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Millennium Post

Reduce, Recycle & Reutilise

The old, dilapidated mobile phone you replaced with a snazzy, up-to-date version was disposed of properly at the company’s collection centre. You think it has been discarded in an environment friendly way. But often that does not happen. Worse, it can contribute to the losses the country makes on account of electronic waste, or e-waste.

Mobile phones have precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium; special metals such as cobalt, indium and antimony; and metals such as copper and tin. These are present in individual phones in traces, but one tonne of mobile phones has as much as 340 grams of gold, 3.5 kilograms of silver, 140 grams of palladium and 130 kilograms of copper, states a 2009 report on e-waste by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The country produces 65,000 tonnes of e-waste from mobile phones in a year. But there are very few recycling units in India to recover these, so scrap dealers extract as much as they can and export the rest. The country thus loses 70 per cent of recoverable precious metals present in electronic junk, says Ashish Chaturvedi, senior technical adviser to Indo-German Environment Partnership.

Computers, mobile phones and other electronic products use a staggering 320 tonnes of gold and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver annually world wide. Often, these are 40 to 50 times richer than their ores, states a report by Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeGI), a collaboration of members from major information and communication technology companies across the world and United Nations University. One tonne of scrap from discarded computers contains more gold than can be produced from 17 tonnes of gold ore. A mobile phone contains five to 10 times more gold than gold ore.

India generates 3,50,000 tonnes of e-waste every year. Another 50,000 tonnes are imported for dismantling. The process is cheap in India as it involves manual labour. Dismantlers, however, extract only a small amount. They export parts such as printed circuit boards, which are rich in precious metals, to countries which claim to have environmentally sound technology.

Umicore Precious Metals Refining in Belgium, SIMS Recycling Solution in Singapore, Boliden at Sweden, Xstrata in Canada and DOWA in Japan possess the technical knowhow of recycling e-waste. These companies, which have been set up with huge amounts of investment, are predominantly mining companies which also extract precious metals for e-waste recyclers.

India makes huge losses considering the country’s projected growth for e-waste generation is 34 per cent every year, according to reports. Mumbai, the highest e-waste producing city in the country, throws away 19,000 tonnes of e-waste in a year. Business trends show that by 2020, e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times the current level. Computer waste will rise by 500 per cent.

But E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 that became effective last year is inadequate and does not say much on export and import of e-waste. Result, precious metals easily go out of the country while developed nations dump their e-waste in the country often in the name of charity.

The recycling methods that scrap dealers use are extremely harmful to environmental and human health, state studies by environmental agencies. They either immerse printed circuit boards and electronic parts into chemical solutions or burn them to obtain metal extracts. These two processes release toxic gases. Besides harming the environment it is an occupational hazard.

Recycling units in the country do not get enough e-waste because they do not pay as much for the junk as scrap dealers do. Companies are scared of making a large-scale investment in a state-of-the-art e-waste management facility in India, says owner of a dismantling unit in Kolkata on the condition of anonymity.

When E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 came into effect, many collectors, dismantlers and recyclers started approaching state pollution control boards to get themselves registered. According to the rules, registered collectors are supposed to handover e-waste to registered dismantlers or recyclers. They will recycle e-waste using environmentally sound technology and export the rest to countries with better e-waste treatment facilities.

CPCB officials claim they are lenient on registering dismantlers and recyclers as it would help scrutinise the vast amount of e-waste that the unorganised sector collects. However, data collected from various state pollution control boards reveals that till date only about 100 registrations have been made.

Laxmi Raghupathy, technical specialist on e-waste and former director, environment ministry, however, says the need is to reach out to people in the informal sector because most people engaged in recycling and dismantling belong to this sector. At present, e-waste rules and the international norms specify different amounts of metals present in electronic products.

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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