Why recyclers are importing e-waste?

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By Vivek Ratnakar

Import of e-waste is restricted in India and one needs government permission to import it. Neverthe-less, a MAIT-GTZ study has found that 50,000 metric tonne is illegally imported into the country mainly through mis-declarations by companies. This has been substantiated further by a report by Toxics Link, an NGO dedicated to bring toxics related information into the public domain. This is aggravating the grow-ing e-waste problem for India, as a recent report by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says, “By 2020 e-waste from old computers in India will jump by 500 per cent from 2007 levels and waste from discarded mo-bile phones would be 18 times higher in India by the same year.”

Who are importing?

According to Toxics Link, recyclers who are opening shops in India evi-dently to recycle waste are in actual-ity doing so to trade in international waste, since such waste contains precious materials like gold, copper and palladium. However, these are cherry picked while the hazardous components are dumped. Although there are many e-waste recyclers in India operating in the organised space but they shred e-waste in very small quantities and export the pulverised e-waste for precious metal recovery in smelting reἀneries abroad. In September 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govern-ment of India, gave its nod to Attero Pvt Ltd, a recycling company based in Roorkee, Uttaranchal, for import of 8,000 metric tonnes of hazardous e-waste from UK and USA. “The reason, Attero is India’s only end-to-end fully integrated recycler registered with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the government wants to encourage such recycling plants in the country,” says Prirti Mahesh, senior programme ofἀcer, Toxics Link. “Importing e-waste has encouraged e-waste dumping in India, as now other recyclers are also trying to get permissions on the same grounds.” E-waste recycling industry has, however, welcomed this decision. Says BK Soni, chairman, Eco Recycling Ltd, “There may be an argument over the issue that we process hazardous waste of other countries. But I think whether we produce e-waste or we import them, in either case we can’t get rid of hazardous wastes. Rather, if we recycle wastes of other countries, we are immensely beneἀted because we need not invest in the infrastructure to extract metals, can save millions of units of electric power, millions of man years and avoid carbon footprint. Then why not import e-waste? But let us avoid land ἀlling.”Why recyclers are importing? Despite India generating about 3.5 lakh metric tonnes of e-waste annually, the organised recycling sector is facing a tough competition from the unorgan-ised sector that is also vying for the same material. They do not get enough amount of e-waste to run their recycling unit smoothly.

This has been further substantiated by a study conducted by ELCINA which says, “The organised sector is unable to grow to displace the unorganised sector due to lack of avail-ability of e-waste for processing. The unorganised sector has better reach in collection due to the ubiquitous spread of scrap collectors and is also able to offer better prices for the e-waste. They can afford to do so as they do not pay taxes and employ low cost labour in crude working conditions within mini-mal investments in equipments.”

“Our present installed capacity of shredding e-waste is 7,200 tonnes per annum but we expect to close the year with a total receipt of about 2,500 tonnes only,” says Soni.This is mainly attributed to the lack of public awareness about environ-mental hazards of e-waste, poor col-lection system, lack of stringent laws to check processing in unorganised sector and partially equipped existing environmentally sound recycling infra-structure to handle a huge amount of e-waste. “In the long run, the industry will be sustainable and viable, but dur-ing transitional phase there are cash losses as there is an apparent gap in both technological status and market viability of the existing organised recycling industry. At the same time, government should strictly implement hazardous waste regulations to drive more quantities to designated facilities,” adds Soni.

Currently, e-waste is disposed off by large companies and organisations through tenders and auctions. But MAIT-GTZ e-waste assessment study found that 94 per cent of the organisations studied did not have any policy on disposal of e-waste. Further, while a lot of organisations are aware about e-waste, the depth of knowledge is lacking.Attero understands the problem of domestic e-waste, the depth of knowledge is lacking.

Attero understands the problem of domestic e-waste and and would like to prioritise it but the company needs a constant flow of waste to stay afloat  in initail stages of its recycling opera-tions. “We need to work with the local kabadiwalas to collect e-waste. There is no organised collection system in India and these people have the right reach,” says Rohan Gupta, chief operative officer, Attero Recycling. Agrees Soni, “In India, this segment is dominated by the kabadiwalas be-cause of lack of regulatory framework and awareness. It will take some more time before people will start opting for the organised and registered facilities.” According to him, developed nations are unable to recycle e-waste, primarily because of high costs involved, while India can do it much cheaper using environment-friendly practices and supply recycled products to the local industry at lower cost. “This is a win-win situation for all,” he adds.Government regulations In India, several provisions of existing environmental laws apply to various as-pects of e-waste. However, there are no speciἀc environmental laws for e-waste and they are covered under the purview of the the Hazardous Wastes (Manage-ment, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008. It is for this ambiguity of the law that countries like USA, UK and Japan are dumping their e-waste in India despite India being the signatory to the multilateral UN Basel convention which prohibits e-waste dumping in other countries. Moreover, a 15-year-old circular of the Ministry of Commerce is also to be blame for this situation. The circular allowed the import of second hand and used computers for charity purposes despite the UN convention banning the Ḁow of electronics from developed to developing countries. Many recyclers misuse it to stay in business. Why import should be stopped?Till couple of years ago, e-waste gen-eration as well as recycling was mainly concentrated in the bigger cities of the country. But with electronics equipment penetrating wider areas today, smaller cities and towns are also now vulnerable to the hazards of e-waste. According to a Greenpeace Report, in 2007-2008, India’s e-waste generation was growing at an annual rate of 15 per cent and was expected to cross the 800,000 tonnes mark by 2012. What can be done to stop e-waste import? As there is enough e-waste generated in India for any recycling industry to survive on, it should be able to manage it sustainably and refrain from invest-ing in importing waste.What India needs at present is a legal framework and initiative from the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). This will encourage setting up of environmentally sound recy-cling facility. There is also the need to work towards creating awareness regarding the issue among the users and other stakeholders.The ELCINA study recommends a need to implement the existing guide-lines on e-waste into legislation as well as providing appropriate incentives that will encourage growth of organised sector e-waste processing. According to Mahesh, the Indian electronics industry, especially the OEMs, need to take the responsibility of whole lifecycle of the products that they put in the market. “Extended pro-ducer responsibility will not only help in managing e-waste in the downstream Ḁow but will also help in making the right design changes so that there is sustainable production,” she adds.However, ecofriendly recycling is the need of the hour. Thus, govern-ment should develop a model by explicitly identifying and deἀning the roles of each stakeholder for environmentally friendly recycling. The informal recyclers should also be included in this model and an aware-ness campaign put in place to ensure right information on e-waste reaches out to all stakeholders.

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