings and we do not get into the specifics of what happens after that.”

Satish Sinha, associate director at Toxics Link, a city-based group focusing on environmental issues, said the role of informal players cannot be denied and they should be included as part of the solution.

“Some role has to be assigned to the informal players, maybe for collection, transportation or aggregating the waste. They need to be made legal entities. The moment they get covered by the law, this whole business of informality and hiding will not be required. They can operate better that way and some taxes can also be collected from them,” Mr. Sinha said.

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