E-waste: a toxic legacy

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Although India has laws aimed at ensuring the safe collection and recycling of electronic waste, the vast majority is processed by untrained and unprotected workers in the informal sector – with major implications for their health and the environment.

India is now officially the world’s third-biggest generator of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste), producing over 3.23 million metric tonnes of e-waste per year, behind the US and China. And the big worry is that 95 per cent of e-waste still continues to be handled by the informal sector.

India’s e-waste generation rose by nearly 43 per cent between the financial years 2018–2020. The rising use of electronic devices driven by the effects of the pandemic – such as the increased use of mobile phones and laptops during lockdowns and home working – is expected to lead to even higher volumes of e-waste in the near future.

A study by KPMG and industry body the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimates that computer equipment accounts for almost 70 per cent of e-waste in India, followed by telecommunications equipment/phones (12 per cent), electrical equipment (eight per cent) and medical equipment (seven per cent).

Heavy metals present in e-waste can cause neurological and skin diseases, genetic defects and cancer in the workers and dealers like Singh who handle them. Photograph: iStock

One man’s waste, however, is another man’s treasure. And this is evident in the Seelampur area in Delhi’s north-east, which receives millions of tonnes of e-waste every year. Every day, there is a massive influx of e-waste, including laptops, mobile phones, screens and switchboards, which pile high on beds of now indiscriminate electronic parts.

Seelampur has made international headlines in recent years as one of the country’s largest e-waste processing areas and dumping grounds.

For the 50,000 men, women and children estimated to be making a livelihood out of e-waste in Seelampur, the town is a workplace – not a no-go zone. They set components from e-waste alight (like cables) to recover copper and smash screens and comb the ground looking to extract and recover other valuable metals. Anything they recover is passed onto older and more experienced scrap dealers. 

Contamination of soil and groundwater

The detrimental impact of e-waste on both human health and the environment is well known. Electronic goods that are past their shelf life are broken down manually to recover precious metals, are burnt and discarded in landfills, where the materials contained in them – such as lead, mercury and nickel – contaminate the soil and groundwater.

Workers agree that e-waste salvage work is a risky business, but they do not have a choice, due to a lack of other employment opportunities. “If I don’t go to work, I can’t get my daily meals,” said scrap dealer Vikas Singh, who has been in the trade for more than a decade. He added that most of the informal workers who spend nearly 10 to 12 hours a day extracting valuable metals from e-waste – such as gold, silver, copper, tin, titanium and palladium – frequently fall sick.

“It’s risky work. You feel worn out all the time. We burn copper, aluminium and if the smoke gets into your body plenty of times, you fall sick.”
The heavy metals present in e-waste are known to cause neurological and skin diseases, genetic defects and cancer in the workers and dealers like Singh who handle them.

Metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems and affect brain development in children, as well as harm the circulatory system, kidneys and reproductive system.

Harmful substances

Experts point out that workers trying to recover valuable materials from e-waste, such as copper and gold, are at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances, including lead, mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

According to a ground-breaking 2021 report, Children and Digital Dumpsites, from the World Health Organization (WHO), effective and binding action is urgently required to protect the millions of children, adolescents and expectant mothers worldwide whose health is being jeopardised by the informal processing of discarded electrical or electronic devices.

A recent study found there were 15 informal hotspots of e-waste processing in Delhi functioning without any health or environmental safeguards. Photograph: iStock

“With mounting volumes of production and disposal, the world faces what one recent international forum described as a mounting ‘tsunami of e-waste’, putting lives and health at risk,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “In the same way the world has rallied to protect the seas and their ecosystems from plastic and microplastic pollution, we need to rally to protect our most valuable resource – the health of our children – from the growing threat of e-waste.”

A 2019 study by the Delhi-based campaign group Toxics Link, which seeks to raise public awareness of the risk harmful substances pose to human health and the environment in India, found there were 15 informal hotspots of e-waste processing in Delhi functioning without any health or environmental safeguards.

According to the report, New & Old Seelampur (Shahdara), Mustafabad (North East Delhi), Behta Hazipur and Loni (Ghaziabad), are the biggest such informal hotspots in Delhi. These are followed by Turkman Gate, Daryaganj, Shastri Park, Mayapuri, Saeed Nagar, Jafrabad, Mata Sundari Road, Mandoli, Brijpuri and Seemapuri.

Informal e-waste processors were found to be sourcing their waste from a number of stakeholders, with dealers the single largest source (38 per cent), the study found.

These informal units are involved in all kinds of e-waste processing operations, including refurbishing, dismantling, metal recycling and recovery.
The study called for measures such as integrating formal and informal stakeholders and recognition of the informal industry sector.

