Bernd Kopacek

In recent years, the waste from electrical and electronic equipment, also referred to as WEEE or e-waste, has become an important focus of legislators globally. This can be attributed principally to two reasons: the hazardous nature of this waste component, both in terms of the health of the citizens and the environment, and the possibility of deriving valuable materials like precious, critical and base metals from the e-waste.

Moreover, among all urban solid waste, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream (‘UNEP 2007 E-waste Inventory Assessment Manual Volume I’), and this trend is expected to continue, in line with advancements in the quality and quantity of technology products’ consumption globally. Such multifaceted characterisation makes handling of e-waste very challenging to address, especially considering the political, social and environmental factors involved in both developed and developing countries.

Despite the effort to avoid a copy-paste approach amongst the parties concerned, most governments, like India, followed the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle, when the discussion turned to the crucial issue of financing the development of sound e-waste management systems due to low or absent investment capacity.

The sustainable management of e-waste (average of the all products and including all logistics and treatment costs) is not a profitable business at the moment and, therefore, additional money is required to avoid “cherry picking” (processing only profitable products) or compromising the quality of recycling. In Europe, where the e-waste legislation was enacted 15 years ago, all producers joined forces in PROs (producer responsibility organisations) to enable economies of scale for the sound collection and recycling of e-waste.

Untapped opportunity

In the past 15 years, since the enactment of the e-waste legislation in Europe, the e-waste sector has shown that proper e-waste management is good for the environment and essential for a sustainable economy. The 1.8 million tonnes of e-waste produced in India this year has the potential to generate up to 300,000 jobs, provided a new sector, valued at over $3 billion annually, is established.

In addition, many more jobs can be secured in the production sector because recycling precious and critical metals is the basis for manufacturing new products in the country, especially since resources are becoming scarce and more expensive. In Europe, our hi-tech wastes are already called the “urban mine”.

To develop a prosperous market, it is necessary for products that are not being used or repaired to reach proper recycling facilities. Currently, the informal sector dominates the e-waste sector in India, using manual dismantling and crude, low quality (or non-existent) processing technology.

However, India’s khabadiwalas provide a much better collection service to its citizens as compared to Europe (we have to bring our e-waste to municipal collection centres ourselves), leading to a higher collection rate of e-waste in India. This service must be strengthened by formalising the collectors and converting the informal processors into formalised dismantlers. India’s large size requires a decentralised approach to recycling; this may even entail small mobile units travelling from dismantler to dismantler and performing the recycling on site.

Considering the challenges associated with the attitude, capacity, and capabilities of some formal recyclers in India, strong enforcement by government institutions is very important. Simultaneously, several producers and importers of electrical and electronic equipment who are obliged by law to take over the responsibility for the products at the end-of-life stage have adopted a “wait and see” approach by attempting to avert their financing obligation. While enforcement is required to tackle these issues, a balance must be struck and regulators must take care not to over-regulate the market which could hinder healthy growth of the e-waste sector.

There is a critical need for all stakeholders to join hands to make this possible. Private households, small businesses, bulk consumers and public institutions must dispose of their obsolete equipment responsibly, dismantlers and recyclers must adopt the zero-waste approach and producers (and importers) must contribute their share by taking over the financial responsibility for responsible collection and treatment of e-waste while also improving the design of their new products to enable longer life of products and easier repair, and recycling.

A lot of our jobs in the future depend directly or indirectly on the resources that we can save or recover today.

The author is International Consultant, International Finance Corporation.