Making room for e-swachta
Together with adding more dimensions to Swachh Bharat Mission to clear out the clutter and clean up India and taking the country to heights of development with digitising as much as possible, a hitherto overlooked matter of grave concern has been the management of e-waste. A study confirms that India happens to be among the top five countries in the world for the amount of e-waste it generates; China, USA, Japan, and Germany being the other countries on the list in the study conducted by ASSOCHAM-NEC. Maharashtra is the largest contributor of e-waste at 19.8 per cent and recycles only about 47,810 TPA (tonnes per annum). Its counterparts Tamil Nadu (13 per cent) recycles about 52,427 TPA, UP (10.1 per cent) recycles about 86,130. Other states like West Bengal contribute 9.8 per cent e-waste, Delhi 9.5 per cent, Karnataka 8.9 per cent, Gujarat 8.8 per cent, and Madhya Pradesh's share is studied to be 7.6 per cent. 82 per cent of India's e-waste comprises personal devices such as computers, screens, smartphones, tablets and TVs, and the remainder being larger household appliances and heating and cooling equipment. Out of the composite global e-waste, only 20 per cent of it is recycled each year, meaning that 40 million tonnes of e-waste is either placed in landfill, or burned, or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard manner. 66 per cent of the world's population is covered by e-waste legislation. Given this, recycling e-waste and managing it altogether is a challenge and it is more than necessary to rise to it. One way to address the situation is to focus on customers as the key to better management of e-waste. With this approach, consumers are encouraged to correctly dispose off their electronic discards, increase reuse and recycling, and adopt sustainable consumer habits and move towards a circular economy. In principle, this is a most favourable idea. In practice, however, the consumer cannot be the sole primary aspect of this type of clean-up. There needs to be institutional initiative and necessary intervention in coordinating and ascertaining that a consumer-centric approach works effectively. Roping in the seller to buy back discarded electronic items must be made a rule-bound practice for proper disposal of e-waste. The hazards of not properly disposing e-waste are many, the noxious fumes and the toxicity are detrimental to both health and environment not just immediately after disposal but for a long time after that. In India, however, the lack of an updated inventory for the amount of e-waste generated makes it difficult to quantify the e-waste recycled and disposed.
A well designed, regulated e-waste recovery system will go a long way in detoxifying the environment and even bring crucial additional benefits like generating jobs and, in turn, wealth. For that, it is necessary that the increasingly generated e-waste does not end up in landfill and severely pollute land, water, and air. Nearly 95 per cent of India's e-waste is recycled in the informal sector and in a crude, hazardous manner. A report on e-waste presented by the UN in World Economic Forum on January 24, 2019, points out that the waste stream reached 48.5 MT in 2018 and the figure is expected to double if nothing changes. Just about 20 per cent of global e-waste ends up being recycled. The UN report highlights that due to poor extraction techniques, the total recovery rate of cobalt from e-waste is only 30 per cent. The report further cites that one recycler in China already produces more cobalt from recycling than what the country mines in one year. It has been proved that recycled metals are 2 to 10 times more energy-efficient than metals smelted from ore. It is suggested that lowering the amount of electronics entering the waste stream and improving end-of-life handling are crucial for building a more circular economy, where not only is waste reduced, resources are conserved and are fed back into the supply chain for new products. In India, laws to check regulation of e-waste have been lying in place since 2011, mandating that only authorised dismantlers and recyclers collect e-waste. E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 was enacted on October 1, 2017, and over 21 products (Schedule-I) come under the purview of this rule. Most Indians, however, are oblivious to this provision. The very specific goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to make India open defecation free, and that considerable progress has been made in this direction, specifically taking up the cause of e-waste management to spread awareness about it will definitely be fruitful. As an initial step in this direction, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics medals will be made of 50,000 tonnes of e-waste. The organising committee is said to make all the medals from old smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets. By November 2018, organisers had collected 47,488 tonnes of devices, from which nearly 8 tonnes of gold, silver, and bronze will be extracted to make 5,000 medals. About 1,600 or 90 per cent municipal authorities in Japan were involved in collection activities – proving the point of employment generation and potential wealth creation!