It also recommended that state regulatory agencies shift the hazardous process of recovering materials from e-waste out of the informal sector into the formal sector where it can be more tightly regulated to reduce risks to the health of the workers and people living in areas where the waste is processed, and the environment.

Although some states and city governments have taken steps to try to ensure e-waste is collected and handled safely to reduce the risk to human health and the environment, campaigners say the measures are totally inadequate, both in reducing the amount of e-waste that is handled by untrained people in towns, villages and homes without wearing suitable personal protective equipment, like respirators and gloves, and in preventing the pollution of soil, groundwater and rivers when the residues of e-waste are dumped nearby.

Delhi to open e-waste processing plant

In a recent development, the Delhi government announced that an e-waste facility will soon be opening in the city to help reduce e-waste pollution. In February, the Delhi cabinet approved the setting up of an e-waste ‘eco-park’, which will be responsible for the recycling, refurbishment and dismantling of e-waste in the union territory.

The eco-park is designed to reduce the dumping of e-waste, like smartphones, computers, electrical appliances and more. It also aims to ensure e-waste is processed and recycled by trained workers wearing the necessary protective equipment and is disposed of in an environmentally-sound way.

“As the usage of technology is rapidly increasing every day, the amount of e-waste generation has also gone up,” said Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. “But it is not being handled scientifically and safely, which results in many life-threatening incidents, like fire break-outs, and impacts the health of the capital’s residents and waste handlers.”

E-waste is rapidly emerging as one of the biggest contributors to pollution in India. Many electronic appliances have elements like precious metals and other materials that can be recycled. However, due to a lack of training for the informal sector workers who process it, and a lack of suitable waste processing infrastructure, only a very small portion of the materials are recycled.
In fact, it is estimated that round 95 per cent of India’s e-waste is handled by the informal sector in a crude manner.

“Currently, Delhi releases about 200,000 tonnes of e-waste per year and it is mainly handled and recycled by informal recyclers,” added Sisodia. “But at this eco-park recycling, refurbishing and dismantling of waste will be done in a scientific and environmentally-safe manner.”

E-waste growing faster than plastic waste

The central government recently revealed that the rate of growth in the generation of e-waste is higher than that of plastic waste. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 7.71 lakh tonnes of e-waste was collected in 2018–19 and 10.14 lakh tonnes in 2019-20, an increase of 31 per cent.

Delhi’s eco-park will process e-waste gathered from collection centres in 12 zones across the city. The site will have facilities for the dismantling, extraction, segregation and storage of materials like precious metals and plastics from e-waste to ensure the safe disposal of electronic and electrical items to reduce pollution and the impact on the environment. The eco-park will also provide infrastructure, training and tools to operators in the informal sector to enable them to work as formal e-waste recyclers.

The first regulations aimed at managing e-waste in India came into effect in 2012. According to The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report, the 2012 rules mandated that “only authorised dismantlers and recyclers [could] collect e-waste”.

In 2016, the law was tightened to set targets for producers (i.e. manufacturers) of e-waste to arrange for the collection, and safe recycling and disposal, of their products at the end of their service life, known as extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Meanwhile, in May 2022, the central government announced proposals to further tighten the law to require electronics manufacturers and other businesses that generate e-waste to ensure at least 60 per cent of their electronic waste is collected and recycled by 2023. Under the proposals, the collection and recycling targets will increase to 70 per cent by 2024 and 80 per cent by 2025. The types of electronic products that must be collected and recycled will also be expanded.

However, although The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 says the legislation has been a driver for the setting up of formal recycling facilities, formal recycling capacity remains underutilised, and the large majority of the waste is still handled by the informal sector.

“Enforcing rules remains a challenge, as do other aspects, such as the lack of proper collection and logistics infrastructure, limited awareness of consumers on the hazards of improper disposal of e-waste, the lack of standards for collection, dismantling of e-waste and treatment of it, and an inefficient and tedious reporting process,” states the report.

However, technology giants like Lenovo already offer environmentally-sound product re-use and recycling programmes as part of their support for a more circular economy.

“Our asset recovery services (ARS) programme for business customers and our product take-back and recycling programmes for consumers are available in most major markets, including India, where we do business,” said a company spokesperson. “These programmes are designed to maximise the re-use, recycling, and/or environmental disposal of replaced and end-of-life products, parts and waste.”

Rob Taylor, Lenovo Group’s director of regulatory affairs, sustainability & corporate safety and standards, said: “Consumers can recycle any Lenovo or other products like HP, Dell, Apple for free and receive a certificate as proof of their device being disposed of ethically.”


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