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Where goes the trash?
Aritra Bhattacharya
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India produced 1,46,000 tonnes of electronic waste (discarded computers and peripherals and other electronic goods) in 2004. That isn’t such a big number given India’s size, and might make one wonder what all the recent fuss about e-waste is all about. In such case, a peering eye could bring the magnitude of the problem into focus.

For one, India’s PC penetration currently stands at 10-12 / 1000; the tenth five-year-plan envisages it at 75 / 1000. The seven fold increase in the number of computers will see a corresponding wave in e-waste generation volumes, once the machines become obsolete.
Secondly, the Electronic Manufacturers’ Association estimates that by 2012, India will produce 5 million tones of e-waste. Considering the IT industry is pegged to grow at 35 percent and the average lifespan of a computer in a technology company is 3-4 years, 5 million tones doesn’t seem to be far away.

For simplicity sake though, let’s stop future-gazing and concentrate on the present scenario. There are just two CPCB-authorized e-waste recyclers in the country viz. Bangalore-based E-parisaara and Chennai-based Trishyiraya. Between them, they recycle 600 tonnes and 350 tonnes of e-waste respectively on a yearly basis. That accounts for just 1000 out of the 1,46,000 tonnes of electronic waste generated (in a year). So what happens to the rest of the 1,45,000 tonnes?

Simply put, it makes its way into the informal recycling sector. And in that gives rise to serious health and environmental implications. And how!
The informal recyclers, scrap dealers so to say, operate out of dilapidated makeshift structures located in pockets of major metropolises. They are run illegally, and allegedly in conduit with major corporations who ‘sell’ their electronic waste to them, at a price much higher than authorized recyclers can offer. This, simply because the latter have to spend a considerable amount on maintaining stipulated safeguards, while the informal sector has no such strapping.

The workers in these informal units burn the Printed Circuit Boards (PCB), pour acid over the Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) wires and break open the cabinets and CPUs. All this is done in order to extract precious metals like gold, silver, platinum, copper et al. that are contained in parts of the computer (see table on hazardous trappings). The metals are then sold off to respective dealers. While the process of burning computer parts releases huge amounts of toxic gases into the atmosphere, as also endangering the health of the workers, acids poured on wires seep into the underground water table and contaminate it beyond resurrection.

The reasons for materials slipping into the hands of these ‘illegal’ recyclers are many. Primary among them is the laxity of regulations governing e-waste disposal. Says Ramapati Kumar from the international NGO Greenpeace: “E-waste is supposedly governed under the Hazardous Waste Rules, but the law does not mention of e-waste separately. Given the complex nature of e-waste management, a separate legislation is extremely essential.”
The past year or two had seen some endeavor from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to draft a WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) management policy, but efforts were discarded late last year after stakeholders raised concerns about the draft policies. Primary among the features of the draft was making illegal recyclers part of the mainstream.

While many vehemently oppose the idea, Bangalore-based Ash Recyclers could be a model worth looking at. Started by an erstwhile scrap dealer Syed Hussain, Ash was authorized by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) to handle e-waste last year.

Hussain’s ‘recycling unit’ places onus on reuse of computer components; it buys discarded machines at Rs. 10-12/ kg, often from the grey market, extracts reusable portions, assembles them into computers and TV sets (by converting monitors) and sells them, as well as spares, as second hand goods, bringing in profit margins to the tune of ‘600 percent at times’.

On the other hand, the state of the two CPCB authorized recyclers seems to be bleak. While two-year-old E-parisaara is still accounting losses, Trishyiraya seems to be struggling to renew its CPCB authorization. Interestingly, contrary to the Ash model, both these companies focus more on recycling; they incinerate the computers, recover whatever amount of plastic and metals is possible and discard the rest in engineered landfills.

“Despite most IT companies sending their machines to these two recyclers, their journey has been jittered since the recycling technology at their disposal helps them recover just 35-40 percent of the metal/ plastic, as against 99 percent recovered by Belgium’s Umicore,” notes Kumar.

“Keeping the Indian context in mind, reuse is a much better option. It can help take technology to those who can ill-afford brand new systems,” says Wilma Rodrigues of Saahas, a Bangalore-based NGO.

Central to applying the reuse philosophy is formalizing the informal recycling sector. “They (informal recyclers) have been around for a long time and are equipped with all the necessary disassembling skills,” she says.
“Besides,” adds David Rochat of Swiss NGO EMPA, “such a model would provide a livelihood to many. All that must be done is educating the informal recyclers of the re-use value of computer components.”

An effort to that level was made by German NGO GTZ in Bangalore’s ill-famed Gowripalya area, once a den of illegal recyclers. The various stakeholders there have now formed E-Waard—a trust under GTZ’s guidance, and have let go of erstwhile hazardous practices, focusing more on reuse. Through the simple job of disassembling and reselling usable components, families earn around Rs. 4000 every month, enough to feed their hungry stomachs. What’s more important is this comes, unlike earlier, at no health overheads.

Since most of the workers in the illegal recycling units come from the lowest economic strata and are illiterate, the only way to ‘mainstream’ them is to educate them of the severe health and environmental impacts of hazardous practices typical of illegal recycling, and also make them aware of the much larger amount of money in reselling useable portions rather than extracting metals out of them.

Dr. H. C. Saratchandra, Chairman of Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) reckons IT companies can make the biggest difference in this regard. “Their present attitude towards e-waste management is pathetic, but if they decide to impart training in safe disassembling practices and reusability values, things could change.”

That, undoubtedly, will take time. In the meanwhile, the first step in the direction of training seems to have been made. Ash Recyclers, located in the dingy alleys of a lesser Bangalore, is training informal recyclers to strip down to stark nakedity (sic) engines of the India’s eclectic economic rise: Computers. When e-scrap comes calling, groups of women, and at times children, get busy disassembling computers received as scrap, sorting the useable parts, packaging them into separate cartons and storing the rest in massive storehouses, all for a daily wage of Rs. 100-120. The boons of the country’s prowess in IT, it would seem here, have finally trickled down to the masses.

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