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Graveyard for old gadgets

Electronic waste can be hazardous to both living beings and the environment. So where do you throw away your old devices?

Ritika Bhatia & Indulekha Aravind 

According to a Greenpeace report, India generated 380,000 tonnes of e-waste from discarded computers, televisions and mobile phones in 2007. That figure ought to have significantly increased in the last seven years with the leaps in technology and the advent of smartphones, tablets and notebooks. The lifespan of devices has come down with their replacement every few years or less. What do you do with the unwanted gadgets in your home?

Many seem unaware that there is legislation that governs the disposal of used and defunct electronics. E-waste has to be collected, transported and safely disposed of by an authorised e-waste management company. Sale of electronic scrap to unlicensed raddiwalas, as has been the norm, is illegal. Not that it stops the shadier side of the informal recycling industry, as was indicated by a recent Assocham report. It says that the business often employs children to dismantle electronic waste and less than 5 per cent of India's total e-waste is recycled. Most state government websites list the places or organisations that have been authorised to accept old electronics for disposal.

Being the country's infotech capital, it is not surprising that at 14,160 tonnes a year, Bangalore generates the most e-waste in the country, according to a 2009 survey carried out by market research firm IMRB for Manufacturers Association for Information Technology and German sustainable development consultancy GTZ. "When we started operations in 2004, we used to collect a couple of tonnes of e-waste a year. This has jumped to 2,400 tonnes a year, the amount we collected in FY14," says Virender Kaul, head of marketing at Bangalore-based E-Parisara, one of the first government-authorised electronic waste recyclers in the country. Kaul says individual disposal at the organised level is very poor, though an average middle-class household is estimated to generate 21 kg of e-waste a year. He attributes the reluctance to correctly handle e-waste to "typical Indian mentality". "People feel it is of high value so they don't want to part with it," he says. While many e-waste management services might be certified by the government, Kaul also suggests finding out what the company is doing with the e-waste, especially if the client is a big company.

The responsibility then lies with both the consumer and producer, according to Lokesh Kumar, business development manager at Earth Sense, an e-waste recycling company in Manesar that runs recycling centres in Mumbai and Bangalore and collection centres in Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram, among others. He says that e-waste, after being picked up, is further segregated into categories (plastics, metals, cables) and dismantled using special machines. Many e-waste companies offer pick-ups and tie up with a parcel service to collect e-waste from consumers, and depending on the quantity of e-waste, either pays a nominal amount for the scrap or charges the consumer. He says that as opposed to the informal recycling sector that can only manage 35-40 per cent metal extraction from e-waste, the formal sector has a success rate of 75-90 per cent. But the major difference lies in the disposal of the hazardous remains; once they are done with extraction of useful metals, the informal sector tends to just dump the rest in open landfills, while the formal sector gets rid of it in a more eco-friendly manner, at proper sewage disposal sites managed by the government.

Kumar says that there are multiple ways to reduce one's e-waste footprint. "Before buying a product, choose a responsible brand that has a formal recycling set-up in place, so that when your product becomes obsolete, the company can take it back." Nokia was one of the first to initiate an e-waste management campaign in 2008. Apple Inc announced last month that it will now offer free recycling of all its used products to reduce the pollution caused by its devices and services. Consumerism works the same way around the world, and individuals and companies everywhere have to determine for themselves the benefits of upgrading without choking the world with environmentally hazardous waste.

First Published: Fri, May 23 2014. 22:33 IST