Clean Tech

Going circular in E-wasteland

Preeti Mehra | Updated on October 20, 2020

E-waste recovery and reuse should be stepped up as online activity grows amidst the Covid pandemic

E-waste is identified as the fastest growing waste stream in the world by the Global E-Waste Monitor. And the coronavirus pandemic is likely to add to it, thanks to an unprecedented surge in online activity and a growing work-from-home culture. In 2019, the Monitor recorded the highest ever e-waste generation worldwide at 53.6 million tonnes (mt). Of this, only 17.4 per cent was formally collected and recycled.

E-waste essentially comprises discarded products that use battery or are plugged to a power point. Typical examples in today’s age include computers, monitors and mobile phones. The Monitor’s 2020 global estimate predicts that e-waste will continue to multiply to reach 74 mt by 2030.

The India story is no different. We generated 3.2 mt of e-waste in 2019, making us the third largest contributor globally. And though we have legislation in place since 2016 for e-waste management, less than 2 per cent of it gets recycled.

The collection of e-waste is an uphill task. Consumers are largely uninformed of the best way to junk a product. Many look for adequate monetary compensation for it, while others are reluctant to hand it over to informal recyclers since they are unsure of whether safety and privacy protocols such as security wipes will be strictly followed.

Last week, on International E-Waste Day (October 14), a host of experts thrashed out the challenges e-waste faces in India in an online session and focused on the way forward for a circular economy. Karo Sambhav, the first Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) in the country, hosted the event along with US-India Business Council.

Karo Sambhav, incidentally, is the only Indian outfit to be a member of the international WEEE Forum, a platform that gives its members technical and operational guidance in implementing circular economy principles in their respective countries.

Wealth creation for recycler

Everyone who participated in the discussion was agreed that if there is one thing that is going for e-waste, it is the ability to create value for its collector and wealth for its recycler. E-waste streams contain valuable and critical materials, like gold, copper, and iron and rare earths, making it a rich urban source of elements. Recovering these materials can bolster a secondary materials market and reduce reliance on virgin material sources. But despite the fact that it could give birth to a large number of entrepreneurs, collection of end-of-life products remains small and informal recycling is commonplace.

Haphazard recycling, in turn, leads to air, water and soil contamination, with adverse health effects since the products contain toxic materials, heavy metals and organic pollutants.

While mooting a responsible and sustainable e-waste management ecosystem, Pranshu Singhal, Founder, Karo Sambhav, said currently just one-fourth of the electronic goods produced in India is recycled domestically. And that a “circular economy will help shift the focus from the linear ‘take, make and dispose’ approach to include recovery and reutilisation for production.” But this, and creating economies of scale, is possible only if informal collectors (kabadiwallas and rag pickers) are brought on board along with formal recycling.

Proactive PCBs

Some State Pollution Control Boards related their experiences. Dr Ashok Kumar Ghosh, Chairman, Bihar Pollution Control Board, was proactive in inviting entrepreneurs to his State and was willing to hand-hold them in making e-waste a business. He and Ashok Kheterpal, Chairman, Haryana Pollution Control Board, reiterated how crucial it was for a collaboration between producers and government bodies to properly handle e-waste, comply with regulatory frameworks.

A much-needed window was provided by Michael Bucki, Counsellor. European Union delegation to India. He spoke of the EU green deal, how circular economy is looked at in a holistic way and deals with four main sectors: textiles, construction, electronics, and plastics. Driving this transition is research, innovation, digitisation, along with investors and sustainable finance.

Product design also came in for discussion, with the design ideal for recycling being imagined — a design that makes its end-of-life a breeze: easy to discard, dismantle, recover and recycle.

For Singhal, it was the way forward for the e-waste sector that was most important. “The Covid-19 crisis has forced us to identify and adapt to a different way of life. We now need to chart our course for the ‘Decade of Action’ and commit ourselves to build a truly circular economy in India,” he said.

Published on October 20, 2020

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