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The E-Waste Tsunami

The E-Waste Tsunami

By Krati Gupta

Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

Modern world has its own peculiar problems. With the spread of technology and a boost in the manufacturing industries worldwide, the menace created by alarmingly increasing rates of e-waste seems to be an imminent one. So what actually is e-waste?

E-waste refers to the discarded electronic and electrical equipments, which have served their purpose and are now out of their ‘useful life’ period. This includes myriad business and consumer electronic equipments such as computers, TV, stereo sets, mobile phones, dryers and washing machines etc.

The market for these products has grown substantially in the recent times. As a matter of fact, electronics industry is the world’s fastest growing manufacturing industry. The subsequent lowering of prices has not only risen the demand, it has also increased the dependence on electronic products as compared to older times. On top of this, rapid changes in technology leading to frequent rates of obsolescence of these gadgets are only adding fuel to the already aggravated fire. According to the statistics by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 20-50 million tonnes electronics are discarded worldwide every year. Out of this only 15-20% are successfully recycled and the rest are either dumped on landfills or burnt in incinerators, both posing serious threats to the environment.

US tops the chart with 3.4 million tonnes e-waste generated as in 2012, the highest worldwide. Approximately 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices were recycled everyday in the US for the entire year, which comprised only 1 million ton or 29.2% of the total.

Interestingly, as of Q1 2013, Apple has sold over 796 million devices including IPod, IPhone and IPad worldwide and if we were to stack them into a single column, it would reach over 4200 miles high, well into the outer space or else if these were to be laid on one side, the line formed would traverse the distance from Oslo to Mumbai!

The status quo in India is no different, the favourable policy changes and increase in FDI led to the influx of more and more multinational brands and encouraged them to set up their manufacturing bases in various locations within the country. No doubt it has scaled up our economy but the increased demand and consumption has also accentuated the e-waste problem. On a city -basis, the e-waste time bomb is ticking most fiercely in Ahemdabad producing about 3287.5 tonnes e-waste annually, followed by Bangalore, Chennai , Delhi , Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune and Surat . A look at the bigger picture reveals that in 2007, India generated 382,979 MT of e-waste and 50,000 MT entered by imports,

only a frugal part (19,000MT) of which was actually recycled. The ‘imports’ here refer to the e-waste transferred from developed countries like US to countries like Pakistan, Taiwan, China and India due to low cost of labour and processing as well as lack of stringent regulations as opposed to those imposed in their own nations. This is only tip of the iceberg with UNEP predicting a 500% increase in e-waste in India by 2020, caused majorly by disposal of outdated computers, discarded mobiles and TVs further contributing to the number.

The e-waste tsunami, if not assuaged, can severely afflict human health and milieu. The computer systems which turn obsolete and are abandoned without further processing leave behind elements like lead, cadmium, mercury and several other hazardous components. Cathode Ray tubes (CRT’s) from computer monitors and TVs contain high concentration of lead and cadmium which accumulate in the human system and adversely affect kidney and bones. Once the PVC used in these equipments is burnt it releases dioxins into the atmosphere which have a negative impact on the human reproductive system and immune system. These ill effects can be well illustrated by taking up the case of Guiyu in China also known as ‘e- waste capital of the world’. Extensive studies and medical examinations in the area have revealed that scores of children suffer from lead poisoning and the number of miscarriages have also risen sharply.

Lack of actual estimates and stern regulations for producing companies, low awareness among buyers and inefficient recycling techniques, have slowly pushed this issue to now become a global concern.

Well, the simplest and most effective solution at hand is following the thumb rule of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle:

  • Reduce and Reuse: Curtail buying electronic merchandise unless there’s an actual need.

Instead consider mending of the damaged product before blatantly replacing it. Producers sometimes deliberately design electronic goods in such a manner that they become obsolete after a short period of time, in that case consider various upgrades and repair available in the market. Prefer purchasing ‘Green electronics’, these have low or negligible impact on the environment and are more energy efficient. They can be recognized by the energy star mark on them. One can also donate the still working devices or sell them online to prospective buyers.

  • Recycle: Firstly it’s necessary to understand the significance of recycling. As a matter of fact, a ton of used cell phones on recycling can yield up to $15,000 in precious metals. It is necessary to find a certified and reputable e- waste recycler who takes full responsibility that the waste is not simply dumped on landfills or incinerated without further processing. Attero and Atterobay are some examples.

National estimates of e -waste should be known by launching up a national level study to access the actual e-waste quantity to be dealt with. Bringing together industries, NGOs and government to create sustainable e -waste management system must also be a high priority in the to-do list. Manufacturing industries must be issued notifications to keep themselves updated regarding the e-waste guidelines and they should be provided an insight for various levels of recycling and the techniques to be put in use. Implementation of a take-back system must become a part of extended producer’s responsibility. And finally, extensive research and development must be undertaken to enhance the present recycling methods and make them more cost effective and eco friendly.

Krati is currently a Pre final year student pursuing chemical engineering from Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, Allahabad. She loves watching movies and posing for pictures. Apart from juggling between the concepts of thermodynamics and heat transfer during college hours, she is a greenhorn at writing and is highly optimistic about exploring the vast horizon in this field . She believes penning down her thoughts will make at least a small difference to the world.


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