Little has changed over the years in the narrow bylanes of Seelampur in the national capital, India’s largest unorganised ewaste recycling hub, as hundreds of establishments, big and small, salvage computer peripherals, laptops, mobile phones and other electronic waste in the most unscientific way. Government regulations on e-waste management have had little impact here.
If Seelampur represents how India has decided to handle one of modernity’s biggest problems — e-waste — things are hardly better in other parts of the country. India is now officially the world’s third-biggest e-waste generator, producing over 3.23 million metric tonnes of e-waste per year, behind the US and China. While hardly anything ends up in a landfill, the big worry is that 95 per cent of e-waste still continues to be handled by the informal sector.
India’s e-waste generation has risen nearly 43 per cent between FY18 and FY20. The pandemic-induced increase in use of electronic devices is set to accentuate this problem in the near future. A study by KPMG and ASSOCHAM says computer equipment account for almost 70 per cent of e-waste in India, followed by telecom/phones (12 per cent), electrical equipment (8 per cent) and medical equipment (7 per cent).
Till now, urban areas have been the biggest contributors to generation of e-waste. Now, thanks to the mobile phone revolution, even rural India is sitting on a time bomb. Even though new regulations mandate manufactures of electronics devices to take part in disposing e-waste, what India needs is a multipronged approach to streamline e-waste management, right from encouraging formal e-waste handlers to driving down procurement costs, tightening screws on illegal imports, creating awareness and improving inventory management.
Formal v/s Informal
India’s e-waste production has risen almost 2.5 times to 3.23 million metric tonnes in six years to 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor Report 2020. India is also the only country in South-Asia to have a specific legal framework for handling e-waste since 2011. The E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules address not just the need to handle e-waste in an environmentally friendly way, but also its transportation, storage and recycling. They have also introduced the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR). In 2016, the rules were tweaked to introduce Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) while bringing buy-back, deposit refund and exchange schemes under EPR. However, given the high cost of handling and procurement, low margins and underutilisation of capacities, most formal sector or pollution control board-recognised e-waste handlers are grappling with basic problems.
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