Rapid metamorphosis in technologies and the competition amongst consumers to acquire the latest has resulted in quick obsolescence of electronic goods where products are replaced instead of repaired for trivial reasons. This fad amongst the consumers has resulted in a waste stream that is growing incessantly since the wake of the 21st century. Electronic waste or E-waste in the true sense of the word is any waste that comprises of all types of electrical and electronic equipment that has or could enter the waste stream. It includes TVs, computers, mobile phones, white wares (refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, stoves, etc.), toys, toasters or any household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply. The markets today are deluged with a new electronic product every other day. The Mac books, i phones, i pads, i pods and X Box are a rage amongst youngsters and the tech-savvy. Considering that the electronics industry is the fastest growing manufacturing industry, it goes without saying that the discarded electronics are the fastest growing waste stream too.
Environmental and health impact
The scenario of E-waste handling and management in India represents a dismal picture. These wastes contain substances like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), lead, mercury, cadmium, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), etc., which are detrimental to human health and environment. Majority of the e-waste (90%) generated in the country ends up in the informal sector which recycles and dismantles the electronics flouting all the regulations and standards on environmental safety and human health. The problem of E-waste in India is also compounded by the illegal dumping from developed countries. The import figures show that as many as 6,200 used CRT monitors were shipped to India largely from countries like Singapore and South Africa last year. During the same period almost 6,900 ‘used assorted lot of RAM’ were also imported to the country. Apart from these, 5,761 old and used printers, major parts of computers like CPUs, hard disks, mother boards, etc., were imported from countries like US, Canada, France, Finland and Middle East. According to a study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) India generates 3,50,000 tonnes of electronic waste every year and imports another 50,000 tonnes. The end of life products of the electrical and electronic equipments (EEE) find their way in the recycle yards where labourers, working in precarious conditions, dismantle them manually exposing themselves to lethal substances and chemicals. The radiation incident that took place in Mayapuri of Delhi due to the exposure from Cobalt 60 was also owing to the fact that Mayapuri is a known dumping ground for e-wastes.
Major toxins that e-waste contains include heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVCs), Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), etc.
Lead: used in glass panels and gaskets in computers and as solder in printed circuit boards and other components. It can cause damage to central nervous system and peripheral nervous system, blood system, kidneys and reproductive system in humans. Exposure to lead also damages the endocrine system and impedes brain development among children.
Cadmium: used in SMD (surface mount devices), chip resistors, infrared detectors and semiconductor chips, some cathode ray tubes , printer inks and toners, photocopying machines. Can have serious impact on kidneys. Cadmium is absorbed through respiration but is also taken up with food.
Mercury: used in thermostats, sensors, relays, switches, fluorescent lamps, mobile phones and batteries is one of the most toxic and widely used substances in the production of EEE. It is a heavy metal that bioaccumulates causing brain and liver damage if ingested or inhaled.
PCB: used in condensers, transformers are known to cause cancer in animals, and effects immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.
PVC: used in cabling and computer housings is the most widely used plastic in everyday electronics and appliances. Hazardous in nature, it contains chlorine (upto 56%) which when burnt produces large quantities of hydrogen chloride gas and if inhaled leads to respiratory problems.
BFR: used in plastic housings of electronic equipment and in circuit boards to prevent flammability. They have been found in indoor dust and air through evaporation from plastics. Combustion of materials made up of it releases toxic emissions including dioxins which can cause serious hormonal disorders.
E-Waste Rules 2011: Delayed but a step in right direction
The increasing malpractices and absence of a regulation specifically for e-waste triggered the need for the E-Waste Rules (2010) which were further amended by Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in 2011. “E-Waste Rules is a bold step in the right direction. The Rules based on the joint recommendations from the civil society as well as industry is a fruitful outcome after six long years of wait”, says Abhishek Pratap, Greenpeace activist.
Dr Ashish Chaturvedi of GIZ also adds “The legislation on e-waste is demand driven. It is an outcome of a major consensual process over a period of time and is in tandem with the Global Standards.”
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
The rules lay down the responsibilities for various stakeholders form the producers to the collection centers, consumers/bulk consumers, recyclers, refurbishers as well as dismantlers for the cradle to grave management of the wastes. One of most conspicuous feature of the rules is the addition of a clause on the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)’ which holds producers responsible for their products beyond manufacturing until the environmentally sound management of their end of life products is achieved. The EPR is perceived to be a welcome move since now the producers will be held accountable for the entire life cycle of products and will also take initiatives to introduce changes in product design and technology for efficient and environment friendly treatment and disposal. Making the producers financially responsible for the management of ‘end of life’ of its own products will also encourage them to use less hazardous and more eco-friendly materials in the manufacturing. “EPR is a successful model practiced in many countries and GIZ appreciates its inclusion in the Indian Legislation on E wastes,” informs Chaturvedi.
Although inclusion of EPR is touted to be one of the key features of the Rules, it has a number of loopholes. For instance branded mobile handsets are sold in every nook and corner of the cities, nowhere in the Rules it is mentioned how many collection centres the companies should set up in every city for getting back their products. Also for effective implementation of EPR, Rules should have fixed some tangible figures for companies to collect their products back, say a company should collect at least 5% of their products sold by 2012-13, similarly 10% by 2014 and so on. But this is completely missing from the Rules. The Rules simply talks about financing and organizing a system for environmentally sound management of e-waste without any mechanism to check how this system would be put to practice. Nowhere in the rule, it is mentioned what kind of penalty will be imposed if EPR is not followed by companies strictly. The Companies simply have to fill Form 2 giving details of the e-waste handled or generated by them and Form 3 for filing annual returns. The EPR is not binding on the producer which puts a question mark on its effective implementation. “Government should provide adequate guidelines for the implementation of EPR and act as facilitators to regulate the system” says Chaturvedi.
