5G may worsen India’s electronic waste mess

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 11, 2019

Millions of devices are going to be replaced and not many will get recycled. India’s three million-tonne e-waste pile is set to grow only bigger

If you are reading this article, it means you own or have access to an electronic gadget. Many of you may own one or more such devices. If you do, this is about you. If you don’t, well, this is about you. In 1994, the year the National Telecom Policy was drafted, not even one in 100 Indians owned a phone.

A study from research agency ICRIER shows India’s tele-density has grown manifold since the sector was privatised in the late 1990s. It rose from less than one per cent in 1998 to over 30 per cent of the population in 2009. Today, overall tele-density in India stands at more than 90 per cent (July 2019). This means millions of Indians own millions of phones. By 2007, Indians owned 250 million phones. In just a little over a decade, thanks to the smartphone explosion, that number grew many times and in 2019 Indians might buy more than 30 crore mobile phones.

Obviously, the growth in gadgets, along with other computing devices, meant a spike in electronic waste (e-waste). By definition e-waste means discarded phones, modems, computer monitors, chips, motherboards, etc. Now mobile phones, whose lifespan is much shorter than an AC or a PC, have made the pile of toxic waste grow leaps and bounds, so much so that according to the Global E-Waste Monitor, India made some two million tonnes of e-waste in 2018 and ‘boasts’ a fifth rank among e-waste-makers, succeeded by the US, China, Japan and Germany. It is estimated that India will generate some five million tonnes of e-waste by next year;or more, as the current trends indicate.

New devices

More phones are discarded now than ever before, thanks to the explosion in the budget (sub-₹10,000 segment) and the invasion of cheap Chinese handsets. Market leader Xiaomi itself has sold over 100 million phones in India since its launch in 2004. Improvements in technology, which would necessitate changes in hardware, and the rising demand for better phones that help consumers perform their daily tasks of shopping, communications and personal gratification activities have made the industry boom.

Now with the brisk transition to 5G, which can make mobile telephone incredibly faster and more efficient, another wave of phones would hit the world’s markets, necessitating hardware changes in handsets, and many estimate that more than half of the existing phones will have to be replaced with new ones if their owners have to enjoy faster mobile computing.

Granted, most people would prefer to stick to LTE or even 3G but they will be soon tempted to change handsets once 5G-specific services start rolling in. As 5G rolls out across the nation, people need to upgrade to devices that are capable of using 5G.

Big challenge

Clearly, this will pose a challenge to managing India’s e-waste, which is a tall order as things stand now. India does not recycle its e-waste properly. While globally, only 20 per cent of the total 50 million e-waste is recycled, in India, this number is abysmally low and most of the recycling happens in the informal sector which lacks the expertise or wherewithal to handle such toxic waste.

Business body Assocham has estimated that India’s e-waste has been growing at 30 per cent to reach five million next year. That said, India has only 178 registered (government-approved) e-waste recyclers to process e-waste.

Policy must look into this urgently. India has a few laws looking at e-waste management. The first of the lot came in 2011, saying only the registered entities can collect and process it. But that, as is proven later, hasn’t helped matters much. The E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016, that came into effect on October 1, 2017. Even that has not helped, if the alarming growth in e-waste is of any indication. The government must rise up to the challenge and introduce stringent and holistic norms for collecting, processing and recycling e-waste before the issue blows up on our face.

Published on October 04, 2019

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