During my research into municipal solid waste, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about ewaste by talking to workers in the industry, interviewing leaders in organizations supporting better ewaste processing in India, and making a few site visits. My first experience with ewaste was a trip to an informal circuit board processor just outside of Delhi. Most of the pictures in this post are from that visit, which left me feeling slightly hung over and absolutely depressed. However a second trip to the second hand electronic dealers and ewaste recycling vendors in Seelampur, in Delhi, and a trip to Bangalore left me with many more questions. Ewaste is a one in all conflict with pollution, over-consumption, and neo-colonialism intertwined. Images of women and children picking apart old computers are now ubiquitous proof of global demise. But if you have been following me at all you won’t be surprised to hear that the issue is a bit more nuanced than we all imagine.
India is not a major importer of ewaste, or at least according to official numbers it is not – import laws currently prohibit the import of electronics for waste processing. Still in 2004 the national ewaste industry, according to Toxics Links, generated an annual revenue of $1.5 Billion, with expectations for major growth. In 2005, the waste advocacy group SAAHAS estimated that gold extraction
alone from Bangalore’s budding e-waste recycling industry was worth about $1 million.
Some of this revenue is generated through imported waste – illegally or under the guise of donations. Even so ewaste in India is not simply a problem of developed countries cost dumping.
Indian consumption of computers, mobile phones, and televisions is generating about 400,000 tonnes of waste annually and is expected to grow at 10-15% per year. (As a reference, the US and China are the world leaders of EWaste production, with 2.3 and 3 million annual tonnes respectively.
China, also happens to be the world’s largest ewaste importer.) Even without imports this is enough to provide a steady supply of materials to the waste mining industry. India, following China’s lead, is crossing a line. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the country will one day become a major force as an importer or exporter of ewaste, or both.
The danger posed by electronics arise from the mishandling of highly toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, PVC, beryllium, and flame retardants. In addition, acid wash, cyanide, and fire are employed to release the precious metals, all of which pose a danger to the handler. India has plenty of informal/backyard recyclers with terrible working and safety standards. However the industry is also extraordinary for its diversity. A circuit board processing operator might expose his/her workers to the fumes of a smelter and let children play in polluted mud.
At the same time a different merchant, another cog in a long chain, might simply be in the business of breaking plastic and metal for sale and segregating refurbish able keyboards and printers. Such decentralization of the informal sector makes regulation of the industry all the more difficult.
Managers and owners of informal e-waste facilities are generally uneducated and running on small profit margins. Often they are not aware of the extent of the hazards in their business. While they do not work constantly with the hazardous substances that their laborers handle, they are at the facilities day in and day out. They take no more measures for their own on-site health than they do for their employees, which is nil. As is also the case in municipal solid waste, where safety standards are implemented the laborers themselves can be the biggest challenge to meeting new policy. The founder of E-Parisaraa, the country’s first sanitary ewaste processing facility, remembers when
he began operations he had to resort to threatening workers with fines if they did not wear gloves and masks, even after they had received training on the importance of such safety measures.
Top down supported centralization of the industry is required in order to eradicate danger to health and environment. In fact formalization campaigns are already underway in India, through the effort of NGOs and some government support. European governments, with a very active role played by the German aid organization Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Formerly GTZ), have donated large
amounts of money to helping these campaigns. Including E-Parisaraa, which began as a formal and regulated company, there are already four formal for-profit ewaste processing centers in India that operate with international safety standards. Some of the waste that is processed in these units can still end up in the informal sector in India or dumped in other countries. However with a more centralized industry the trickle down of pollutants will be easier to monitor by the government and consumer watch dogs. This will be a long process, and will not find success if it focuses solely on the goal of meeting international safety standards and labor regulations. Rather it starts with teaching those in the informal sector the basics of business – how to keep accounts and pay taxes – while providing them with convincing arguments and incentives to stay in the system.
The biggest hazard to health is posed by smelters, where circuit boards are melted, and phosphorous from the processing of screens. However, many of the other dangers can be addressed with surprisingly simple measures – masks, gloves, better soaps, and waste water management. Counter to common logic, when ISO standards are followed ewaste is a two way street. Without any companies meeting international standards for circuit board processing in India, E-Paisaraa has been selling its PCP boards and other intricate ewaste elements to Umicore for further mining in Belgium. The founder, P.Parthasarathy, is also working on a plan to sell circuit boards collected in the informal sector to Umicore, thereby taking them out of harmful circulation in India.
International regulation of the Ewaste industry is as difficult as you can imagine. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste has attempted to clamp down on the ewaste trade. However, without ratification of the treaty by the US the convention is still working with baby teeth. Ewaste is also one of those things, like
old ships – that I would like to cover soon, which is a hazy category under the legal definition of hazardous waste. For example second hand computers which are sold or donated for use in another country might breakdown after they have arrived. They may also be imported illegally for the sole purpose of waste processing. But how do you tell the difference between the two in transit and how do you punish those who import illegally if there is no domestic monitoring. Legally it is unclear where the responsibility for such “wastes” lie.
Concerned waste producers are left between a rock and a hard place. It is nearly impossible to guarantee that your mobile phone or computer or television will be processed in a safe and secure manner. Although President Obama supports the drive for more domestic ewaste processing, the industry remains expensive as compared to ISO regulated companies in developing countries and lags behind techno savvy processors in Europe. Many states are now enacting laws to ban any export of ewaste. However it’s unclear to me how effective banning the international ewaste trade will be. Another interesting route to address the ewaste problem is in the production processes. I’m not just talking about direct processing waste, which by the way is a forgotten problem in electronics. Better product design can help extend product life, replacement, and repair. Such thinking is not going to solve the waste problem on its own. But in a world of gray it’s an excellent way to start.