A new law to tackle e-waste disposal may impact a sizeable workforce in the unorganised sector.
Moradabad, the peetal nagri of Uttar Pradesh, may be globally famous for its brass handicrafts, but it has of late earned a notorious name as a hub of e-waste recycling. Some of the world's most sophisticated mobile phones, laptops and other IT hardware make their way to the bylanes of this town where precious metals like gold, silver, palladium and platinum from printed circuit boards (PCBs) are extracted by families in their homes using rudimentary methods harmful to the health and environment.
Living 167 km away from the national capital, however, they may not realise that a new law being drafted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest on e-waste managment and handling may impact their daily means of livelihood. The law seeks to allow only registered companies with updated and environmentally-sound technology to recycle.
Of course, the government is not deliberately trying to deprive people of a livelihood — the law is being designed to check a menace that is turning India into a giant e-waste dump.
According to estimates, India not only generates close to 40,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, but it also imports another 50,000 tonnes of e-waste illegally from countries like the US and Canada.
Most of this e-waste is imported under cover of “charity”. “The foreign trade (development and regulation) Act of 1992 allows for donation of secondhand computers. Since there are enough low-cost PC options available in India now, there is absolutely no use of such a law. It is actually being used to make India a dumping ground of e-waste,” says Abhishek Pratap of Greenpeace.
Almost 90 per cent of e-waste in India ends up in the unorganised sector. Mohammad Jamaal, a local raddiwaalah based in New Delhi, buys a single PC monitor for Rs 500 from auctions at the e-waste dismantling market, Seelampur, in north-Delhi and sells a kg of circuit for Rs 50 to scrap dealers in Moradabad. He earns Rs 20,000-25,000 a month from dismantling e-waste generated mostly from computers using instruments like a hammer and sickle.
Scrap dealers involved in the extraction of precious metals in the informal sector use methods like burning cables to extract copper or soaking circuits in open acid baths. After the extraction, the residue is thrown into open drains, impacting water and soil. The process leads to a loss of almost 75 per cent of the precious metals.
“These processes used by the unorganised sector involve emission of highly obnoxious gases like dioxine, which are carcinogenic in nature. Prolonged exposure to these can lead to cancer. Our study confirms the presence of heavy-metals laden dust in the major recycling hubs of Delhi. The analysis of dust samples and ashes confirms the presence of cadmium, lead, zinc and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) along with other organic contaminants,” says Pratap.
Despite the apparent health risk involved in e-waste recycling, there is a sizeable workforce involved in this business — most of it unorganised in nature.
New Delhi alone has about 25,000 scrap dealers for whom dismantling and recycling e-waste is a daily source of livelihood. Their apprehension towards the law, then, is understood. “The law must be participatory in nature and not give monopoly to a few companies to recycle. If the e-waste menace is to be tackled, the government must take the unorganised sector into confidence and secure their livelihood too,” says Shashi Bhushan Pandit, secretary of Harit Recycler’s Association.
Currently, there are 16 players in the organised sector involved in collection, dismantling and recycling of e-waste in an environmentally sound manner. However, since India does not have a smelting refinery for precious metal extraction, the organised sector exports PCBs to companies like Umicore Precious Metals Refining (UMR) in Belgium.
Steven Art, sales manager, electronic scrap at UMR, says the company uses a high-tech integrated smelting and refining technology to recover 17 precious and non-ferrous metals out of complex secondary raw materials, such as e-scrap. In India, UMR works with professional e-waste recycling companies such as E-Parisaraa and Greenscape Eco Management. He says the quantities UMR gets from India are fairly low, around a few 100 tonnes per year.
Setting up a smelting refinery is not expensive — it costs about Rs 35 crore. Art, however, thinks it is too early to start setting up end-refining technology for the treatment of e-waste in India without addressing the plight of the raddiwallahs first. “Before doing so, it is of utmost importance to first organise collection, dismantling, sorting and preparation so that substantial part of the e-waste will enter a formal recycling system rather than the informal. In our opinion, this can be done in a sustainable way by integrating the informal sector in a formalised system,” he says.
Ram Ramachandran of e-waste recycling company TES AMM based in Chennai agrees. “Laying too much emphasis on precious metal extraction will divert the attention from the real issue at hand. Most people don’t realise that not all of e-waste has precious components. Moreover, the PCBs you get in India are low in gold content. Very specific kind of electronic gadgets have a sizeable amount of precious metal content,” he says.
Ramachandran says the focus as of now needs to be on proper disposal of hazardous substances. “We need to make sure that recyclers use environmentally-sound methods to dispose e-waste. Laws are important but they are only effective when enforced,” he says.