The Rules also do not specify if the producer can charge any visible or invisible fee to get back the products for recycling. Pratap says, “Cost of recycling and recovering should be internalized and transferred to the consumers.” Caution needs to be practiced in this aspect as it has led to other problems. It has been seen that the Advanced Recycling Fee (ARF) which is charged from the consumers for recycling their products leads to a certain degree of fraudulent activities among the producers. The e-waste recycling law in California which requires consumers to pay ARF resulted in mushrooming of hundreds of new recyclers in the state who imported electronics from neighboring states and recycled them in California to receive money in return. Thus, the cost should not become ‘cess’.
Orphan and History Products Another significant issue that the Rules deals with is the management and disposal of historical products (products present in the market prior to the enforcement of rules) and orphan products (non branded or assembled). The non branded/assembled products or products from the grey market are cheaper, used on a large scale and comprise a large proportion in the waste stream. “The Rules have designated Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) with the responsibility to collect and channelize the orphan products to the authorized collection centres, dismantlers or recyclers,” says Dr Chaturvedi. To take care of such waste, a policy at the manufacturing level is also needed which does not allows non-existent brands to do business feels Abhishek Pratap. It is clear from the Rules that regulatory bodies have been allotted several responsibilities right from authorization and registration to monitoring and implementation of the law. However the regulatory bodies of a large number of states/UTs lack capacity and are also overburdened with other responsibilities. The urban local bodies or municipalities suffer from lack of manpower, expertise and resources. Rules should mention that the agencies, oganisations having expertise can be engaged in streamlining the entire e-waste management process. The Public Private Partnership (PPP) model which is currently practiced for Municipal solid waste management, hazardous waste management can also be put into practice. Dr Chaturvedi recommends that the government should engage in the capacity building of the regulatory bodies. A thorough development of standards, benchmarks, training must be provided to the PCBs/PCCs. A significant allocation of budget should also be set aside for PCBs/PCCs for systemic implementation of the Rules.
Ban on Hazardous Chemicals
The E-Waste Rules (2011) also ban the use of hazardous chemicals namely lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBB and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) (sub clause 1 of the clause 13 of the rules). The banning of these chemicals will facilitate safer and easier disposal of wastes. The move to phase out toxic chemicals from the electronic products has already been spearheaded by big corporate like Wipro which recently launched a range of eco-friendly desktops called ‘Wipro Greenware Desktops’. The product is one of a kind in India and is reportedly devoid of carcinogenic materials like PVCs and BFRs. The absence of such toxics makes the product safer for ultimate disposal posing minimum risk on the environment as well as human health.
No ban on Import
The Rules cover extensively all the issues associated with such wastes but do not provide stringent guidelines to ensure the ban on import and export of electronic wastes. This restriction on imports of hazardous wastes for the purpose of recycling and disposal is an important clause of the Basel Convention complied by most countries. But the draft Rules fail to prohibit the ban on imports “Complete ban on import and export cannot be enforced due to strong lobbying from the industries and formal large recyclers. As a result no unified consensus can be reached,” explains Dr Chaturvedi. The unchecked import and export of these wastes results in the landing of these wastes in the informal sectors for recycling and dismantling. Workers from socially and economically underprivileged group of society work to dismantle and separate the useful components from the non useful ones. They work in unsafe and dingy conditions without masks, gloves and necessary precautions. Every little component that can be sold is recovered without considering the damage to health of the workers or the environment. A rigorous clause on import should thus be added in the rules to check the illicit trade and the workforce engaged in the informal sectors must be included in the mainstream by the state pollution control bodies (PCBs) by providing them an alternate source of employment in the collection centers or state authorized dismantling and recycling agency. Apart from granting clearances the PCBs should also be involved in creating awareness among the stakeholders and common people at large.
The Rules should not be viewed as any other law to deal with wastes and safeguarding the environment instead it can prove to be a development opportunity for a significant proportion of the population. The Rules emphasizes on the need for a whole new infrastructure like collection centers, facilities for storage, segregation, refurbishing, authorized recycling and dismantling agencies, etc., which are poised to open doors for a range of employment opportunities. The clause on eradication of lethal components from the products will usher towards research and creating new horizons for development in the country. Presently there are only some formal agencies which carry out the collection and recycling of e-waste on a large scale “The infrastructure for collection centres, dismantling and transport of EEE requires ample manpower,” says Pratap. For recycling which is done at the last stage of e-waste management, the agencies need to acquire licenses from the PCBs/PCCs. Pratap suggested that the licenses given should be based on the technology used by the recyclers since recycling of electronics involves processes such as metal extraction which can have adverse affect on humans. Thus a clause on technology based licensing is also missing from the Rules.
Apart from the regulators and stakeholders, consumers should also realize the importance of managing e-waste. They should take on the task to dispose their e-waste in a responsible way. Fiscal incentives for giving back the products or recycling need not always be there. “Environmentalism’ cannot be based on fiscal incentives,” stresses Pratap.
Needless to say that the guidelines on e-waste have certain inadequacies and need modification in some aspects without which it would fail to bring about any changes in the ground situation. The need of the hour is thus a proper implementation of the Rules which ensures sustainable production, environmental safety, resource conservation and incorporates all the stakeholders concerned in efficient and sound management of e-waste. In a nutshell, Rules on e-waste do accentuate the proverbial maxim ‘Think Global and Act Local’ implying concerted efforts of citizens from all the realms of society and a strong compliance system only can make these Rules a success.